No sound and no surrender

Three Jewish women writers offer insights into the experience of deafness both from the inside and at close quarters in a loving relationship

By Jennifer Lipman, April 11, 2011
Signs of a daughter’s  love

Signs of a daughter’s love

If a Tree falls
By Jennifer Rosner
The Feminist Press, £11.99

By Louise Stern
Granta, £10.99

Hava: Against All Odds
By Eva Fielding-Jackson
Pomegranate Books, £40

The smell of freshly baked challah, the taste of apple crumble on a Friday night, the sight of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, or the feel of tefillin round the arm - traditional Jewish life relies greatly upon the senses. And of course, sound is central to the religion - from chazanut, the confessional prayers on Yom Kippur, and the blowing of the shofar, to the exultant strains of a barmitzvah boy's leyning.

But, of course, as with any community, not everybody has the luxury of hearing. Deafness among Jews is perhaps an under-discussed subject but it has recently been tackled in both fictional and non-fictional accounts.

If a Tree Falls, by American writer Jennifer Rosner, is a touching memoir about her life as the mother of two deaf daughters. As well as recording her own journey from terror at the challenge, to understanding and acceptance, Rosner looks back at her family history and imagines what life would have been like in the Eastern European shtetl for the many members of her family who were similarly impaired.

Rosner is breathtakingly honest as she navigates unknown territory, whether having an altercation with a man who disapproves of the use of hearing-aids, or her uncertainty about how to relate to her child without that form of communication. When she falls pregnant a second time, she lays bare her terror at what might lie ahead, not least whether she is somehow letting her elder daughter down by wishing for the newborn to be able to hear.

There is a complete absence of self-pity

Readers of Jodi Picoult will be familiar with Rosner's self-analytical "everything-means-something" writing style. The historical interludes can be a little cloying - with the language used by her 19th-century forebears reminiscent of mawkish Victorian melodrama - but the attention to detail is commendable.

The subject - how deafness was dealt with in a more intolerant world lacking hearing-aids or sign-language - is fascinating. Can a deaf girl get married? Will she be allowed through immigration at Ellis Island when the family move to America for a better life? How do you explain change when there are no words? Rosner has no answers, but the questions she asks shine a fascinating light.

Louise Stern takes a different, fictional approach in her collection of short vignettes about life without the luxury of sound. She offers brief snapshots of a colourful cast of anonymous adventurers who move around the globe in search of something, anything.

At times graphic, often unsettling, Stern's book portrays a range of people who just happen to be deaf. Whether partygoers in Brazil, a lonely housewife in London or teenagers coming to terms with the real world, her characters are all eccentrics and outsiders, not so much because they are unable to hear but because they are not certain what they want to listen to.

Deaf herself -fourth generation on her father's side, third on her mothers - Stern's coolly indifferent approach is far removed from the sentimentality of Rosner's book. There are scattered insights - how some people can make sign-language beautiful, or the neighbours who incorrectly assume deaf people would live silent lives - and a complete absence of self-pity. These are not victims; their struggle for communication is the same as anyone else's. As one character says, mockingly to a boorish companion: "Don't you know I don't understand anything you say either? Don't you know you are as ridiculous to me as I am to you?"

A poetic, creative work that will leave you as restless as those you read about.

Hava: Against All Odds falls well short of this level. The daughter of two deaf Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel, Eva Fielding-Jackson's achievements as a deaf campaigner are impressive.

However, her memoir is written in the excruciating, painstaking detail of an unedited childhood diary, and consequently makes for somewhat exhausting reading. An admirable life but a book to skim at best.

Jennifer Lipman is a JC reporter

Last updated: 10:36am, April 12 2011