Life & Culture

Telling my story as a deaf Jewish man

As a child, Jonny Cotsen sat through synagogue and had no idea what was going on. Now he is doing a show about his vulnerability as a deaf man


I often thought to myself when I was a child, why would I go to the synagogue when I had to sit there with no idea what’s going on? I couldn’t follow the service and there were no provisions in place to help a deaf person.

Eating sweets during the service or talking to my friends was the only comfort I took out of it, only to be told to be quiet. It was the same for me when I was in school. And this is how it was for me as a profoundly deaf man.

I was very fortunate that I was accepted in the Jewish community in Cardiff, where I grew up and still live. My parents, Judy and Haydn are well respected in the Jewish community and they did everything they could to make me part of it.

Mum wanted me to speak, so I could be included in the typical Jewish (and hearing) world. I had made many friends through cheder and JLGB and pretty much everyone accepted me for who I am.

On the surface, my deafness was never really an issue and I always thought I had a strong Jewish Identity. I even did ulpan at Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in the Golan and stayed there for almost two years.

As I got older, I knew there was something missing. I started to discover more about myself and went on a journey to find out about my deafness and what it meant to me. I was confused. I was angry. I was isolated. I felt vulnerable.

I have always spoken and never signed. I was accepted in this “hearing” world but not in the deaf world because I didn’t sign, nor do I have any understanding of the deaf culture. It meant nothing to me.

I remember at university meeting a deaf man who was signing to me and I was so embarrassed because I was with my “hearing” friends and I practically ignored him. This was on my mind for a long time.

I was studying fine art, and my encounter with this deaf guy inspired me to create an exhibition called Louder is Not Always Clearer which was in 1993 in Coventry.

The exhibition was about my identity, and it was the first time I’d been away from my mother. She always protected me by telling me what was going on.

I thought that was normal, but when I went away to university I thought “how am I going to cope?” So I started to use my art to express my feelings.

When I decided to become a teacher, the challenges I faced changed. In the adult world, I don’t have to hear everything, but when you’re working in a classroom with young people and they put their hands up, you have to make sense of what they are saying and that’s when I started to realise how deaf I am.

I really started to discover myself. Sometimes I imagine finding myself stuck in a corridor between the hearing and the deaf world then working out which door I should open.

I decided at the age of 42 to tell my story on stage. When I was 11, I was told that I should never sing, dance or act. I have broken those barriers and I actually do all of them.

I don’t care what the audiences think about it because Louder Is Not Always Clearer is an honest portrayal of my vulnerability as a deaf man.

The show is honest, funny and is a moving autobiographical journey of my life in the hearing world. It is a story of disconnection, difference, and being accepted.

For a hearing audience, I hope it will be an illuminating and emotional experience. For the deaf audience, my hope is they will be able to relate to my tale of misunderstanding and isolation.

I use humour and emotion to tell the story of my attempt to cope, to fit in and be accepted.

I think about my Jewish identity and whether I ever was accepted. I think about my barmitzvah and the hundreds of private lessons that I had with my chazan who taught me to read and sing the maftir and haftarah and although I probably wasn’t that good, I did it.

 I have always tried to fit in and this is why I am telling my story. I actually do a barmitzvah scene in the show and it’s quite a funny moment because I dance to whatever music is being played even though I have no idea or I can’t hear what is going on but as long as I take part, my parents will be so happy.

‘Louder Is Not Always Clearer’ is touring all over the UK, Europe and internationally. It is coming to London on April 2 at The Place.

The show is accessible to deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences through the use of spoken English, British Sign Language and creative captions.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive