Long riotous golden curls frame her face. Her bewitching hazel eyes, flecked with green and gold, focus intently upon you, listening as you speak, carefully weighing your words. She is kind, clever, smart, well-traveled. She's been to China, Italy, Rome, Israel and more.
She is a normal person, has any person's interests. She loves Broadway shows. She enjoys conversing with people. She is fascinated by anything that she considers to be "special," different and unique enough to capture her attention.
But she is also different. Because she was born with Usher Syndrome, which in her expresses itself through profound deafness and retinal pigmentosis, meaning "tunnel vision" or center vision; she can see objects directly in her path, but she does not have peripheral vision. She has difficulty with balance as well, meaning that she cannot ice-skate or bike-ride on your regular two-wheeler.
She was born at a very fortunate time in history, however, because, through cochlear implants, she is able to hear to some extent. Cochlear implants are not the same as hearing aids. They require surgery. Their purpose is not to amplify sound, but to "bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve."
I didn't know any of this when she invited me for Shabbos. I had been inconsiderate. I had seen her at tables and neglected to include her in the conversation. When she didn't cross a particular street when the light was flashing, I dismissed her, and annoyed at having to wait, muttered under my breath. I was unkind; I didn't think. I knew her through a friend, and I knew that she spoke differently and wore something over one of her ears, but other than that I had no idea as to who she was, what she was like, her personality or her interests. I didn't see her.
Even so, she allowed me to know her. She didn't take offense or hold a grudge because of my uncaring behavior; rather, she invited me over to her house, a darling place that was beautifully furnished and nicely decorated. She introduced me to her parents. Her mother enjoys cooking and is very warm and welcoming. Her father is a clever man.
Have I ever learned so much during one weekend?! I wouldn't know. The discussion during Friday night dinner was fascinating. It began with the rather morbid and macabre topic of the man who had thrown himself across the tracks that day; one of the guests works for the MTA. Did the throw himself onto the tracks? Was he pushed? What about the driver and conductor? The MTA guest explained that in such a situation the driver is generally given a couple days off and then reassigned or reclassified, because running over a person gets to them. Who knows what it does to them? Maybe when they drive again and a person is leaning over to look for the train; they'll have flashbacks...and that could be problematic. Then came the question of salary. Can you dock someone's salary for something like that? Probably not, right; after all, it wasn't his fault...
Then I was given a glimpse into shul politics. Now, I know very little of shul politics. So this discussion (there's an excerpt below) was quite an eye-opener. I learned about how the work in the shul fell to three people, all of whom held separate jobs in real life. But perhaps the most fascinating part of the discussion revolved around the caterer.
The Father: Yes, so the caterer is not paying his rent. Whenever he has a function, he rents the catering hall, puts down the $500, but on a whole he is not paying his rent.
Lady Guest: Yes, our luck with caterers...! There've been three of them, and this is how they've all behaved.
Chana: (astonished) And he is a fine, upstanding Orthodox Jew?
The Father: Yes, yes, he's Orthodox.
Chana: But if he's Orthodox, how in the world can he be renting the catering hall from you and not paying his rent?! That's stealing!
The Father: What's more interesting is the hashgacha...you know, when there's mixed dancing during a function, they remove the hashgacha. You would think that when a man signed on to pay rent and doesn't pay rent, they would remove the hashgacha- but no! All they care about is their reputation! If it makes them look bad, if word gets around that there is mixed dancing, that's when they remove the hashgacha.
Chana: (is amazed)
(Somehow the topic changes to the state of the shul)
The Father: Yes, so the ceiling's falling in...and you have to understand that people will give any excuse not to give money to the shul. The caterer's not paying his rent- I'm not giving money to the shul. The Rabbi didn't speak nicely to my wife- I'm not giving money to the shul. You went with this contractor when I could have gotten one for 20% less- I'm not giving money to the shul.
MTA Guy: And they don't tell you that that contractor who would've done it for 20% less had a hidden fee of _____ dollars so that it would have cost more!
The Father: So whatever excuse- they're not giving money for the shul. And when it comes time to pay dues- they don't understand. Each family's dues are $500 and that doesn't even begin to cover the cost of the Rabbi's salary.
Chana: But if you sat them down and logically explained to them where the money goes and why you need money....?
The Father: Do you think they care? Logically explain! People give excuses; people are interested in aesthetics. If they see improvement, aesthetic improvement in the crumbling walls, if they see productivity, that's when they get on board to give money.
MTA Guy: Yes, it's the aesthetics that matter, not the internal improvements.
Chana: But that's idiotic! What good are the aesthetics if it's ruined on the inside?
The Father: Well, have you ever been on a date?
The Father: Well, you put on makeup, don't you? So that's to change your outside appearance, isn't it?
Mother: No, no, that's to enhance the outside appearance.
Chana: But that's different! I'm not trying to hide under the makeup- it's just different if it's a building and when it's a person.
The Father: Well, then I'll have to think of another analogy...
But what I discovered after talking to him is that despite his cynical understanding of the way the world works, the way people act, what people value, the way people take advantage- Orthodox Jews who don't pay rent on their catering halls!- despite all this, at the core he is an idealistic person. He wouldn't spend the time he does on the shul, he wouldn't do what he does, if he didn't believe in what he was doing; if he didn't believe in the cause. I told him so and he agreed. So he is an idealist cloaked in cynicism. I appreciate that.
Back to my friend. She also taught me how to core and peel apples in preparation for Shabbos; she made her famous apple crumble. I have never cored an apple before; I have never even seen those kind of knives before! Anyway, it tasted delicious.
So let's see. I learned about the inner workings of the ear, the eye, shul politics, how to core and peel apples...that's quite a lot for one weekend. And by no means is that all! She's extremely observant; she understands and forgives quite a lot of human nature. But more importantly, she is happy. She is optimistic, happy, kind; she has the kind of indomitable spirit and will that I envy. I cannot see her as "the deaf girl." It is not what she is; it is not who she is. She believes that everyone is given challenges and trials, and that God does not give us challenges that we cannot handle. These challenges are meant as stepping-stones; we are meant to grow. She is who she is- happy, having accepted her limitations, optimistic, clever and kind- because of the way she has reacted to her diagnosis and sometimes limited abilities, also because she was given wonderful parents to help her. But she is not her limited abilities. She is not "the deaf girl."
She's had the rare opportunity to study people in relation to herself. She can tell good people from "bad" (and I use the word lightly, in order to connote inconsiderate, unkind, or thoughtless as well) simply by seeing how they react to her. If they are overly nice, overly sweet, if they treat her as a chesed project, as a girl to protect from the world- she knows they are not true friends. If they pity her- and have I ever met anyone who needs pity less!- it is to assert their own superiority and look down on her from their high vantage point, not out of kindness. Pity is one of the cruelest traits.
- He had never felt this before- not when Henry Cameron collapsed in the office at his feet, not when he saw Steven Mallory sobbing on a bed before him. Those moments had been clean. But this was pity- this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed. There was shame in this feeling- his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment upon a man, that he should know an emotion which contained no shred of respect.
This is pity, he thought, and then he lifted his head in wonder. He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue.
~The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, 609
It is not pity that she needs. It is understanding, kindness, to be treated as an equal. And she is an equal. Her mind is glorious! And her perception- she is so perceptive! I was speaking with her, and she helped me to realize something very interesting about myself. When I see problems, I want them fixed. I am a problem-solver. Perhaps this is why I like algebra, but I cannot deal with all other types of math. What is more, I want people fixed in accord with what I think is right. I see someone who is depressed and miserable and unhappy- I want them "fixed;" I want them to be happy. I see someone in the midst of an abusive/ dysfunctional relationship; I want it fixed- I want the person to leave the relationship. I want the person to help themselves and I have a hard time understanding, unless someone is truly standing in the way, why they do not. I do not want what is best for the person; I want what I think is best for the person. This is the judgmental personality. Now, when it comes down to it, of course I do not want to make people do things they do not want to do. When it comes down to it, who says my definition of "fixed" is right? As my friend pointed out, people are not toys. You cannot play with them; you cannot make them do things. Nevertheless, this is the way I like things to be- I like them to be fixed. If the caterer isn't paying his rent to the shul, I want this fixed; he needs to pay his rent.
I am not a very patient person. I cannot understand a slow but necessary process of growth, people being helped to help themselves. I become frustrated with people who do not do what I think is the correct or "fixed" path. This is not in matters of opinion, ideology and religion, in which I allow for variation- it is in matters that seem clear to me, in which right and wrong are not only clear, but as I see it, obvious. This is how I think.
I didn't realize any of this until she pointed it out to me. She also explained our differences in analysis. She suggests that I am good at English because I can analyze characters and the answers are in the book. It is generally a full story, in which the person either is "fixed" or is not "fixed." I could not, however, act as a psychologist- I would analyze the people and then expect them to do what I wanted to "fix" themselves and take all the blame if they didn't. That wouldn't be good at all.
She saw all this just through talking to me! I never saw this. She's right, though; she's very right. She's supposedly deaf, and yet have I ever met anyone who listens like her?
Oh! And she reads lips! Imagine how cool this is- she wakes up in the morning, having taken out the cochlear apparatus she wears over her ears, and not thinking, I speak to her. And she answers. I realize later, when she tells me, that she's been reading my lips! That's crazy! And I didn't just say simple things, like "Hello" and "How are you?" but full sentences, full statements and ideas and she understood me!
Her insights with regard to people on a whole are so interesting- she understands how different people see her and to an extent, she accepts it. She also explained how she came to terms with herself and her differences- it cannot be easy. So many things that I take for granted- I go to a movie theater, for instance. Well, she has to go to a closed-caption movie, so that she can read the subtitles in addition to hearing the characters speak. She has to plan it, is what I mean. Or I listen to the radio- to her, the music is not so appealing. Or I go ice-skating, naturally enjoying this, but her balance would not allow her to do this.
Asking people for help, she explains, is like asking for charity. Everyone has their pride. Nobody wants to be dependant on another person, to ask another person for help. And yet, steeling herself, she has learned to do it when she needs to do so. She has learned to accept herself, and in her acceptance she radiates such joy, such vitality, utter kindness, such strength... And her ability to forgive- people must slight her all the time, all unknowing. Or perhaps, having heard her speak- and of course it is not entirely the same as my speech, for instance, because speech is formed by hearing those around you- these people have the impression that she is an idiot or stupid or dumb. And they could not be further from the truth, couldn't be!
As she says, she is human. She has her bad spells. It isn't all roses and daffodils. It isn't all wonderful. But looking at her, looking at her, I cannot but be inspired, amazed. She knows so much, she sees so much, and yet she has to accept so much.
I was explaining to her- I look at people, not her, necessarily, but people who are mentally challenged, for example- and at the same time that I want them to be happy and content with themselves, I feel pain and I feel anger because why, why does it have to be this way? Why are they denied the opportunities that come so naturally to me? Why am I given the world, and they the four corners of a "home?" I want to change things. I want it to be different. God healed them when he gave us his Law; I know He will heal them again in the future. But now, now, I want it now; I want the medical advances and scientific advances now! It has to be different in our future. We grow and conquer. We did away with smallpox and the bubonic plague; now we have cancer. I don't think we'll ever outrun disease, we'll never triumph over everything, but we must do the best we can.
And anyone who can- any doctors or medical professionals or researchers- I think the world of you. You are my hope, because you are going to change this world. You are going to invent the cures, to find the technology, you are going to prevent this dazzling girl from going blind as her disease progresses, with your God-given intellect you are going to save us all.
I believe it because I need to believe it. I need to believe in a world where the good people live on, where people are given back their lives. It's going to happen- we are going to make that world. Because this girl- her soul, her soul! She is a person with a beautiful soul. And we can't afford to lose people like her, or to be unkind or thoughtless or inconsiderate, as I was and as I hope not to be in the future.
She is the teacher and I am the student. The fact that she exists, and the way she exists- the way she acts, the wonderful way in which she loves the world and its beauty, its art and grandeur- well, if this doesn't give you hope, if this doesn't inspire you, I don't know what can.