Judaism is as much a community as a religion, and as such it is deeply rooted in ritual and tradition. This communal nature is cemented by speaking and singing in unison, commingling individual voices within a rhythmic repetition of sh’ma yisrael. Even the words of its prayers emphasize kinship by ending in –nu, the suffix indicating first-person plural: Prayer proclaiming God’s kingship, said near the conclusion of the prayer service., v’anachnu korim, ashreinu. It is our duty, we bend our knees, we are happy.
But being deaf sometimes runs counter to the communal spirit. Helen Keller is reported to have said, “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people,” and the latter part rang particularly true for me going to temple as a child, holding a prayer book by the stained-glass windows. I was only connected to someone if I was looking at them, if I could see on their lips what they were saying. Sitting at the front of the congregation, I could lip-read the rabbi’s sermons, but the mass of congregants behind me might as well not have existed.
My father knew all this, and when it came time to prepare for my bar Lit. Commandment. It is traditionally held that there are 613 mitzvot (plural) in Judaism, both postive commandments (mandating actions) and negative commandments (prohibiting actions). Mitzvah has also become colloquially assumed to mean the idea of a “good deed.", he set me what seemed like an impossible task: to memorize, even before I knew what the words meant, the full text of several Hebrew prayers. The words I drilled into my own head did bear logical connections to the meager vocabulary I had already learned in Hebrew class, but at that time the full page of Hebrew text seemed like a labyrinth, where a mispronounced word would send me all the way back to the beginning. Decipher the letters, sound out the word, repeat it, connect it to the ones I had already committed to memory, repeat, repeat, repeat . . .
The hot summer days stretched out as I sat in front of my bedroom window, saying the same lines over and over again, hoping that something in their rhythms or cadence would stick in my head more easily than the words themselves.
The days and weeks passed. The words carved grooves into my mind. When I came back to temple on Friday evenings, I recited the Hebrew prayers while looking around at the congregation, the sounds coming off my tongue as I watched their lips forming the same vowels. It was hard to be proud of joining this community, to take any pleasure in the unhappy work I had put into the task, but the truth was that my father had made it possible for me to become more a part of this community. Instead of looking down at the prayer book as we chanted in unison, I looked up and at everyone else. For the first-person plural to become applicable to me, I had to experience its words in the first-person singular. And I did.
Now, a decade and a half after memorizing these prayers, I walk into new temples. I have moved away from the Midwest, gone to college on the East Coast, and stood beside unfamiliar stained-glass windows again and again. Being deaf has forced me to internalize the rhythms and rituals of Judaism so deeply that they have become inextricable from myself. I look around the new rooms, at the faces I have never seen before, and as I see lips intone Ein keloheinu, the next words come to me without any conscious thought: ein kadoneinu. For a second, my mind flashes back to the empty, hot room on a summer day, and then the rhythms center me again in this crowd. For a long time now I have been thinking not about these words’ shapes, but about what they mean and represent, how they intersect and intertwine their speakers. Now, in the first-person plural, these words pull me into a community I could not have experienced otherwise.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature Magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in Tin House, Best European Fiction, The New Inquiry, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.