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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Bridge of Signs: The Vision of Deaf Writer Albert Ballin

When I read an excerpt from The Deaf Mute Howls in the anthology Angels and Outcasts, I decided that I wanted to read the entire book. (For my review of Angels and Outcasts see my December 2012 blog post  "Angels and Outcasts: Portrayals of the Deaf in Literature".) The deaf author Albert Ballin (1867-1933) sounded so inventive.  Apparently, he never thought of himself that way.  According to Douglas Baynton, who wrote the introduction, Ballin was disappointed with his life and its limitations.

Albert Ballin was a man who pursued a career as an artist and later as an actor in Hollywood.  He believed that deaf sign language could be the mode of communication between directors and actors while in the process of making the movie during the silent film era. He even thought it possible that signing could become the universal language that would be understood throughout the world.  This would involve a major paradigm shift.  A population on the margins of society would move into the center. I feel that Ballin was a true visionary.   Baynton says that Ballin had outsized aspirations.  Most people do have smaller dreams. It seems to me that expectations tend to be shaped by background.  If you are always surrounded by people who think you will accomplish nothing, you are delighted if you are able to prove them even slightly wrong with a small accomplishment that may only feel significant to you.  If on the other hand, you come from a background of wealth and privilege as Albert Ballin did, you might think that you have the power to accomplish absolutely anything. Yet when it came to the promotion of signing for use by hearing individuals, Ballin was a movement of one.

The oralist movement that  brought about the complete banning of sign language in deaf instruction arose in the late 19th century, and was in direct conflict with Ballin's efforts.  When I read the excerpt in Angels and Outcasts I was baffled by Ballin's friendly relationship with Alexander Graham Bell who was a key figure in the oralist movement.  Baynton solved the mystery.  Ballin and Bell were both in favor of mainstreaming the deaf.  They both thought that there should not be separate instruction of the deaf or a separate deaf culture.  That was the basis of their positive interaction. Yet Ballin wanted to mainstream signing.  He thought that sign language should be taught to all students.

A recent dystopian fantasy novel involved a scenario in which Ballin's vision could have been realized.  Unfortunately, this never occurred to its author.   The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus posits that children's spoken language becomes toxic to adults.  Parents become physically ill by listening to the speech of their children.  Signing would seem to me to be the obvious solution to this dilemma.  It would have re-united families, and turned the dystopian scenario into a utopian one.  I skimmed through Marcus' book and discovered that he didn't consider the universal adoption of sign language. I then abandoned the novel disappointed by this failure of imagination.

Could universal sign language have been achieved in real local communities?  Douglas Baynton mentions an anthropological study by Nora Groce called Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language which deals with Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.   Due to a heavy concentration of a genetic tendency toward deafness in Martha's Vineyard, the island developed Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. (See  Martha's Vineyard Sign Language on Wikipedia. ) Yet Baynton questions whether everyone really did know sign language on Martha's Vineyard.  If this was really the case, then why were sign language interpreters necessary at town meetings, and why were deaf children sent to boarding schools on the mainland to learn how to sign?  When I did a search on the deaf in Martha's Vineyard, I came across a very intriguing article on other similar communities worldwide.  Since this article is freely available online,  I am providing a link to it here: Deaf Utopias?   This article by Annelies Kusters appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education.  Kusters said that none of these communities communicate solely in sign language.  They are all multi-lingual.  What is different about them is the prevalence of hearing people who can sign, but hearing residents tend to know more languages than deaf residents.  Yet I was struck by an exception to this generalization that Kusters mentions.  A deaf El Sayed Bedouin in Israel learned Hebrew at a school for the deaf, and translated Hebrew documents into sign language for a hearing El Sayed Bedouin who couldn't read Hebrew.  This is the sort of scenario that is in accordance with Albert Ballin's vision.  It seems to me that  he wanted to see a future in which deaf sign language is a lingua franca that facilitates communication between people who don't have any spoken language in common.  Ballin calls hearing people learning how to sign in order to communicate with the deaf "the Bridge of Signs" which is really a marvelous image.

Baynton points out that Ballin's idea of deaf signing being a single language is erroneous.  It puzzles me that Ballin wasn't aware of this fact when he was well-traveled in Europe.  Although local shared signing communities described in Kusters' article are possible, one universal sign language for the entire world is not possible. Not only does each nation have its own signing languages, but signed communication between deaf individuals is far more complex than that. I read about "idiolects" in Deaf in Japan by Karen Nakamura which I reviewed on this blog in August of 2012.   Judging from what I have seen and read, signing is a less likely candidate for universal language than any spoken form of communication because it's so individualized. 

Even though Ballin's dream isn't practical, it is definitely an interesting idea.  Perhaps one day there will be a Bridge of Signs organization for deaf and non-deaf people to communicate by signing with a chapter in every city.  That sounds like a piece of Ballin's dream that could be achievable.  

Postscript 6/11/13

I just saw a video with a transcript provided beneath it from hearing actor/medical student Peter Wingfield in which he tells his fan club about teaching ASL to his hearing son, Edan, as a baby.  The theory was to give Edan a way to communicate before he learned to speak.  See Hearing Baby Taught Sign Language .  I think that Albert Ballin would have been delighted.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

But Is it Really Jewish Magic?--Reading Rav Hisda's Daughter

I read the second book in the Rashi's Daughters trilogy by Maggie Anton and liked it very much. Her latest book, Rav Hisda's Daughter, sounded like it would interest me even more. It's the first in a series taking place in a period of Jewish history that I've never seen before in historical fiction.

This novel deals with the daughter of a Talmudic figure who lived in Persia. The main character, Hisdadukh, is mentioned in the Talmud.  It actually means Hisda's daughter in Persian. Since relatively few names of women have come down to us from ancient Jewish sources, I would have assumed that the redactors of the Talmud  had left her name out.  Maggie Anton decided that Hisdadukh actually was her given name.  I had a problem with this idea.  She portrays Rav Hisda as a man who taught his daughter to read, consulted her about who she wished to marry, and had no problem with her sitting in on his Talmud classes.  He must have had a great deal of respect for his daughter and her autonomy.  So why would he have given her a generic name?  That didn't make sense to me, but I got over it.

I got over it because I found this book brilliant and original.  I am probably one of its ideal readers.  An ideal reader of this book is someone who is educated in Judaism, interested in its history, and in women's historical practices.  This ideal reader should also have an interest in Talmud.

 I admit that when I was first exposed to Talmud as a child, I wasn't impressed.  I studied an incident in which a camel knocked over a candelabra in the market place causing a fire.  The Talmudic era rabbis argued about who should be considered responsible for the damage.  Was it the owner of the camel, the owner of the candelabra or the camel itself?  I and my fellow students wondered how this could possibly be relevant to our lives.  After all, there were no camels wandering through the shopping malls of American suburbia, and in our age of electricity a candelabra causing a fire wasn't too likely in a shopping mall either.  It's only while reading Rav Hisda's Daughter that I realized that the value of the Talmud is in the legal principles established and the form of legal argument.  Since I am currently taking a legal reference course in library school, I  am conscious of legal issues.  I understand now why Jews have considered Talmud to be such good preparation for a legal career. So I found the Talmudic arguments in this novel almost as fascinating as Hisdadukh's more esoteric studies.

Hisdadukh's studies in amulet making, and other Jewish magical practices set this book apart. They reveal a Judaism that is fundamentally different from the Jewish religion as it is currently practiced.  I was taught that amulets were always regarded as superstitious among Jews, and that only the ignorant really believed in their power.  Am Ha'aretz means someone who is ignorant in a contemporary Jewish context.  In the context of this novel, it means someone who doesn't accept the authority of rabbis.  Anton portrays these refuseniks as the majority of the Jewish community in Persia.  In the time when Hisdadukh lived, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem had been relatively recent.  Rabbinic Judaism was an innovation that allowed Judaism to survive without a temple.  I knew that, but I hadn't imagined that there could have been such tremendous resistance to this re-conceptualization of the religion. I should have. Historically, changes in religious outlook involve a slow process of evolution. They don't happen overnight.  Occult folk traditions were also never completely eliminated from Judaism. My great grandfather considered astrology when he decided the date of my father's wedding. My grandmother did divination by reading the patterns of spilled chickpeas.  When I was a child, I remembered my mother's concern about the possible effect of the Evil Eye on her family.  The Evil Eye was a major preoccupation for Jews of Hisdadukh's era.

Anton shows that the Evil Eye came from Persian Zoroastrianism.  I knew that Lilith also wasn't originally native to Judaism.  She wasn't mentioned in the Five Books of Moses.  There was nothing about Adam having had a rebellious first wife.  According to Lilith on Wikipedia  there was a category of demons called "lilitu" in ancient Mesopotamian lore.  In Rav Hisda's Daughter, what was originally a Pagan belief in demons is very much alive among Jews and Zoroastrians in Persia.

Another example of Pagan influence is Jewish women mourning for the Babylonian divine figure, Tammuz.  The prophet Ezekiel denounced Jews who participated in this practice.  In this novel, Jewish women are portrayed as mourning for Tammuz in Jewish cemeteries. They even did so near the grave of the prophet Ezekiel.  It's depicted as not really being about Tammuz. The women were mourning all their real losses.  Tammuz represented the deaths of parents, husbands and children for these women.  I wondered if they were looking beyond their religion for a way to express grief because the custom of Yahrzeit didn't exist yet. Yahrzeit involves lighting a 24 hour candle on the anniversary of a death.  An article in The Encyclopedia Britannica on Yahrzeit states that this custom began in the 14th century which is many centuries after the events of  Rav Hisda's Daughter.

 I have studied syncretism, the combining of spiritual traditions, in other religions. Yet I hadn't explored it very much in the religion of my own ancestors. I had grown up thinking that the people whose Jewish practice included Pagan customs  weren't really Jews, and that Jews had always been monotheists. I am now aware that  Israeli archaeology has shown that Jews weren't always monotheists, but I definitely still thought that the Talmudic period was when Judaism as I know it today was formed.  I hadn't expected to see all this Zoroastrian influence from the Persians surrounding Hisdadukh.   As someone who has studied anthropology I know that this is what living cultures do.  They adapt and change. Jews living in Persia would incorporate Persian customs.   It's really quite similar to contemporary American Jewish families who have a Christmas tree in their living rooms along with the menorah displayed in their windows.

I think that readers who know little or nothing about Judaism may not understand or appreciate this book as much as I did.  It seems to me that Maggie Anton assumes a certain amount of knowledge in her readers.  For example, we are told that the Jews in Palestine during this period celebrated Tu B'Av as a holiday in which unmarried Jews can find mates.  I ran a search on Tu B'Av  and learned from Tu B'Av on Wikipedia  that in modern Israel it's the equivalent of Valentine's Day. Hisdadukh considered it an antidote to Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish Temple, which is still commemorated in modern times with a fast.  Someone who is unfamiliar with the Jewish calendar would see the similarity between Tu B'Av and Tisha B'Av without realizing why they are similar.  These names are actually dates.  Tisha B'Av occurs on the 9th of the month of Av. Tu B'Av occurs less than a week later on the 15th of Av.   There are numerous similar details of Jewish life that aren't fully explicated for the general reader. That is the only weakness in Rav Hisda's Daughter that I can identify.

I consider this novel the best book that I've read so far in 2013. I will definitely want to obtain the sequels. In the mean time, I  have a subject that I want to pursue in further research.  I have just located The Women of the Talmud by Judith Z. Abrams and intend to read it by the end of March.