Israeli Life: Jaffa on Three Senses a Day
It’s the blind leading the sighted and the deaf communicating with those who can hear at an extraordinary portside cultural center near Tel Aviv.
I lift the heavy pitcher of water with one hand, groping for my glass with the other, and begin pouring nervously. I put the carafe down with a thump that shakes the table and clumsily dip my index finger into my glass to find it is half full.
“I did it,” I squeal with delight, sharing my accomplishment—pouring a glass of water in the absolute darkness of the restaurant—with my waiter, who does it all the time, of course, because he is blind. “Good for you,” he chimes in a tone that reminds me of the way I commend my toddler when she manages to put a sock on all by herself.
I’m seated in the Blackout restaurant in Jaffa eating a meal in the dark while a staff of visually impaired waiters, some totally blind, serve, guide and support us in every possible way. The darkness is so complete that I can’t even see my own hand, an extraordinary setting that evokes a whole range of feelings from helplessness to humility. But this experience is just an appetizer for the main course of the evening: a play performed by actors who are both blind and deaf.
Both encounters take place at the Nalaga’at (Please Do Touch) Center, a unique institution that combines the world’s only theater company of deaf-blind actors; Blackout; and Kapish, a dairy café manned by hearing-impaired waiters. The complex, housed in a warehouse in Jaffa’s port, opened in December 2007 and has since been visited by some 80,000 people.
The challenge of dining in the dark, of not being able to signal your waiter or pick up a fork you accidentally drop—or see your food or dining companion—is just a small but effective and humbling exercise that prepares you for the powerful theatrical experience that follows. The Nalaga’at Theater Company, 11 actors, stripped of the basic senses of hearing and sight, share the hardships and pain of their lives, but also the dreams and hopes they have and, in doing so, demonstrate to the astonishment and awe of the audience just how many more ways there are of communicating than we ever imagined. It’s an evening that turns the tables on the visitor. As you grope helplessly in the inky blackness of the restaurant, struggle to communicate without words to a deaf person in the café and watch as those deprived of sight and hearing manage to act, sing and dance in a professional production, you can’t help but ask yourself: Who is the disabled one here?
As the audience files in, the aroma of baking bread wafts through the 330-seat theater. The actors, seated behind an elongated table, are kneading dough. The stage has been converted into a working bakery with real ovens for a play entitled “Not by Bread Alone”—a biblical reference to what sustains us in life.
“Welcome to our bakery, our lives, our darkness, our silence,” says Itzik Hanunua, 45, the narrator and one of the few actors who can speak. Born blind, he lost his hearing at 11 after a bout of meningitis. The other actors have Usher syndrome, a hereditary condition that causes deafness at birth and gradual blindness. “Some of us have some vestiges of sight, some hear a bit. All of us have dreams,” continues Hanunua in a slurred but expressive voice.
At first, the actors wear identical featureless masks—a reflection of their invisibility in the eyes of society. But one by one the masks are removed to reveal a unique person who then shares his or her hopes and fantasies.
There is striking Batsheva Ravenseri, 44, with her auburn curls, who wants to have her hair done by a top-notch hairdresser and, though blind, admires herself coquettishly in a mirror. There is Rafi Aku’a, 52, who lives with his mother but longs to have his own family and paces back and forth with a baby stroller. And there is Igor Oshorov, 54, who would simply love to be able to watch television.
The actors describe the challenges of day-to-day life. “It is important for me to shake hands with someone. That is how I know he exists,” reveals Shoshana Segal, demonstrating the aptness of the company’s name—Please Do Touch.
Iranian-born Nurani Levy reinforces this point, noting he “recognizes people by their hands.” Hanunua recalls a day when, alone in his room, the silence and darkness so overwhelmed him he felt he was no longer alive. This changed, he says, when two friends came by, touched him and took him for a walk.
Most of the actors “speak” sign language, but after losing their sight, adapted to a touch version of the language whereby the “listener” places a hand on top of the speaker’s hand to follow his or her sign gestures. Many cast members are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had to learn Hebrew touch sign language. Hanunua, the only member who was born blind rather than deaf, does not know sign language, but Braille and a type of touch language where his fingers serve as a virtual keyboard, with each finger “divided” into five letters. To talk to him you touch different parts of his hand.
In the actors’ dressing room backstage there is the same frenetic buzz that accompanies any production—only here it is a strangely silent buzz. The cast sits in groups of twos and threes, hands tapping and touching, their faces flashing expressions of nervousness, excitement and annoyance.
On the stage, the actors who can speak for themselves serve as the voices of those who can’t speak at all. A drum provides cues for members who don’t see or hear the instrument, but are able to feel its vibration. Translators roam back and forth, guiding the actors and translating their lines from sign language to the spoken word. Subtitles in English, Hebrew and Russian are projected on a screen.
The play, while heart-rending at times, includes dance, music, even a touch of slapstick. For example, one scene has a customer, a large man, spending a long time under a helmet-like hairdryer in the salon of a famed stylist; he emerges from the dryer with a ridiculous wig of black bottle curls.
At the end, the audience is coached to repeat “Yofia Shel HaBria” (“The Beauty of Creation”) in sign language from the play’s theme song, “Dancing Close,” after which everyone is invited onstage to taste the bread the actors have baked and meet the stars.
That encounter is usually the first for the audience with deaf-blind people. And until they joined Nalaga’at, most of the actors had had little contact with seeing-hearing people.
“I used to be housebound,” recalls the Romanian-born Segal, a middle-aged widow who lives on a moshav near Netanya. “My only excursion was my weekly trip to the club for deaf-blind people in Tel Aviv…. Now, incredibly, I am out, and I love it. I meet the rest of the world and have even discovered that I have something to contribute to them.” Segal says this through her interpreter.
It was nine years ago that adina tal, 56, a director and graduate of Tel Aviv University’s theater department, was asked to run a drama workshop at a local club for the deaf-blind. Tal, who immigrated to Israel from Zurich in 1972 at the age of 19, had never had any contact with this population before. “Reading Helen Keller was the extent of my knowledge,” laughs the troupe founder with jet-black hair, pale blue eyes and a sabra-style directness that belies her Swiss upbringing.
The class proved to be such a success that it evolved into a theater company in 2002. Two years later, it became the first deaf-blind troupe to tour North America, with sold-out performances of its premier production, “Light Is Heard in Zig Zag.” The show featured a series of improvisations where the actors express their dreams, such as being a bus driver or a general in an army.
“I very quickly decided that I expect professionalism from the members of the troupe and I think they are actually happy that someone finally demands something of them, rather than pitying them,” says Tal, who admits to occasionally shouting during rehearsals, her irritation relayed to the actors through their translators. Tal, who speaks five languages, learned a sixth—touch sign—to communicate with the actors individually. But she can speak to them as a group only if every actor has a personal translator present since “I can’t touch 11 sets of hands simultaneously.”
In search of a home, the company rented a warehouse from the Armenian Orthodox Church in 2005, transforming it into the striking Nalaga’at Center (011-972-3-633-0808; www.nalagaat.org.il), which today employs over 70 individuals, most of whom are deaf, blind or both. A nonprofit, it receives support from Israel’s National Insurance Institute as well as private donations and generates income from the theater (a ticket costs about $30), the restaurant and the café, which are kosher.
The center’s exterior, white and illuminated, glows like a jewel against the black velvet darkness of Jaffa port at night. It is the only renovated building in an area undergoing a massive overhaul.
Inside there are three main areas: a light airy lobby that merges with Kapish, pleasantly decorated with chairs, sofas and barstools; the auditorium with the stage; and Blackout, an area cordoned off by a tall divider.
Metal beams crisscross the sloped ceiling in the spacious lobby and industrial spotlights lining the beams add to the light filtering in from the windows above. The concrete floor has an L-shaped row of slightly protruding tiles that lead from the entrance of the building to the actors’ dressing room—subtly enabling the blind cast members to find their way unassisted.
The staff, a mix of Jews, Christians and Muslims, includes a deaf refugee from Eritrea. Simon was “adopted” by the employees who taught him Hebrew sign language, enabling him to work as a waiter in the café.
The waiters even gave money to assist other refugees in the shelter where Simon was living. The actors have also helped finance the medical treatment of a cancer-stricken boy, the son of an acquaintance. Both examples illustrate how the center has empowered its members. “They see themselves as strong enough to give to the less fortunate,” notes Tal. “Who would have thought of approaching deaf-blind people for donations?”
This is the first paid job for many of the staff. “I always wanted to be like other women who…have a profession,” says Ravenseri, through her interpreter. “And I always wanted to be an actress, but I thought that would remain a dream.
“Now my life has opened up,” adds the mother of three, all of whom see and hear, “and I am like other women who go off to work.”
Eliran Golan recalls being fired four days after he started waiting tables at a restaurant in Jaffa, when he dropped one too many glasses. But in the darkness of Blackout, the visually impaired Golan has an advantage over seeing waiters. “I love this job—it doesn’t even feel like work to me,” says the affable 27-year-old.
“A lot of first-time visitors come here thinking they are doing a good deed,” says Tal. “But by the end of the evening, that attitude usually changes and they begin to question who is really giving to who. Despite the incredible hardships [of the deaf and blind], the atmosphere here is not one of tragedy, but one of joy…. It’s proof you can overcome anything.”
Indeed, many audience members rush onto the stage after a show to embrace the actors and engage in a conversation with them through the help of interpreters. “You were magnificent,” Geeta Padmanabhan, a tourist from India, tells a beaming Ravenseri.
“I discovered a whole other world,” says Yaffa Goren, a caretaker at a Galilee retirement home who came to see the show. “It was unique and deeply moving,” adds her friend Miri Sinai. “Not only the play, but the whole experience.”
“When people first walk in, they look hesitant and shocked—even though they know where they’re coming,” says Kira Weizman, a waitress at Kapish, where menus and placemats include symbols for sign language. Weizman, 25, who is studying to become an art teacher, wears a hearing aid and speaks a slightly distorted Hebrew. “After people emerge from the play, I see in their faces that something has changed,” she adds. “They’re more open. They want to try to speak. They ask me: ‘How do you say this and how do you say that?’ It’s as though they’re hungry, hungry to connect.” H
Dining in the Dark
I have just been offered a bib and asked, together with the other guests, to walk single file with my hands on the shoulders of the person in front of me. It may sound like a children’s party, but it is in fact the beginning of a dining experience at Blackout, a totally dark restaurant serviced by blind waiters at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa.
Because of the ban on light, we have been asked to deposit our cell phones (which emit dim light) in a locker; handbags that might be obstacles are also stored outside. “Remember your waiter’s name,” our host says, “since you won’t be able to signal him in the dark.”
Our waiter, Eliran Golan, 27, gingerly leads us to our table and seats my husband and me side by side. “There’s no point sitting across from each other if you can’t see each other,” he explains.
He guides our hands to our cutlery and urges us to call him if we drop anything. My husband, aware of his complete dependence on this kind stranger, is anxious. I, on the other hand, feel a sense of relief, even freedom, as I fondle my food unobserved. Before entering, diners can choose from a kosher menu of fish, pasta and vegetarian dishes—or opt, as I have, for a “surprise” meal identified by smell, taste and touch.
There is a constant jingle in the background; waiters wear bells around their wrists to hear each other approaching. Around us, the buzz of other diners gets louder; I, too, find I’m sharing secrets in an inappropriately loud voice, convinced that just as I am unseen, I am unheard.
“People feel anxious and compensate…by speaking loud,” says Golan. Occasionally, he adds, a diner is overcome by panic or claustrophobia and has to be led out mid-meal. But by the sound of laughter and good cheer around me, that is not the case tonight. —L.E.F.