If a Tree Falls

If a Tree Falls

When a child is born deaf, a mother seeking answers finds an interesting connection to her Jewish past.

by Rachel S. Cohen
Get the book at Feministpress.org

When author Jennifer Rosner’s daughter Sophia was born deaf, she explored a unique method of coping: she began researching her lineage. Ultimately, she crafted an entire book seeded in her daughter’s disability and her family’s history—If a Tree Falls(The Feminist Press, 2010). Rosner explored her family’s genetically linked history of deafness, a story that began—much to her surprise—hundreds of years ago in an Eastern European shtetl. I recently spoke with Jennifer about the discovery of her Jewish deaf roots and how her past helped her manage her present life with two deaf daughters.

Ultimately, your own research led you to the discovery of your family’s genetic past. What prompted you to research your family’s roots after the birth of your daughter Sophia?

After our daughter Sophia was born and diagnosed with severe hearing loss, my father faxed me a family tree that showed our ancestry to be riddled with deafness. I was shocked! I hadn’t known of genetic deafness in my family. My father knew; he actually brought the family tree to a geneticist before he and my mother started a family. The geneticist told him that the family branches with deaf relatives were too remote to indicate a genetic transfer in his branch, so my father didn’t think it applicable to me. Once I discovered that I had deaf ancestors, I urgently wanted to learn all I could about them: how they lived, how they were treated, and whether they found acceptance in their families.

With the fear of sounding contrived, I’m wondering if you discovered significant parallels between Jewish enclaves and the deaf community?

Certainly, people have argued that pressure has been placed on the deaf to assimilate to the “hearing world,” and that the language of the deaf (American Sign Language) has been threatened by those who use hearing technology to hear and speak. Comparisons have been drawn to the experience of Jewish (and other) immigrant populations and the fate of languages like Yiddish. I think the comparisons are not wholly apt, however. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. In these cases, which “culture” does the child belong to, and why? And what language should be considered “native”? It is exceedingly complicated.

In making decisions for my daughters, I wanted intimacy and maximal opportunity for them, and I longed for a shared experience. These, ultimately, were the considerations that guided my husband and me in our decision making.

What did you/your family gain (emotionally, psychologically, etc.) from researching and writing your story?

I had never been too interested in my ancestry, but this research made me feel, for the first time, that I am part of a larger line. One detail, in particular, struck a deep chord in me: I learned that, when my deaf ancestors had babies, they tied strings from their wrists to their babies in the night. When the babies cried, my deaf ancestors felt the tug on the string and woke to care for their children. This innovative way to stay connected and responsive became an inspiration and a model for me as a new mother.

I’m interested in how you intertwined the fictional lives of your ancestors with the real characters in your life, like your daughter. Can you describe the interplay between the created personas and the real people in this story?

When I hit against the limits of discovering the details of my ancestors’ daily lives, I took to inventing them. This creative process provided me with a kind of projection screen on which I could play out the fears, anxieties, and also hopes I carried for my own children. I knew from reading shtetl stories that the deaf were often ostracized and isolated. My fears for my own girls’ hardships led to scenarios in which my ancestors were segregated and bullied. Hopes for my daughters’ connection to one another became enacted in Nellie’s separate journey to America and the longing for a reunion with Bayla, and so forth. It was cathartic to have a separate place to work through my feelings.

What has the response to this book been like? Has there been an outcry of support for your situation from people in similar positions?

I’ve received a lot of letters! Several parents of deaf children have written to me to tell me how helpful it is to know that their experiences are shared ones. I’ve heard, too, from clinicians in the field of deafness—audiologists, speech and language pathologists, and teachers of the deaf—thanking me for a parent’s perspective. Just yesterday, a rabbi wrote to me saying that the story of my ancestors’ string informed a sermon she recently gave. I’ve been thrilled to know that my story is resonating for so many readers.

What do you want others to learn from your work?

I hope that people reading my book will learn much more about the nature of parental choice (it can be extremely complicated!). As I make clear in the book, I don’t believe there are any “one size fits all” answers to parenting a deaf child—or any child, for that matter. I think that parents should stay true to their own individual, often idiosyncratic, and highly personal desires and needs when it comes to relating to and communicating with their children (this, in the face of strong opinions on all sides). More generally, I hope that readers of my book will reflect on their own experiences with hearing others, being heard, and listening to themselves.

Jennifer Rosner’s writing has appeared in Good Housekeeping, the Jewish Daily Forward, the Massachusetts Review, The Faster Times, Wondertime Magazine, and the Hastings Center Report. Jennifer holds a PhD in philosophy from Stanford University and is editor of The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Massachusetts with her family. For more information, visit her book’s website: http://www.ifatreefalls.com/index.html.

About the Author

author_rachel_S_CohenRachel S. Cohen
Rachel S. Cohen, a Brandeis University graduate, previously worked for Revista Glamour (Glamour magazine) in Spain and wrote for Forbes.com in New York. She currently works at Massachusetts General Hospital and maintains a blog: www.bitchesinstitches.blogspot.com.

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