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  • Deaf American Jewish Culture in Historical Perspective
  • Sarah Abrevaya Stein (bio)

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the question of who had the authority to represent, teach, and preach to deaf American Jews was highly contentious. On the one hand, there were many deaf Jews who had attended deaf schools and were integrated into mainstream deaf cultural organizations—notably the New York School for the Deaf in Fanwood, which fostered ties with Jewish clubs, and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf. Among the pupils of these schools were Marcus Kenner, Samuel Cohen, Samuel Frankenheim, and David Rabinowitz, all of whom rose to positions of leadership in deaf America.1 To other deaf Jews, especially poor immigrants from non-English-speaking homes, the deaf mainstream proved inaccessible and/or uninviting, mandating discrete cultural, institutional, and religious spaces for deaf Jews such as existed for deaf Christians.2 For these individuals, the larger Jewish and deaf communities had failed to address their dual needs as both Jews and deaf men and women. Indeed, these communities were each in their own way oblivious to the fact that deaf Jews might have ambitions or concerns of their own. Last but not least, there were deaf Jews who criticized the notion of a distinctive deaf Jewish identity, among them Alexander Pach, a portrait photographer and fiery contributor to America's preeminent deaf newspaper, Silent Worker, who worried that an articulation of deaf Jews' difference might alienate them from deaf America and even put their patriotism in question.3 [End Page 277]

In certain respects, these debates mirrored those taking place in both the deaf and Jewish worlds during the early twentieth century. Like deaf Americans of other backgrounds, deaf Jews were then taking part in the ongoing struggle over who was best equipped to educate, vocationally train, and socialize deaf youth, and in what manner. Deaf Jewish children, like deaf youth of other backgrounds, were caught up in the disastrous pedagogic "solution" to the "problem" of deafness known as oralism. Through the teaching of lip reading and speech, oralists sought to integrate deaf people into hearing society; the strictest oralists also waged a campaign against sign language and deaf culture. Proposed and imposed in the late nineteenth century by hearing social workers, teachers, and others engaged in deaf education, oralism remained entrenched in America's deaf schools for a century, despite vociferous resistance on the part of the deaf.4 If debates among deaf Jews reverberated with the concerns of the deaf world, they also echoed conversations circulating in the wider Jewish world. Whether Jews ought to express, maintain, or even intensify markers of Jewish difference was in some sense the modern Jewish question, one vividly alive to early twentieth-century Jews of nearly every national, political, religious, and ethnic stripe, be they native-born or immigrant, assimilated or observant, urban or rural, wealthy or working-class, American, European, or Middle Eastern, hearing or deaf. In the immigrant cauldron of early twentieth-century New York City, as elsewhere, this question was played out through the shaping of myriad forms of Jewish culture and politics, as well as a broad range of Jewish institutions, including some designed specifically for and by the deaf.

This article argues that deafness and Jewishness were categories that intersected and informed one another in the United States in ways that historians have, thus far, failed to appreciate. To this end, the following pages explore the intersection of deafness and Jewishness by focusing on flashpoints in the history of deaf American Jewish institutions, labor, and culture rooted in early twentieth-century New York City: the inauguration of the Horeb Home and School (HH) in 1906; the reinvention of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes (IIDM) as an explicitly Jewish institution in 1910; the creation of spaces for worship for the Jewish deaf; the shaping of the Society for the Welfare of the Jewish [End Page 278] Deaf (SWJD) and, with it, the country's first labor board for the deaf in 1913; and, finally, the inauguration of a prominent, nationally circulated newspaper, The Jewish Deaf, published between 1915 and 1925.

As it historicizes these events, this...


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