Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Many are surprised to learn that sign language is not a universal language. When my parents, both of whom are deaf, first met, they were barely able to communicate. My father, Samuel, having grown up in Israel, knew Israeli Sign Language and my American-born mother, Rachelle, knew American Sign Language (ASL). For six years my parents dated on and off, mailing letters to one another, in Hebrew and English that kind friends translated (and sometimes embellished). That my parents were able to forge a relationship, marry and raise a family was no small feat, and was only possible through the tireless dedication and gemilut chasadim (kindness) of Miriam Freier.
My father, an only child, was born in Northern Romania shortly after World War II to deaf parents who survived the war in German/Romanian labor camps. In 1951 they came to Israel, first living in a refugee absorption camp near Beersheva and later, once my grandmother died, moving to Jerusalem.
Miriam Freier first met my father when she was working as a counselor at the school for the deaf in Jerusalem. “I saw a boy with great potential, a desire to learn and to work hard, a person who deeply cared for those around him.” Miriam took my father under her wing, making sure he did well in his studies. When my father transferred to a more challenging hearing school, she tutored him every morning from 5-7 AM so that my father could keep up. Later, when my father returned to Beersheba, Miriam sent money every week for my father to continue receiving private tutoring. On holidays, she took my father to her family in Kfar Haroeh, where he had his first Aliyah to the Torah. Yet Miriam emphasized that the relationship was always a two way street. “I was studying history and archeology at the time Samuel would wake up and wait with me on the road at 4 AM until my ride picked me up for my day in the field. When I had kitchen duty at the school for the deaf, he would spend long hours with me cleaning massive pots. I would have never finished without him.”
By the time my parents were introduced in 1969 during my mother’s first visit to Israel, my father was the primary caretaker of his now elderly father.
As the years went by, they exchanged more letters, my mother came to Israel for more visits, communication was eased and strengthened, and both sides wanted to marry and raise a family together. Miriam explains that at the time opportunities for the deaf in Israel were very limited. Deaf people, for example, were not seen as suitable teachers for deaf students! In the United States many more services for the deaf, such as sign language interpreters and university education, were available, and my mother’s large extended family was around to help. To marry, my father first had to move to the United States.
Yet the obstacles were great; my father had only rudimentary English, had never been to the United States, and did not relish leaving Israel. The biggest obstacle was my elderly grandfather. My father could not bear the thought of leaving him alone in Jerusalem. My parents wed in 1975 and initially my grandfather lived with them in a small apartment in the Lower East Side. This living arrangement put a big strain on their relationship even as events proved that my grandfather could not acclimate to New York at his advanced age.
A few months after their wedding my father spoke to a trusted rabbi, who told him that he had to focus on his new wife, and that his father needed to return to his familiar surroundings in Jerusalem. “I knew that Samuel was feeling very guilty over leaving his father, and that the burden was too heavy for him to bear,” Miriam commented. “I promised Samuel that I would take care of his father. In the beginning I would visit him weekly at his home – he was still working a bit at the time and was active. After a few years his condition deteriorated and I moved him to a home in my neighborhood. He would visit daily at 4 PM for coffee and cake. He was fluent in German, Romanian and Polish, had a great sense of humor, was very nice, and enjoyed life. Later on we had to move him to a closed facility in the neighborhood, and I went to visit him for an hour on a daily basis, bringing him special foods and cake. As the only deaf resident he was ignored by most people, so when I came I only paid attention to him – so that he would know that this was his special hour. Today I do not understand how I did it back then – I had small children, I worked at the time. When my husband and I went to Buffalo for a half-year Sabbatical my teenage son Micha went to visit him – and found him depressed and in a bad state. Micha brought him flowers and started visiting daily with a friend. When I returned your grandfather told me that had Micha not visited he would no longer be alive.”
Miriam’s devotion was priceless, as my father explains it: “Many friends criticized me for leaving my father. The worry and guilt over my father would have overwhelmed me if not for Miriam. I knew that someone wonderful was taking care of my father, which allowed me to focus on my marriage and my university studies, finding a job and eventual acclimation to my new country. Without Miriam’s help I would not have been able to go to the States and raise a family.”
For fifteen years, until he passed away in 1990, Miriam took care of my grandfather. Today, at the young age of 78, Miriam serves as chair for Shalhevet, a Jerusalem-based organization that she founded to enable the disabled to live independent lives in non-institutional settings. Beit Issie Shapiro bestowed upon Miriam its 2013 humanitarian award, in the presence of Israeli education minister Shay Piron. Yet beyond the accolades Miriam derives much satisfaction from seeing my father, his children and grandchildren. “Each person needs to find himself in life. I am very happy that your father realized his potential, got a university degree (that at that time would not have been possible in Israel), became an educator, facilitator and leader for the deaf community, and most importantly – built a wonderful family.”
This is a story of a young boy, a lonely old man and a woman with a large heart. For my family, it meant the world.
The writer is the director of Perspectives Israel, which educates about the complexity of the challenges facing Israel from multiple viewpoints. He also works at Shatil, Israel’s premier social change organization and chairs AJC ACCESS Israel.