Interpreting prayers in American Sign Language

Interpreting prayers in American Sign Language

Washington Township synagogue offers translations to the deaf and hearing impaired on High Holy Days

Jamie Steinberg
Jamie Steinberg

Mark Stern and his family, who live in River Vale, go to religious services together, taking “the teachings and prayers into our home and integrating them into our daily home life,” he said.

That’s true for many of us — but it’s not always true for families like the Sterns. Mark is deaf, and his wife, Carolyn, has a significant hearing loss.

Fortunately, their synagogue — Temple Beth Or in Washington Township — provides sign language interpreters for the High Holidays and for occasional Shabbat services, other holidays, and special events. This year, interpreters will be present at services for erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah morning, Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur morning, and the Yom Kippur family service.

Mr. Stern said he is “delighted” that the shul provides this accommodation, allowing him, “as a deaf TBO congregant, to more fully participate in both worship and the TBO community. Not only can I follow along with the prayers and the liturgy but also, equally important, the teachings of Rabbi Noah Fabricant and Cantor Sarah Silverberg. Providing interpreters is a powerful statement of how TBO strives to be inclusive of a variety of congregants’ needs.”

In addition, and of particular benefit to his wife, he said, TBO has an assistive listening system in the sanctuary for people who can hear with the help of amplifying hearing aids.

Jamie Steinberg, a nationally certified sign language interpreter for the past 20 years — and a member of the congregation — said that all the interpreters at the High Holy Days services are professionally trained. And while this year they are all Jewish, she said, it is possible for a non-Jew to fill this role, given sufficient knowledge of Jewish texts and ritual.

While the Sterns are the shul’s only deaf congregants, Rabbi Fabricant made it clear last year that “if any other deaf members of the community want to come, they are welcome too,” Ms. Steinberg said. In fact, two people from the larger community did come. “I’ve heard rumors that some more people will come on those days” this year, she added.

Because she is not fluent in Hebrew, Ms. Steinberg works with an English translation of the prayers. “I use what I know as anchors, to try to stay with the text,” she said. Different interpreters have different approaches, she added. “I come with a binder, translations, and transliterations, and I listen. Some prayers I just know, like the Shema. Some longer texts I can chant or sing but I’m not sure of the exact translation.”

How she translates them into American Sign Language may differ from another interpreter’s translation. “There’s always discretion because it’s a language,” she said, noting that different people may make a different word choice or use a synonym. “Someone might sign something a bit differently than I might, or translate it slightly differently. Language isn’t precise.” This doesn’t matter, she said, “as long as the meaning and intent is conveyed.” She noted that last year, hearing congregants reported “learning something from listening and watching at the same time. One person said, ‘When I hear baruch, I see the sign for blessing.’ It makes them curious.”

As for the trope, or the musical motifs that underlie the prayers, “I can’t really convey that,” she said. However, she noted, “signing involves the full body, facial expressions, body movement. You do show some of that music with your hands in terms of louder or softer, lower or higher. Some of it does get conveyed.”

In addition, she said, some words necessarily must be changed to be relevant to the audience. For example, “while Shema literally means ‘Hear O Israel,’ signing the word ‘hear’ to the deaf doesn’t make sense.” Instead, she tries to convey something like, ‘Pay attention Jewish people.’”

As far as Ms. Steinberg knows, there is no “frozen text” for the ASL translation. She noted, however, that in the signing of Christian texts, “‘Our father who art in heaven’ is interpreted the same way wherever you go. In the Jewish service, the closest thing would be the Shema, but I have seen variations.” Not only does it depend on translation, but it depends as well on whether the service is taking place in a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox synagogue.

Reform, for example, “is egalitarian, so there will be more gender equal and gender neutral language than in an Orthodox service. Also, there are parts of different prayers that the Reform don’t do, but the Orthodox and Conservative do.” To add to the complexity, “there are 300 sign languages in the world, and languages are culturally based. There’s actually Israeli and Bedouin sign language.” In the United States and most of Canada, only American Sign Language is used for Jewish religious services.

Ms. Steinberg said that in her experience, it has proven valuable to “get as much preparatory material as possible. You need to know what you’re walking into. I worked at colleges for a while. Sometimes they had a guest speaker.” Either you interpret on the fly or, if you can get the speech in advance, you can check a word you don’t know or prepare to deal with an idiom. “A speaker one time started with a phrase in Korean. I had to figure out both the language and the meaning.”

While there isn’t a greater need for signing now than there used to be, still “it’s a growing phenomenon because now the need is being addressed more,” Ms. Steinberg said. The odds of finding a sign-language-interpreted service also depends on where you are. In Washington, D.C., which has Gallaudet University — identified on its website as “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students” — “there’s more of a need for various perspectives than in more rural or suburban areas,” Ms. Steinberg said.

“I have used interpreters at other temples all over the country ever since I was 15 years old, wherever school, work, and travel took me, including Washington, D.C., Palo Alto, San Francisco, Sacramento, Boston, and the greater New York City area,” Mr. Stern said. “Not only have I used them for the High Holy Days, but also for b’nai mitzvahs, Shabbat services, weddings, [britot], baby namings, and funerals — all the Jewish lifecycle events. I would not know what I know about Judaism now without such interpreters. “

According to Ms. Steinberg, debates continue to rage over whether the deaf should be taught sign language or speech. She noted that deaf actor and model Nyle DiMarco — the second male winner and the first deaf winner of the CW’s America’s Next Top Model Cycle 22 as well as the winner, the following year, of the ABC televised dance competition “Dancing with the Stars” — is an activist and advocate for the deaf who believes strongly that you should teach deaf children ASL, and teach English as a second language. 

“It’s easier with a language base,” she said. “Some children are starting kindergarten with no language. You’re teaching them to try to say sounds they can’t hear. It’s harder when there’s no language base.”

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