Jews have been known as the “people of the book” for centuries, a description I’ve always found to be both apt and amusing. Books and written materials are a huge part of Jewish practice, but I have always been seriously disconnected from this unique part of our tradition.
I grew up low vision and became seriously visually impaired at age 15. My family being largely secular (celebrating Hanukkah and Passover only), I never had a bat mitzvah ceremony, and it wasn’t until college that I walked into my first synagogue.
Despite my lack of overall Jewish education, I had always wanted to be involved. Every year in grade school we would have off for Rosh Hashanah, which around middle school I figured out was the Jewish New Year. Having no idea what one was supposed to actually do on the holiday, I made sure to get up early and put on a pretty dress. Then I went downstairs and found the book with the pretty shiny golden symbols on the side that I wasn’t supposed to touch because it was delicate, and I opened to a random page and read from the bible for the first time until my eyes hurt.
Unsurprisingly, when I went to college I immediately sought out Jewish life on campus. Unfortunately it turned out to not be a very welcoming group. So instead, I spoke with a friend of a friend, who recommended a synagogue in town that happened to be right next to campus. From the moment my guide dog and I stepped into the building and sat down for our first service, I was in love. The melodies and rhythm of the service swept me away, and it didn’t matter that I could no longer read small print the way I had in middle school.
Despite my growing interest, I didn’t have the opportunity to get my hands on a braille copy of a siddur (prayer book) until about a year and a half ago—roughly eight years after walking into my first synagogue.
It never really occurred to me that I might be missing out in some way. I had access to a plethora of Jewish learning websites that my computer could read to me, and was able to take classes at the synagogue. I even had an opportunity to study abroad in Israel for a year. My lack of access to texts certainly never got in the way of me eventually finding my place in the Modern Orthodox movement. What could I possibly have been missing out on after immersing myself in Jewish songs, culture, and being surrounded by the literal land of Israel?
What pushed me to finally get it together and track down braille resources wasn’t my sudden curiosity about Jewish texts. It spurred from an onset of hearing loss around my 26th birthday (coincidentally also around Passover) and being told that one day, I would possibly go completely deaf. This abrupt shove into the world of DeafBlindness forced me to realize that the only connection to Judaism I had was auditory. It was the prospect of eventually being entirely robbed of that connection that caused me to take learning and using braille seriously.
Luckily I had been taught braille in high school, so I was not starting from scratch. But I still needed a serious refresher course, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. But practicing on one type of text will only get you so far. In order to get a varied vocabulary and develop good reading techniques (which in braille means learning to recognize words, and have good reading posture), you have to read articles, poetry, long texts, and yes, books. As it turns out, Jewish texts naturally lend themselves to this sort of thing.
So, for the summer of 2016, I decided that my goal was to be able to read the Rosh Hashanah prayer book by the holidays in English (though I did spend time learning the braille Hebrew alphabet in case I needed it). I dedicated myself to reading the tehillim (psalms) every day, and reading through the daily morning and afternoon prayers. I practiced reading Torah using a device known as a braille display connected to my computer. I also met with a friend once a week to study Perkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) because I needed to practice reading aloud with someone to help correct me. Basically, when I wasn’t practicing my American Sign Language skills or filling out paperwork applying for various disability-related necessities, I was practicing my braille.
The month before Rosh Hashanah shifted to full-on High Holiday prep. My friend came by and sat with me for hours with a pile of post-it notes, rubber bands, and paper clips marking up my prayer book so I could easily flip through the pages.
When the big day finally arrived, it was like having my world expand. Though the tunes were more muted than years past, I had inadvertently discovered the beauty that was having full access on Rosh Hashanah. For the first time, I didn’t have to awkwardly stand around while other people read the silent Amidah. Nor did I have to be curious about what Torah section was being read. Surprisingly, the prayer book even included some helpful explanations and commentaries about what was visually occurring. It was the first time I understood where in the service the Torah was physically lifted and bound.
I was intoxicated by the increased access I had to Judaism. It hit me that I had missed out on so much of my own heritage for so long.
A year later, and hundreds more hours of braille practice behind me, I once again am looking forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since falling in love with Jewish books I have gone on to explore more of the ArtScroll siddur (an impressive 14 volumes for weekly prayers). I’ve gone on to acquire The Book of Esther, which I read for the first time this past Purim, and was fully able to engage during this year’s Passover seder. I was even able to read my part aloud! I have a braille copy of the Grace after Meals, I’ve said my own Kiddush, and have begun to read more sections of daily prayers as my reading speed increases.
I know that as the years go by I will continue to uncover treasures hidden inside texts. Sometimes I am embarrassed by how little I know about Jewish books, but ultimately I know that Judaism is a life-long learning adventure. Embracing braille has empowered me to continue this process and remain connected to my Jewish heritage despite the impending loss of two senses.