This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “Call It Silence,” a book review published in New York Newsday. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published non-fiction writer. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
New York Newsday | Sunday, October 28, 1990
IN SILENCE: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World, by Ruth Sidransky. St. Martin’s, 335 pp., $18.95
By Barbara Finkelstein
Picture Miriam Sidransky, deaf and shrilly vocal, as she negotiates a sale with the kosher butcher, and you will have to question Keats’ notion that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are even sweeter.” Miriam’s daughter, Ruth, discredits similar romantic conceits and the many more brutal misconceptions people held about her deaf parents in In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World. This affecting memoir, set mostly in the Bronx of the 1930s and 1940s, debunks many of the stereotypes associated with deafness, and while the author’s voice is autobiographical, it calls to mind the essay by Susan Sontag in which the critic warns against using illness as a metaphor. As an advocate for the deaf, Ruth Sidransky also would argue that mythologizing a physical condition such as deafness rarely benefits the person afflicted.
Sidransky, herself endowed with “acute hearing,” grew up with an insider’s knowledge of the deaf. Born in 1929 to deaf parents, she used sign language and garbled speech until the age of five. In public school, the administration regarded her as mentally retarded until her mother bravely intervened with hand signs and written notes to explain otherwise. Within a week, Ruth was in a class for normal children, and eventually entered a class for gifted students. Before the end of her school career, she not only received a Phi Beta Kappa key, but also had defended her parents in court before a judge who callously referred to Miriam and “Daddy Ben” as deaf and dumb.
Frequently a tribute to her parents’ wisdom, In Silence decries the far greater injustice committed against Miriam and Ben Sidransky. Both of them came of age under a draconian “educational” system for the deaf whose course of instruction consisted of lip reading and oral drills. “Signing” incurred corporal punishment. Consequently, Ruth’s intelligent parents never were able to read anything more complicated than a newspaper. Indeed, Miriam, who was born deaf, liked school only on the day she and the other deaf girls were punished for stealing cookies: They were not allowed to go to class and stayed in bed all day signing to each other. Small wonder that Miriam quit school before graduation.
Daddy Ben’s loathing of formal “education” was even more tragic. A hound for factual information and a passionate collector of words, he quit school to learn the upholstery trade. He was hampered further in his intellectual curiosity by his own father, a remote personality who rarely if ever attempted to communicate with his son. Despite suffering nicknames such as “Dummy,” Ben — deaf since the age of two, after a case of meningitis — remained good-natured and mischievous. His wit was much in evidence as he pantomimed Charlie Chaplin or picked imaginary lint from his jacket to capture the essence of a fastidious gentleman. He “saw” the spoken words “chop suey” as “jubba juice” and was hard-pressed to refer to the dish in any other way. Ben’s delight in words no doubt contributed to his daughters creation of a fantasy language in which pieces of crunched paper became “gribble balls,” mashed potatoes were “shalamous potatoes” and God’s oracular response from the heavens was “Bertuple!”
In Silence is interesting not only for its view of the deaf subculture, but also as a portrait of the Depression. Here Sidransky creates several skillful vignettes of the dispossessed deaf. She recalls Ruben Tunik, a handbag maker who invented a window-washer seat after he lost his factory job. Ruben could not explain his invention to manufacturers and nobody bought it. Penniless, he jumped off the tar roof of his Bronx tenement. “At his side was an unused gun and in his breast pocket there was a smashed picture frame that sliced his mother’s picture in two.” Louis K., another family friend, “lay in days of unrecognized death” before his wealthy brother and sister buried him. Cruelly, Louis’ family did not tell his deaf friends where the cemetery was. “Son-of-a-bitch hearing people,” Ben swore. “Never caring for the deaf.”
Having witnessed too many examples of financial failure and despair throughout her childhood, Sidransky acquired that “thirst for education” that many of her peers — deaf and hearing — saw as their ticket out of the Jewish slums.
If anything undercuts the strength of In Silence, it is the author’s unnecessary rhapsodic tone. Nearly every page attests to her love for “words that streamed forth on waves of sound.” One ironic passage in which Sidransky decries sentimentality goes on to declare sentimentally that her voice “was the floe upon which I anchored.” Many other sections crumple under the weight of truly uninsightful cliche, from the “laughter of Twain and the sadness to Dickens” to our “developing young love.”
Toward the end of the book, Sidransky intimates that she rejected sign language for a while, but gives no details. She merely chides herself for having been a fool. A more serious omission is the author’s younger brother, whom she mentions but never characterizes. It is curious too that Sidransky does not speculate about the congenital deafness of three uncles. Neither does she discuss her own children at any length. Such shortcomings mar the memoir.
Yet the picture Ruth Sidransky paints of her deaf family makes In Silence worthwhile. One is left marveling at Miriam, uninformed about the importance of Passover to Jews, and Ben, exempted by rabbinical injunction from having a bar mitzvah because the deaf are not valid witnesses to Jewish law: They both died in their eighties believing that “God make life . . . Life, death, all big thrill.” The reader too wants to shout, as a mourner did at Ben’s funeral, “God, do you know who you are getting?”
Barbara Finkelstein is the author of Summer Long-a-coming, a novel.