Translating the mysterious sound of the shofar for deaf congregants

Written by

This weekend marks the culmination of the Days of Awe, a time of intense soul-searching that began with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Jewish communities gather to listen to the trumpet-like blast of the shofar, a ram’s horn, to wake themselves up to the hopes and possibilities of a new year.

It’s one of Judaism’s most powerful traditions. But what happens if you can’t hear the shofar? Is the spiritual in the sound?

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf spends a lot of time thinking about these questions. The Northridge, California synagogue rents a chapel from a hearing synagogue, Temple Ahavat Shalom. Like any hearing community, Beth Solomon plans retreats, organizes weekly card games and has an active sisterhood — but from there, things get a little different. With imagination, creativity, and sign language, Rabbi Deborah Goldman and interpreter Jan Seeley work to bring an ancient tradition to the deaf world.

The sound of the shofar is a mysterious, ineffable feeling even in the hearing world. But at a synagogue for the deaf, the unhearable sound might be almost entirely lost in translation. That’s why Rabbi Deborah asks her congregants to focus on the shofar’s vibrations instead. In order to experience the haunting blast, she encourages everyone to hold on to balloons, the wooden podium, or even the shofar itself.

The effects are polarizing because there’s a whole spectrum of deafness at the synagogue. Some congregants are completely deaf, others are hard of hearing, and some have cochlear implants. For synagogue president Joe Slotnick, the shofar simply doesn’t translate. Joe’s world is completely silent. He can feel the shofar’s vibrations, but that doesn’t make it meaningful for him. “If a big truck goes by outside and you were holding a balloon and you felt the vibration, would you connect that vibration with the truck? Just the same thing with the shofar,” he says.

Instead, Joe’s spiritual wake up call has to be seen. When he remembers moments of awe in his life, what comes to mind is a beautiful snowfall during his childhood in Massachusetts. For him, that’s what a spiritual feeling looks like.

Other deaf congregants find the shofar deeply moving. Florence Haberman lost her hearing after two traumatic falls when she was a child. Even though she’s deaf, she can hear loud sounds with the help of her hearing aids. Growing up in a family that regularly attended a hearing synagogue, Florence found her religion isolating and confusing. It wasn’t until she heard the ear-splitting shofar blast that something finally reached her. It’s one of the few sounds that truly resonates.

In the Jewish tradition, the Days of Awe are about the idea of teshuvah, or return. It means returning to yourself, apologizing for missteps, and remembering what really matters. The shofar helps Florence remember a time when she could still hear Jewish music and prayers before her accident. Whether it’s a haunting sound, a deep vibration, or the memory of snowfall, the congregants at Beth Solomon find a way to return to themselves while looking forward to the year ahead.

SCRIPT Shara Morris and Jen Rice for KCRW’s Independent Producer Project