Matchmakers are known for being a talkative sort, but when Sam and Rachelle Landau practice their art, it’s all in the hands.
The Landaus, the world’s only deaf Jewish matchmakers, ply their trade via fax machine, teletypewriter telephone and computer at their Elizabeth, N.J., home. Being cut off from the primary tool of modern romance — the telephone — comes with its challenges. Last week, when one of the Landaus’ clients got lost on the way to a first date, the lack of a nearby TTY telephone left both parties wandering. The relationship was almost called off.
The occasional communication barrier between clients, though, is the least of the Landaus’ problems in trying to bring together deaf Jews. There are, by most counts, no more than 20,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing Jews in America — most of them elderly — and few of them have access to a Jewish community that can address their needs. The general deaf community, on the other hand, is far more accessible, and it is there, the Landaus say, that most deaf Jews end up socializing — and finding spouses.
“In America, it’s very difficult for Jewish deaf people to find each other,” Sam Landau said through an interpreter. “The identity is usually, ‘First I’m a deaf person, second I’m a Jew.’”
Despite this, the Landaus estimate that they have been the force behind 10 marriages and countless near misses in the course of their own 30-year union. The work has required quick thinking and a willingness to travel great distances. This past week, the Landaus went to Florida with many of their clients for what is perhaps the best place to find other single deaf Jews: the biennial Jewish Deaf Congress. But when that event ends, the Landaus are left more or less on their own with the task of crafting one of the most essential building blocks of Jewish life: the shidduch, or match.
The enormous distances their clients are willing to travel are evident from the personal ads listed in the newsletter the Landaus publish twice a year. A recent listing from a 36-year-old South African woman is nearly indistinguishable from those found ordinarily: “Loves long walks, travel… renting movies with captions and learning something new.” But it ended with something you wouldn’t find on JDate: “Willing to live in USA.” In the Landaus’ own case, Sam moved from Israel to come live with Rachelle in America.
Sam and Rachelle Landau publish the newsletter in their respective roles as coordinator and associate coordinator of the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry, which is sponsored by Our Way, part Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for the Disabled. This is the only such program run by any of the religious movements, and everyone involved makes it clear that it is open to Jews from every denomination — as long as the mother is Jewish. Of the 58 personal ads in the May newsletter, only 13 were Orthodox. There was a Conservative Jewish woman in England and a man in Israel who labeled himself “not religious.”
One of the Landaus’ recent “projects” was Avremi Swerdlov, a 36-year-old postal worker from a Chabad Lubavitch family in Brooklyn. Swerdlov had tried dating a hearing woman in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn where he grew up but he said that “it was a waste of time.” He had grown up in a hearing family from which he had felt excluded. He didn’t want to re-create the same feeling in his marriage.
The turning point for Swerdlov came three years ago, after he was nearly killed by a fire in his parents’ home. (He couldn’t hear the alarm.) After being rescued he decided it was time for a change. “It hit me,” he said. “I’m 33 years old. I should stop taking my time.” He joined the Landaus’ registry, and when he checked into the online chatroom he found Sandra, a Toronto woman from a Reform background. Initially Sandra was dating another man, but when that was called off, Swerdlov drove straight to Toronto. In September 2003, Avremi and Sandra were married.
The basic rule for the Landaus is that Jews marry other Jews. (When talking about their work, they often tug at their chin, as if stroking a beard — the American Sign Language sign for Jewish.) Intermarriage is, of course, an issue for the hearing Jewish community, as well, but hearing people can easily stop by any one of hundreds of Jewish communal institutions in America and find a single person to talk with. There is no such variety for deaf Jews. Chicago and Los Angeles both have deaf synagogues, though neither has services year round. New York has a deaf club — Beth Torah of the Deaf — that offers lectures and other activities. And then there is the Jewish Deaf Congress, which took place in Tampa Bay, Fla., from July 3 to July 10. The organizers there guess that during its 49-year history, the biennial congresses have been responsible for 50 marriages.
But a major problem facing deaf institutions both inside and outside the Jewish world is that they no longer have the power to attract members as they once did. At one point the Jewish Deaf Congress drew 525 people, but this year only 200 attended. In the era before the Internet, TTY telephones and closed captioned television shows, deaf clubs were the only forums for deaf interaction.
“Alas, flash to today,” said Joseph Slotnick, president of Temple Beth Solomon, the deaf synagogue in Los Angeles. It was founded in the 1960s, before the TTY telephone. “Most young people today prefer other ways of getting together on Friday evenings than going to services, or they prefer going to movies with captioning.”
Even in those cities with deaf clubs, singles face difficulties. Take Mordechai Weiss, who met the Landaus when he was a shy 13-year-old Orthodox boy who did not yet know sign language. Today, Weiss is an outgoing 28-year-old architecture student and the vice president of Beth Torah of the Deaf. Weiss, in an ad placed in the Landaus’ newsletter, eagerly professed his desire to find “an Orthodox deaf girl that I feel is the right one for me.” Despite all his efforts, however, he has thus far only landed four dates with Orthodox girls — including a woman the Landaus recently set him up with. “It has been very frustrating,” Weiss wrote in an e-mail. “The Orthodox deaf girls want to marry hearing guys [who] go to Yeshiva.”
Four years ago, one of the Landaus’ clients had enough devotion to become a board member, but in the end she tired of waiting and ended up marrying a non-Jewish deaf man. The Landaus said they did not feel it was appropriate for them to attend the wedding.
In many cases, it’s a wonder people are able to preserve the Jewish connections that they do. Taking part in the life of a community centered on discussion and call-and-response prayers is not easy when you cannot hear. Rachelle Landau was the only member of her family not to go to a Jewish day school. When she enrolled in an after-school program for Jewish study, most of the lessons involved reading out loud. The other students laughed when Landau tried, and she never returned. Even today she has difficulty at synagogue; she can’t follow the service and has no way to talk with the other congregants.
Nevertheless she devotes herself to keeping the Jewish flame alive. Last week, when the aforementioned man and woman got lost trying to find their rendezvous spot, the man wandered around the city before eventually finding his way to the Landaus’ home, uncertain what else to do. When Rachelle returned from work she found him waiting in her living room. The panicked woman had e-mailed Rachelle from an Internet café. After calming her down, Landau set up another date for the two of them for the following day.
Nathaniel Popper is a staff writer for the Forward. Rukhl Schaechter is on the editorial staff of the Yiddish Forward.