By Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff
Director, Jewish Deaf Multimedia
A quick trivia question for you: Who was the first person to teach a deaf person to speak?
The answer: A Jew by the name of Jacob Péreire.
Yeah, I was suprised too. But according to Wikipedia:
Jacob Rodrigue Péreire formulated signs for numbers and punctuation and adapted Juan Pablo Bonet's manual alphabet by adding 30 handshapes each corresponding to a sound instead of to a letter. He is therefore seen as one of the inventors of manual language for the deaf and is credited with being the first person to teach a non-verbal deaf person to speak.
So bascially he invented a form of Cued Speech, and used it to teach deaf people to understand the concept of sounds. From there, he was able to teach deaf people to speak. Interesting, huh?
When I was in Paris last month for a friend's wedding, I was assigned the task (by my dear step-father Kenneth Rothschild) of visiting Monsieur Péreire's resting place to take some photos of the tombstone. So I asked a friend to join me, and off we went.
We arrived at the cemetery - the Cimetière de Montmartre, to be exact. Sandwiched at all sides by the bustling streets of Paris, it is a quiet and introspective place to visit. We knew that the cemetery was a non-Jewish one, so we were a little suprised at the fact that Jacob Péreire was buried here. And in fact, we were quite creeped out by the sight of rows of hundreds of Gothic-style burial masoleums with non-Jewish statues and motifs. It was definitely a place where we would never want to be alone at night. My friend and I even had a little laugh at the fact that there were so many "For Sale" signs plastered on the windows of a tall apartment building nearby. Who would want to live near here?
We entered the front office and asked about this Jacob guy. The lady at the front desk said, "Aha! I know who you are talking about." She proceeded to look him up in an ancient tome with lists of burial plot locations. She found the right entry, and circled the location on a copy of the cemetery map for us.
We walked through the cemetery, taking in the "foreign" sights, and continuing to wonder why Jacob would be buried here. Finally, we came across to a section where the names started to become familiar - a "Nachum" here, a "Chaim" there, a "Judah" over there. It was the Jewish section of the cemetery. That explains.
It was quite interesting to see how run-over some of the tombstones looked; they seemed to be hundreds of years old. Vines were growing on many of them, and some seemed broken, perhaps from age. We examined each tombstone, trying to find the familiar Péreire name, but with no luck.
Then we saw it (translated here to English):
JACOB RODRIGUES PEREIRE
THE FIRST TEACHER OF DEAF-MUTES
A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE PORTUGUESE JEWISH NATION
OF BORDEAUX AND BAYONNE
MEMBER OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON
INTERPRETER AND GUEST OF THE KING
BORN IN BERLANGA, SPAIN 11 APRIL 1715
DIED IN PARIS 17 SEPTEMBER 1780
His tombstone was so big, listing many of his descendants (some of whom are illustrious in their own right). It seemed well-kept, even though we did not see any other visitors around. It felt like we were the only living people for miles around, surrounded by bone and stone.
We spent a few moments examining Monsieur Péreire's resting place and marveling at the opportunity of seeing a bit of Deaf history before our eyes.
But then it hit us - he was Jewish too. My friend asked, perhaps more rhetorically than anything else, "I wonder if anyone has said any prayers at this spot...?" On the spot, we took out our prayer books and started reciting a couple of Psalms.
Before we ended our visit, we knew that we couldn't leave without leaving a stone on his tomb. An ancient Jewish tradition, it represents perhaps the concept of a continued presence. Just as the toughness of a stone bespeaks endurance and persistence, so too should the memories and influences of departed ones be. It is as if we are saying to the soul, "We have not forgotten you. You still have a presence here in this world."
Indeed, Jacob Péreire's influence is still here. He started off a new approach in the training and development of deaf children, and it continues to develop all the way up to today.
But more importantly, he looked at deaf people and saw our potential. He knew that there was more to us, even though we seemed to be devoid of any language. And he labored to draw out that potential into the open. Aristotle pushed aside all deaf people, believing that it was impossible for us to learn anything. Many philosophers and educators followed in his tradition. But Jacob thought otherwise. He believed in us.
It behooves us all to think about our great potential, and to work to actualize it. Jacob Péreire would expect no less of us.
The stones my friend and I placed on his gravestone, I hope, will serve as a lasting reminder for us.