By Layla Rudy
The world today is an amalgam of human experiences, but the one thing every person has in common is the presence of coronavirus in their lives. How it manifests and impacts any one person’s life does differ, but the virus is everywhere.
Having hearing loss, wearing hearing aids, and relying on lip-reading to communicate and understand others, means that the way I experience the world is and will always be different from the norm. With that, the reality we now all live in– the reality of Covid-19, social distancing, and wearing masks– has shifted my already-complex relationship with social settings and interactions.
I rely on lip-reading to understand and communicate with others. If I cannot see a person’s mouth, there’s a strong likelihood that I won’t understand what they’re saying. Nearly every person walking down the street, shopping in supermarkets, and working in a store, is wearing a mask. Their mouths are covered.
The stress of this realization– that is, the realization of my new reality, our new reality in the world today– has been weighing down on me since March. I am constantly reminded of it every time I hook my mask around my ears and pull it over my chin to cover my nose and mouth.
Any time I express this to people, whether it’s my family, my friends, or even a supermarket cashier, their realization is cartoonish. Their eyes widen, and a little ‘Aha!” is practically floating above their head.
Of course, there isn’t much they can do in the next moment. No one can or should risk their health to pull down their mask to accommodate me.
Often, when I explain my dilemma, people respond with, “I saw this ad on Facebook for these clear face masks, so you could just buy those.” Every time, without fail, I explain that me buying those masks doesn’t mean that everyone else will; if I’m wearing one, it doesn’t help me. I would need everyone to wear a clear face mask, and that’s an unrealistic expectation.
As much as this is a lonely experience, the little “Aha!” moment I’ve witnessed when I relay my concerns to others has made me think.
There I was, in a supermarket or at the beach or talking to my neighbor, explaining my ongoing predicament navigating the current, Covid-19 world we live in, and people were listening. Sure, I walked away from them with the same weight on my shoulders, but I also walked away knowing that they– the supermarket cashier, my neighbor, a friend at the beach– would now look at the world a little bit differently than they had before I spoke up.
In light of the continuous influx of antisemitism (both over the course of the past few years and over the past few months), I have struggled with knowing when to speak up and when to sit down.
I am a Sephardic Syrian Jew living in North America; my family came from Syria last century and we’ve been here ever since. I went to yeshiva and I have lived in a Sephardic Modern Orthodox Jewish community for almost my entire life. I know antisemitism, I have experienced and witnessed antisemitism. I love my Sephardic Jewish heritage, traditions and culture; my Judaism is as intrinsic to me as my hearing loss is.
When I think about the rise of antisemitism, I feel frustrated and angry, but also exhausted. The notion of the fight against antisemitism being an endless one constantly lingers in my thoughts. The only people fighting back are Jews.
Jewish people have been talking about antisemitism. We have been urging others to see what we’ve been seeing and experiencing, and stand up and say something. The silence is loud. I can name a few prominent (non-Jewish) individuals who have spoken out and recognized the imperative need for addressing and dismantling antisemitism. The fact that I can name them off the top of my head, or count them with my fingers, is hard to swallow.
When I tell people about my current dilemma with masks, I feel seen. They listen, and while they cannot walk in my shoes or feel exactly what I feel, they know a little more than they did before. Still, they cannot pull down their masks and risk their– and everyone else’s– health in order to accommodate me and my needs, but knowing they walk away with a little more empathy and understanding of how complex the world is, makes a difference.
The difference with antisemitism is that non-Jews can do more than just listen. Listening to Jewish people is the first step, but they can also pull down their masks and start speaking up, making their mouths– and therefore, their empathy– clear for Jewish people to see. By not doing so, Non-Jews are putting Jewish people at risk.
When I ask my non-Jewish friends to speak out against antisemitism, I am not asking them to spew out the history of Jewish people and antisemitism, nor am I asking them to become professional Judaism experts. It doesn’t take a lot to recognize bigotry and hatred. It doesn’t take a lot to condemn an act of antisemitism or an individual’s antisemitic beliefs. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize and call out antisemitism.
Everyone has to start somewhere. That means, they have to start by listening to Jewish people. I recognize the irony of someone with hearing loss telling people to listen, but it’s the truth.
When I explained to a friend of mine that I was having a hard time understanding people when they wear masks, it took her a second, but her mindset completely shifted. She does know me well, and she knows how to accommodate me in regular social settings, so it didn’t take her long to recognize my predicament and adjust. When another person had joined in our conversation, before I could even respond to whatever they had said, my friend jumped in and motioned for me to explain myself to the person (who then had the realization, as well).
In the past, my friend had listened. She knows my history, my ongoing journey with navigating social, educational and work spaces with hearing loss and a reliance on lip-reading. It took her a second to realize my newer difficulty in our Covid-19 setting, then she adjusted accordingly and gave me the space to inform others. She had listened in the first place, years ago when I started speaking out and explaining how my hearing loss impacts every part of my life.
Most people haven’t been listening to Jewish people in the first place, so how can we expect them to speak up now?
De-centering oneself doesn’t mean losing empathy. It means listening when people have something to say, whether it’s your friend venting about their online classes or your mother talking to you about balancing work and health. It doesn’t mean stepping out of your shoes, because if you’re not Jewish, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish; if you’re not hard of hearing, you don’t know what it’s like to live with hearing loss.
Listening is a gateway to empathy. It is a necessary tool to use when interacting with others; it doesn’t mean I can’t tell my friend about my annoyance with my online classes, and it doesn’t mean that my non-Jewish friends can’t express their own fears in relation to antisemitism.
When I tell people about my struggle with others wearing masks, I am not offended by them saying, “oh, I also have a hard time understanding people wearing masks.” When people mention the advertisements for the clear face masks, I don’t roll my eyes or shut them down. Why should I? It shows they’re engaged with my experiences; they see I’m struggling with something and they’re trying to empathize.
It’s so easy to flip that narrative. I could say they’re attempting to belittle my struggle by saying they’re also having a hard time understanding people when they speak; I could roll my eyes at the suggestion for clear face masks as a one-and-done solution to my problem. I don’t. I recognize them trying to bridge a gap and make a connection, empathizing with something that doesn’t directly impact them. It means a lot to me, even if there isn’t much anyone can do except wear masks and follow the rules so we can eventually get out of this difficult situation.
Much like my circumstances, there is no one-and-done solution for antisemitism. People listen to me when I explain my experiences with hearing loss, and not just within the context of the coronavirus pandemic. People are capable of listening, of de-centering themselves while still remaining empathetic. I know it because I’ve witnessed it.
Antisemitism is one part of the Jewish experience. It’s most certainly not the defining part of Judaism or the Jewish experience, but it is a concern that impacts all of us Jews. Jewish people have been speaking out for awhile now, for years, and people haven’t been listening. We aren’t asking for non-Jews to hand us the solution, we’re asking for non-Jews to be part of the solution.
Hatred and bigotry cannot be dismantled alone. It starts with listening and empathy, and that doesn’t take much. Think back to the scenario with my friend: she didn’t offer a solution to my hearing loss and reliance on lip-reading (and I never asked for one), she had listened– both in the past and a few moments before– and did what she could do in her position to allow me to speak and feel more comfortable.
While I cannot expect people to pull down their masks and risk everyone’s health so that I can read their lips, I know I’m being heard when I explain myself.
I cannot expect non-Jews to step out of their own shoes and suddenly know what it’s like to be Jewish, but I need to be heard when I implore them to speak out against antisemitism. So, to any person reading this, Jewish or otherwise: it’s time to start listening to Jewish people. Not listening is being complacent and actively harmful. By not listening to Jewish people, you are putting us at risk.
This article was edited by Amirah Khan.