Deaf teenager signs her way into Jewish adulthood

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One of the first things a deaf child does is create a name.

Marissa Cohen's name sign is the three fingers that make up an American Sign Language "M" swept upward across her cheek into the sign for "smile."

Now — just days before her Aug. 24 bat mitzvah — Cohen's deeply dimpled grin is more tenuous than usual.

"I'm very nervous," she says with her hands, interpreted in sound by her mother, Cheryl Cohen. "I don't want to make any big mistakes. I sign fast. I have to slow down."

The lanky girl with the high forehead and wide, brick-red lips giggles. It's the unmistakable sound of 13-year-old laughter, but it's the only sound she makes as her long fingers etch meaning out of thin air in exacting but frenetic movements.

Like the little girl who named herself after a smile, Marissa Cohen still thinks there's nothing she can't do.

The honor student at Fremont's California School for the Deaf is a serious dancer, following visual cues and her own internal rhythms to learn ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop. Two years ago, she decided she wanted to have a bat mitzvah, conducting the entire service herself. This weekend, that is what she'll do.

"Deaf doesn't mean stupid. It just means I can't hear. Deaf kids can have bat mitzvahs, too," says Cohen, of Pleasanton.

About three times a week, she has been meeting with E.J. Cohen, a religious school instructor at Temple Beth Torah of Fremont who also teaches at the California School for the Deaf there. E.J. Cohen (no relation) translated the prayers and Torah portion from Hebrew to English, then into American Sign Language. Marissa Cohen memorized the signs.

At the service, the teacher will be chanting, the teen will be signing and Rabbi Jerry Levi will officiate.

"She's been a wonderful student," says E.J. Cohen. "I'm almost as nervous as she is. She teases me that this is like my second bat mitzvah. If she stutters, I'll stutter. I'll have to follow her."

It's not likely Marissa Cohen will crumble in front of an audience. After all, the 13-year-old says she wants nothing more than to be "a movie star" one day. Already, she has an agent and has appeared in a commercial for AT&T, which was shown in Philadelphia, where the Cohen family lived before moving to the Bay Area in 1995.

"There aren't enough deaf people on TV and in movies. I wish there was," Cohen says, playing with her copious strands of silver charm necklaces.

Identified with severe to profound hearing loss at 18 months, Cohen is used to feeling isolated. Those closest to her, including three siblings, her parents and even her dance teacher, have learned to speak in her language. But as often as not, Cohen is without a means to connect to hearing children her own age.

That was especially true at the family's synagogue back in Philadelphia, where according to her mother, Cohen "was the only deaf girl. She hated it. She was very lonely there." Because of Beth Torah's proximity to the nationally known School for the Deaf, the synagogue has a well-established program for deaf students.

Cohen's bat mitzvah there will be open to the public, and attended by deaf and hearing friends and family alike.

Despite feeling nervous, Cohen wants to show as many people as possible that deaf children "can learn anything we want."