Interpreters for deaf bring seder to life

When Cheryl Cohen's deaf daughter, Marissa, couldn't fully participate in the Passover seder, Cohen did what any conscientious mother would do. She lobbied the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, which had organized the Women's seder, to include an interpreter.

Now in its third year, the East Bay Women's Community Seder regularly includes two interpreters. Cheryl Cohen chaired this year's event, held Sunday at Centennial Hall in Hayward.

Cohen, who lives in Pleasanton, explained the need for two interpreters.

"It's very taxing. Interpreters work 20 minutes; you need two so they can switch off."

Also, she said, one interpreter might be more comfortable signing Hebrew. Other times, interpreters create their own signs.

How does one sign "charoset," for example?

"Well, you can finger spell out the letters," said Cohen, "or you can sign the created version, 'apples and nuts mixed up.'"

During the Haggadah reading, the interpreters sit with the deaf guests. Typically, two to four deaf people attend the event.

"Sometimes people are surprised to hear that an interpreter is present," said Cohen with a laugh. "Last year many didn't know until the interpreters and the deaf participants were called up to sign 'Dayenu.'"

Cohen's 17-year-old daughter enjoyed that moment.

"When I went on stage and signed the last prayer," said Marissa Cohen during an online interview, "it was a beautiful vision to see 600 women staring at me! I felt like a celebrity."

Another attraction for Marissa was the dancing.

"I usually don't like watching interpreters sign prayers because I can't hear any of it," she shared, "but I LOVE to FEEL the rhythm of music. With 600 women full of spirit, these women have a lot of energy to dance."

Cheryl Cohen originally found the signers through the Directory of Interpreters, looking for those who were comfortable with Judaic interpreting.

Bobbe Skiles of San Leandro, one of this year's two interpreters, got involved with interpreting 25 years ago when her children were small.

"Learning to interpret was my adult interaction," said Skiles. "And Passover was always one of my favorite holidays, so I enjoy interpreting the service."

Usually the bulk of Skiles' work involves legal issues; she sometimes flies out of state to interpret.

The other interpreter at this year's Women's seder, back for her second year, was Ann Ben Shalom. The El Cerrito resident learned sign language in 1980 as a way to communicate with a deaf co-worker. Then, years later, her sister had a deaf baby.

Now a freelance interpreter, Ben Shalom has worked at various locations — from a local residential drug rehab program to Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

She was offered the opportunity to sign at the women's seder when E.J. Cohen, a well-known interpreter, was out of town. She is not related to Cheryl Cohen.

"I was scared going there, and not being E.J, but once I relaxed, I had a good time," said Ben Shalom. "Then, there's the overwhelming positive feeling everyone leaves with."

Cheryl Cohen also interprets. Together with her daughter, she has welcomed people to a program of the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival at the School for the Deaf in Fremont.

"I was her voice," said Cohen.

The Women's seder attracted 375 people this year, according to Riva Gambert, director of education and culture for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. She explained some of the additional rituals in the service.

"We traditionally have a Miriam's Cup in the middle of the table. Everyone has water and pours it into the cup. This symbolizes giving something back. It's a way to honor the spirit of Miriam."

And how does one sign Miriam?

In the deaf culture, only deaf people have the right to create signs for people's names, according to Marissa Cohen. "We sign Miriam by signing with the letter "M" on our heart, because she has a full heart for all women.

"And that kind of thing hearing people can't create."

Marissa sees this spirit within her mother.

"I am glad my mom worked her butt off for the Seder. EVERY SINGLE DAY I saw her working! It was worth it."

Now several East Bay Jewish organizations regularly provide interpreters. Temple Beth Torah in Fremont has interpreters for one Friday night service a month. Interpreters were present at the recent "Havdalah Under the Stars" held in February at the Chabot Space Center in Oakland. Also, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay provides a fund to include interpreters at Jewish events.

"It's been a struggle to make Jewish education accessible," said Cheryl Cohen, "but we've made progress."