First Person – God Laughs?

This column first ran on July 26, 2002, and is one of a series that the beloved former managing editor of The Journal wrote about her life and her battle with cancer. She died on Sept. 5, 2002. She was 54.

My girlfriend “E” was the first to declare what others had been observing for a while.

“God sure is having a good laugh,” she said. “You write a column called ‘A Woman’s Voice.’ And yet you have no voice.”

The irony had crossed my mind.

Lance Armstrong, the bicyclist, had testicular cancer. Beverly Sills, the opera singer, has two daughters who are deaf. Is there “meaning” in the fact that I, who have for some years traveled the country public speaking, and whose professional identity is hung up on the moniker of this column, cannot be heard?

I haven’t had a speaking voice in more than a month. I whisper, a frog croaking through the bulrushes.

My right vocal cord is paralyzed. While speaking, which I assure you doesn’t hurt, I puff like I’m running a marathon. I take an hour to eat scrambled eggs.

Still, if you ask me, God has nothing to do with it.

The loss of a voice carries a surprising spiritual threat: friends act as if some crucial part of me were gone. Inside my head, I still yammer away, brilliant on the topics of WorldCom, ImClone and Israel. But when I open my mouth, I become like Hannah before the Tabernacle. My every chortle and grimace is subject to misinterpretation.

The phone rings. The caller is disoriented: Who am I? I rush to reassure them: I’m OK. I feel fine. When I had chemotherapy, I continued to sound like myself. I would call my parents in New York right after treatment ended. Sitting tall, I was convincingly strong and congruent.

These days, without a voice, identity is not so much gone as taken on faith. I have faith that the situation is only temporary. My community has faith that I’ll be restored to myself, New York accent and all.

We are known by how we sound. Sound — our laugh, our cry, the song we hum — is the beginning of identity.

We know that God stands watch at night by the natural and unnatural sounds of the universe: the roar of the wind, the bray of the ass, the bark of a dog, the sound of a baby’s cry.

I listen for God’s comfort at night, and offer the silence of praise.

But is God laughing?

Judaism has struggled since the Holocaust to remove God from the nation’s “Most Wanted” list — the “intervening punisher God” with a wicked sense of humor.

As for you and me, the good people that bad things happen to, we’re our own worst enemy: We keep asking “Why?” as if there’s an answer. We remain committed to a God who can’t wait to pull the tablecloth out from under us.

We seek out “God the sadistic entertainer” when all other explanations fail. Lacking all other reasons, we fall back to a punitive concept, that we deserve punishment; that perhaps God never liked us to begin with.

But illness has shown me another God, one of comfort. The “loathsome trickster God” offers nothing, not even to say, “I don’t know.”

There is no reason why this has happened. Life is inherently unpredictable. Diseases, like lung cancer, have more ups and downs than a soap opera. Like “Anna Karenina” you laugh or cry, and sometimes both.

It’s funny, at least to me, that since losing my voice, I can’t interrupt anyone, not even to tell a joke. I have learned to listen to news reports rather than comment on the haircut of the newscaster. Now that I listen to conversation, I’m no longer the smartest person in any room, so far as you could tell.

The condition won’t last forever. Soon, I’ll have a silicon implant that has nothing to do with breast enhancement. I’m told it will smooth out my vocal cord and will restore my voice to normal. I’m saving my best repartee until then.

“Man plans and God laughs,” is what we say in difficult times, as if God were Henny Youngman.

If so, God can find me right here.


Hearing-Loss Growth Speaks Volumes

Catherine Strick didn’t know she was losing her hearing until five years ago when she went for her first annual physical and took a routine hearing test. Now, the 44-year-old accountant readily admits she has trouble hearing, and says people are quick to notice.

“My husband gets frustrated,” she said. “The people I work with are always repeating themselves. My cellphone is on maximum volume so people can almost hear my conversations.”

There are many reasons why people experience hearing loss — congenital ear deformities, tumors, chronic diseases, side effects of some medications, viral infections of the inner ear, and blunt trauma. However, the majority of hearing loss cases can be attributed to the simple act of growing old. As the population ages, the National Institutes of Health says hearing impairment is a growing public health concern. Nearly 28 million Americans alone currently have trouble hearing, according to the NIH, and that number is expected to double by 2030.

In addition to age, noise is also to blame. Baby boomers are experiencing hearing loss earlier than previous generations as a result of too much time spent listening to loud music, living in noisy, urban environments, and working in fields like construction or welding.

“Every time people are exposed to loud noises for sustained periods of time, they are at risk of losing hair cells in the inner ear or cochlear,” said Dr. Hamid R. Djalilian, an assistant professor of surgery at UCLA. “Stereos and personal music devices turned to a loud level can cause damage to hearing over time. Once people get to the age of 50 and 60, when the age-related hearing loss starts, they have already lost many hair cells and the cumulative effect starts affecting them more severely.”

The normal ear contains about 15,000 hair cells, said Dr. John House, president of the House Ear Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization in Los Angeles. The hair cells are nerve endings that, like the pianos on a keyboard, control the high and low frequencies of sound.

“These nerve endings convert vibration to an electrical impulse which travels to the brain where it is interpreted as sound,” he said.

Hearing loss often takes up to 10 years to be detected because damage to the hair cells occurs over time.

“As we age, we lose hair cells, especially in the higher frequency range, and it’s those higher frequencies that help us distinguish words,” said Dr. Andrea Vambutas, medical director of the Apelian Cochlear Implant Center at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset, N.Y.

Progress to combat the effects of hearing loss is being explored on many fronts. “At the House Ear Institute, we are doing research into hair cell regeneration,” House said. “Some day we’d like to be able to regrow those little hair cells and reverse hearing loss.”

Although research has shown that hair cells can be regenerated in deaf animals, Djalilian says it will be years before tests are done on humans.

Cochlear implants, are surgically implanted devices that include a headpiece, speech processor, receiver and an implanted stimulator. They are generally used in people with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. The implants take over all the work of transmitting external sound to the brain. In the next five years, newer models are expected to restore hearing in frequencies that conventional hearing aids do not help, meaning more people will benefit.

An auditory brainstem implant that bypasses the ear and hearing or auditory nerves altogether, and is implanted directly on the brainstem, is offering hope to patients who are deaf as a result of tumors in both auditory nerves. It includes an external microphone and battery pack, but Vambutas says hearing different sounds at high or low frequencies is still difficult.

People who experience the most common age- or noise-related hearing loss can benefit now from the significant advances that have been made with digital hearing aids. They are smaller, and more powerful, audiologist Barbara Olsen said, and can be programmed to suit an individual’s hearing loss. They reduce background noise interference, which was common among older analog models, and cancel out annoying feedback. Newer ones can also adjust automatically to the environment the wearer is in, whether it’s a noisy office or a quiet living room.

“It makes it more palatable for people,” she said.

Despite the newer technology, only 25 percent of people who need hearing aids actually wear them.

Jean McCarthy of Sayville, N.Y., was hesitant to wear a hearing aid until three years ago because her mother had such a difficult time with the old, larger analog type.

“I went through so much with my mom. If she walked in a room with four or five people in it, she could hardly stand it. Everything was magnified. Every noise sounded 10 times louder than it was. I really didn’t want to deal with it.”

In fact, McCarthy didn’t seek help until her children convinced her to. Now, that she wears a digital hearing aid, the 74-year-old retired school nurse said, “I’m amazed at how wonderful it is.”

Vanity is another reason people won’t wear hearing aids.

“Most people don’t like wearing hearing aids because they don’t want to appear old or deaf,” Djalilian said. The cost of hearing aids can also be prohibitive. Most are not covered by insurance, and can run anywhere from $400 to $3,000 per ear depending upon the hearing aid.

Unfortunately, avoiding treatment can impact not only the individual, but also their loved ones, said Richard Carmen, an audiologist and author of “How Hearing Loss Impacts Relationships” (Auricle Ink Publishers). Relationships become strained when there is constant miscommunication and self-denial of a condition that is easily treated. “It leads to a tremendous amount of frustration. That wears down family relationships very quickly.”

Rosemary Briggs of Massapequa Park, N.Y., got her hearing aids after “my husband said you’ve got to do something. It’s getting everyone upset that you’re not hearing.”

Now, nearly 20 years later, she says her children still get frustrated with her: “My children should be more patient.”

Strick, who is one of Briggs’ daughters, agrees. “I should realize that I know what it’s like for me, but I don’t,” she said.

And despite her own awareness, Strick says she still isn’t ready to wear a hearing aid herself.

“It’s like wearing glasses. When you start wearing them, you say this is amazing. But then you become so dependent on the glasses that you can’t function. Say I wear a hearing aid and I can’t hear without it. What happens when I go to the beach or swimming in the pool? Will I not be able to wear them and then I won’t be able to hear my kids? My feeling is, until it gets to the point where it’s really bad, I won’t do it.”

Debbe Geiger is a freelance writer specializing in health and science.

Preventing Hearing Loss

Like eating right and daily exercise, taking care of your hearing is part of living a healthy lifestyle. Here’s what you need to do to protect your hearing and prevent hearing loss in the future:

• Turn down the volume when listening to the stereo, using iPods and other personal music devices. If you’re using headphones or tiny earbuds that fit in the ear canal and the music can be heard by people other than you, it’s probably too loud.

• Wear ear plugs or other protective hearing devices during rock concerts or noisy events like car races. Protect your ears when playing or working in noisy environments like hunting, during construction, or at home, mowing the lawn, using a leaf blower or chain saw.

• Ask your physician for regular hearing exams.

• See your doctor immediately if you experience sudden hearing loss.

Debbe Geiger is a freelance writer specializing in health and science.

The Blow by Blow on Shofarim

Yossi Mizrachi stood in front of a class of second-graders at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy with a dark, ridged, 4-foot-long buffalo horn in his hand.

"Can we use this for a shofar?" he asked the class, who started cooing in awe at the enormous horn.

"The buffalo is a kosher animal," Mizrachi said, before taking the horn and putting it over his shoulder so it looked like a shofar musket. "But did you ever see a rabbi carrying a shofar that looked like this to shul?"

Mizrachi was at Harkham Hillel with his colleague, Alti Burston, to teach the second-graders how to make shofars. The two men, both in their early 20s, have been traveling all over California for the past couple of weeks with a mobile shofar factory, stopping in different classrooms and synagogues to give people a chance to make their own shofars for Rosh Hashanah.

A shofar is a hollowed-out animal horn, that has a hole pierced through the cartilage end. When air is forced through the shofar, it acts as an instrument of sorts, emitting a plaintive wail. By controlling the amount of air going through the shofar, the wail can be manipulated to create different sounds.

Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a mitzvah from the Torah, and, as Mizrachi told the class, the reason we blow it is because it acts as a spiritual "alarm clock," reminding us to wake up and to repent.

While most of the shofars being blown in synagogues are slick and shiny factory processed ram’s horns, the coarse prototypes produced in this makeshift factory (sponsored by Chabad Youth Programs) are just as kosher, and create a sound that is as sharp and clear.

In the classroom, Mizrachi and Burston use a display of pictures of different horned animals and two stuffed sheep busts on loan from the Museum of Natural History to tell the class which animals can and can’t be used to make a shofar. Animals like giraffes and deer are out because the protrusions on the top of their heads are not actually horns but ossicones (for giraffes) and antlers (deer). However, the kudu — an African animal with a long curly horn that Sephardic communities prefer to use as their shofar — the ram, the gemsbok and the ibex, all have the rounded horns that can be used as a shofar.

Despite its impressive size, the buffalo horn, it turns out, is not permissible to use as a shofar, because the buffalo is from the cow family. As Mizrachi explained to the class, we tend to steer clear of cow-related shofars because we don’t want to remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf on the day we are hoping to get into His good graces.

"The significance of the shofar being curved means that sometimes we take our will, and we don’t do only what we want to do, but we do what Hashem wants us to do," Mizrachi said. "We bend our will to do what Hashem wants."

To make the shofar, Mizrachi took a ram’s horn, which unlike the light yellow shofars seen in synagogues, was a blackish gray, and called for a strong volunteer from the class. A student named Amanda stood up to the challenge, and with Mizrachi assisting her, used a pair of pliers to extract the bone inside the wide end of the horn. The class gave her a round of applause.

Mizrachi called for more volunteers who took turns sanding down the horn with sand paper. Mizrachi then took a piece of plastic and stuck it through the wide end of the horn to measure for cartilage, noting where the cartilage began. He handed the shofar to Burston, who used a little saw to cut through the cartilage.

Then the drilling began. Mizrachi dressed Avi, another student, in safety goggles and a helmet, and together they held the electric drill, using the cone bit to create the mouthpiece on the shofar. With a great flourish, Mizrachi blew through the hole, ostensibly to see if it had gone all the way through. A cloud of keratin (the substance ram’s horns/shofars are made of) dust filled the air and the class clapped wildly.

Apparently, the hole had gone all the way through. Burston then used a mechanical sander to smooth out the rough edges, and the shofar was sprayed with varnish and left to dry.

Burston then taught the class on how to blow a shofar. He held his middle finger and his index finger together, and used them to cover three quarters of his lips.

"People think that you have to blow, but you really have to go like this," said Mizrachi, before forcing the air through the opening in his lip. Without the shofar at his lips, it sounded something like a whoopee cushion. With the shofar, it sounded religiously melodic.