Friday, June 5, 2020 -
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Blindness . . . Dialogue in the Dark

One of the arcs of my one-week trip to Israel was the World Cup. By now we all know, France won. But on my final night in Jerusalem, as I emerged from the lobby of the Herbert Samuel Hotel, where I was writing, I heard echoes of cheers loaded with such good energy. Curious, I followed the roar of the crowd just a few hundred feet away in downtown Jerusalem. I stopped in my tracks at such a wonderful sight to behold: The piazza known as Kikar ha-America’im, The Americans’ Square, was jam packed. Standing room only.

It was almost midnight on a perfect Jerusalem night. Ancient cobblestones filled with beach chairs under white umbrellas. Amber lamps bathed the modern scene, a huge flatscreen TV. The crowds are practically neck to neck. It seems like everyone is there, the old and the young, secular and religious, even chasidim, visitors, foreigners, locals: everyone is united in the innocent escapist joy of watching the World Cup, “Mundial,” as it is known in Israel.

The truth is, it seemed like everywhere I went there seemed to be a crowd huddling around a screen, people dropping their obligations, transported to the emerald field as they followed the advancing games. On this night, outdoors, the crowd was passionate. Apparently there were many English folk there, because when England lost to Croatia, the disappointment, though good natured, was palpable. Regardless, there was still a flood of good feeling even once the game was over. After midnight in a perfect Jerusalem breeze the crowd dispersed, slowly, reluctantly. Cigarettes were lit, slowly Jaffa Road was overtaken with hundreds of pedestrians spilling out of the square, shoulder to shoulder, ready to re-enter their lives.

Meanwhile, southern Israel was burning. There was constant awareness of it due to the constant notices of busloads heading south in a show of support; the fundraising campaigns to purchase summery ice cream treats for the Israeli communities there; and many more endeavors in this spirit of solidarity. Still, there was a compartmentalized sense of normalcy. Between you and me, I felt guilt at not being able to make it to the border towns on this trip. Instead of letting it ruin my trip I tapped into the Jerusalem vibe and I tried to align with the Jerusalemites’ sense of normalcy, and embrace it.

But not for a second was the backdrop of the burning south not felt, the fear and suffering as whole communities just a few hours away were in real danger. But I suppose that compartmentalizing is part of the Israeli reality, because there is always something happening. Somehow, though, valiantly, people go on.

Obviously, living this way is not simple. Undoubtedly, PTSD seeds are sown and will reverberate into the future. To add to the already burning south, just as I was about to leave Israel, the reports of rocket alerts started coming in.

My appreciation for Mundial 2018 was amplified. I was happy for Israelis; they had a soccer game to focus on for a month.

• • •

One of the highlights of my trip was finally experiencing a museum program I had wanted to take part in for almost 15 years. It was almost life-changing.

Here is a program that for a moment in time gives you the experience of being in another’s shoe — difficult shoes. “Dialogue in the Dark” is a program from Germany, and is showcased in the Israeli Children’s Museum in the town of Holon.

It simulates the experience of what it is like to be blind. The hour tour is conducted in pitch darkness. Of course, I knew this going in, but at the outset, before the tour had begun, when the guide asked for our eye-glasses, there was a brief moment where I almost panicked. Rationally, in pitch dark, glasses, which normally give me a sense of security, won’t do a thing. Relinquishing them, however, is psychologically another matter. So even before I entered the exhibit I felt vulnerable in plain daylight.

The idea is to experience a few scenes in the everyday life of a blind person, to glimpse the challenge of moment to moment living. Even though you’ll be crossing a street, walking a bridge, roaming a market, riding a boat, ordering food in a cafeteria, and more, for this one hour you are in a world without colors, without pictures, without anything visual — what we take for granted when we wake up each morning.

Dialogue in the Dark opens your heart to those who are different from you in a truly empathic and memorable way. Only stepping into their shoes, as brief and rigged a sojourn as it is, can really be impactful.

At first when we entered the dark I clutched the guide stick I was given. Without even realizing it I tightened my grip on its crown, holding it to my side, a vertical object that became a receptacle for my stress. Teamwork was instantaneous. We relied on each other. Before the tour began we were briefly introduced to one another. Before we knew it we were relying on the kindness of strangers, reaching for the body of the strangers in front to steady us, asking their name and thanking them.

Mostly though, none of us knew where we were going. The one constant we all relied on was our guide’s voice, steady and calm, which kept nudging us along as he mysteriously called us each by name (apparently recognizing our voices?).

After a few minutes I found myself relaxing more, dare I say, adapting? I realized that if I just placed the stick a bit in front of me it would guide me. I have witnessed this hundreds of times in my life (my elementary school was situated next to the Jerusalem Institute for The Blind), plus I know it is literally called a “guide stick,” but somehow in the moment, in this pitch black room, it felt like a revelation

Once I began using the guide stick, I felt less disoriented and more secure. I still had no clue where I was going, though, and ultimately it was the guide’s voice that helped me stay the course.

The scene and locale of each spot on the tour was signaled by relevant senses and sounds that “painted” an auditory or olfactory scene. For example, when walking a bridge — there was the actual shaky bridge, of course, but also sound of water. At the boat we heard seagulls and sniffed the salt in the air. At the market, the very aromatic market, pungent root vegetables permeated the air, and when crossing a street the traffic was loud, the honking punctuating the air. And so on. These were the transitions that oriented us to our new contexts.

At the market, I marveled at how I recognized all the fruits and vegetables, using the sense of touch: smooth eggplant, supple leafy greens, solid potatoes. There was even a quirky kohlrabi in the mix.

The final stop was at the cafeteria. We were encouraged to bring money along with us to make a purchase. Again and again, I rehearsed the shape of the coins in the palm of my hand, feeling the roundness, noticing which circle was smooth, which was ever slightly bumpier. I was certain which coin was which, a five and a ten shekel. Confidently, I handed over a five shekel coin for my four shekel bottle of water. “Here’s six shekel back,” the guy handed me. “But I gave you a five,” I said. “No, that was a ten.”

Wow. How much trust you need to have in relying on people’s goodwill if you are blind, when people can pull a fast one on you and you’d never know. This little interaction highlighted how vulnerable being blind is. Obviously it’s the least of the challenges of this disability, but another layer I hadn’t thought of until I was in this particular situation.

Now came time for the Dialogue in the Dark. Dialogue in the Dark? Well, it seems, that grounding voice we were following throughout the tour, the voice that brought a sense of security, the “eyes,” so to speak, for us “blind” folk on the tour. belonged to someone blind. From birth.

A truly blind man was leading us all along, sighted people who suddenly felt helpless when thrust into temporary blindness. He was the one who guided us. Our roles were reversed. Which raises so many questions about what seeing truly is about.

So we now sat down for a dialogue with someone whose world is always genuinely dark.

Hence, Dialogue in the Dark.

This was one inspiring dialogue. Our guide, with unbelievable humility, spoke to us of his experience of his blindness. He truly views it as nothing more than a challenge to overcome and adapt to, just like everyone in life encounters challenges, he said. No trace of bitterness or victimhood was in his voice. This young man is educated, both religiously and secularly. He is employed, he has lived with sighted roommates, he is a pianist.

He is a breathtaking inspiration.

This exhibit truly was so meaningful and so memorable. I hope visitors will incorporate it as a part of their trips to Israel. It is an incredible family trip, as long as participants are nine years of age and older.

Dialogue in the Dark truly was eye-opening, I thought to myself as I walked out of the museum late at night, climbed a long staircase and stood waiting at the bus stop. I had no clue where exactly I was going. It would take at least two buses to find my way back to where I needed to go, but I knew with the goodwill of the people it would somehow all work out.

Suddenly, approaching closer and closer was the scratchy sound of something making its way toward me. I turned and saw the guide from Dialogue in the Dark.

He guided me home, explaining which bus route would be best to take.

I got home safe and sound.

In the dark.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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