Out of Africa

ASL via immersion method

It looks as if you're cradling a baby goat in your arms while something explodes from its backside. Right wrist rests atop left elbow. Right elbow rests atop left wrist. Right pinky and index finger extend to form the "horns," or cornuto, gesture -- an almost universal expression of contempt. Fingers of the left hand execute an expulsive "flicking" motion. This is the American Sign Language, ASL, sign for bullshit.

It's difficult to grasp an ASL sign through words. ASL engages not only the body, but also the space around the body, the space between "speaker" and "listener." The difference between spoken language and signed language is the difference between saying "I love you" and holding someone in your arms.

Christine was the first person I ever saw make the ASL sign for bullshit. She'd contorted her face in such a way that you didn't need to have been born deaf, or to have studied ASL, to put a definite meaning behind what her hands and arms were doing. Her livid red hair, spiky with gel, quivered. Her green eyes seemed to emit beams of disdain.

Christine's disdain-beams were ricocheting around the dim corridors of the National Captioning Institute at Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, California, sometime, as far as I'm able to recollect, in the early fall of 1985. At the time, the National Captioning Institute, NCI, was the country's largest producer of "captions," those odd little snippets of dialog and description of sound ("doorbell rings") that flash across television screens for the benefit of the deaf or otherwise "hearing impaired."

At the time I was a newly Orthodox Jew, or Jew new to Orthodox Judaism, who'd been sent to live in Los Angeles by a San Diego rabbi who felt I needed to spend time studying at a San Fernando Valley synagogue that offered night courses in Talmud and other subjects central to the faith and practice of Orthodox Judaism. (I had my eye on Jerusalem. The San Diego rabbi felt I wasn't yet ready for Jerusalem.) After finding and renting an apartment in North Hollywood, I got my job at NCI through a wiry Colombian woman who ran an employment agency in Encino.

"Two of my last three husbands were Jews," she told me between speed-dial calls to prospective employers. Thin brown cigarettes smoldered in an ashtray beside her. "I love Jews."

The workplace to which the wiry Colombian sent me was a snakepit of identity politics. My first morning at work, I saw Christine sign "bullshit" to the woman, I'll call her Lola, whom I was told was my supervisor. Christine stormed off. Lola took me by the elbow and led me to her office.

"There's tension in the deaf community," Lola told me in her loud, strange articulation, "between oral deaf people like me who can read lips and speak English and between deaf people like Christine who are best at using sign language. Christine is big-D Deaf. Deaf pride!"

Lola explained that I would spend one hour each week transcribing Robert Schuller's Sunday sermon from the Crystal Cathedral, a few hours on menial filing tasks, and the rest of my time "working on" captions with Christine for segments of movies such as Out of Africa.

Christine snatched me as I exited Lola's office.

"I WILL TEACH YOU," Christine said simultaneously in American Sign Language and her hoarse English.


For many years afterward I could recite by heart all dialog and sound effects for the first 30 minutes of Out of Africa. ("I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills...") I could also remember every sign Christine taught me.

She was the only big-D "Deaf Pride" person at NCI. (Lola refused to sign.) I was the only Orthodox Jew. I drove home at night to take classes at a synagogue where I was the only single person. At night in North Hollywood I'd stare at my apartment's beige ceiling and dream of Jerusalem. During the day, I clung to Christine.

We'd work for a few minutes on Out of Africa. I'd watch it and bang out a few pages of transcript. Christine would translate it into snippets the deaf or "hearing impaired" would best understand. She recorded the snippets via special software on the huge floppy disks computers used in those days. Christine would grab my hand and drag me upstairs to a file room, or out-of-the-way patio, and instruct me in ASL. It was the immersion method. She wanted to talk about everything. Anything. Literature. Religion. She loved Faulkner. Had I read -- as she said it she spelled it out with her right hand -- L-I-G-H-T I-N A-U-G-U-S-T? Why did I like being a J-E-W?

"I'm a L-E-S-B-I-A-N," she signed. "I don't like R-E-L-I-G-I-O-N. They say I'm going to H-E-L-L. But I love C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S. Beautiful."

Beautiful is a kind of half-swirl you make with your right hand in front of your face, drawing together the fingers as if capturing, or concentrating, the essence or idea of "beauty." In ASL, facial expression is a part of speech. A grammatical means of modifying meaning, a way to augment or diminish a term or phrase, suggest shades of irony or approval. For Christine, the beauty of Christmas meant she closed her eyes and smiled in some remembered joy.

My progress in ASL amazed her. Perhaps I have a gift for languages. I don't know. I was getting intensive one-on-one tutorials in ASL for about 25 hours a week over the course of months and months. I was learning far more ASL than I was learning biblical Hebrew. I was even learning the fine points of ASL slang, such as the pejorative signs for deaf people like Lola who were a little too proud of their ability to read lips and speak English. Christine was convinced I had remarkable talent.

"You must go to G-A-L-L-A-U-D-E-T," she told me, "the university for deaf people. You'll learn to sign like a deaf person. You'll be a wonderful translator."

I didn't tell Christine that I'd applied for a scholarship at a yeshiva, religious school, in Jerusalem. In any language, how can you tell someone who's given you a way of understanding the world that you've chosen another way?

There came the afternoon when Christine took me by the hand to the office of the president of NCI at Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood. The president, a tall fellow in a suit that cost more than I made in several months, explained that on Christine's recommendation, NCI had spoken to Gallaudet about me. If I were willing to study ASL full-time, NCI would arrange for me a scholarship at Gallaudet.

Speaking in English, signing all the while, I thanked him but said I'd already accepted a scholarship for a religious school in Jerusalem.

We make the choices we make. I suppose many seem more dramatic in retrospect than they were at the time. I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills... A couple of weeks later, it must have been early summer, at the end of my last day at NCI, Christine escorted me outside. Into my hands she placed a paper plate of cookies covered in plastic wrap. They were Christmas cookies, sugar cookies -- stars, angels, Christmas trees -- decorated with green and red sprinkles.

"I made them," she signed. She touched the side of my face. She watched me walk to my car. As I was driving away, she stood and watched me go. She didn't sign any special farewell. She smiled. She waved good-bye. She waved good-bye the way we all do. The way everyone does.

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