With her longtime interpreter by her side, Academy Award-winning actor Marlee Matlin ardently signed her message of inclusion and tikkun olam, as well as her evocative life stories, at Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ annual Pomegranate Society event last week. The signature event of Women’s Philanthropy, this year’s focused on “Our Power to Change.” In addition to harnessing the power of women to affect change, the event raises funds for CJP’s myriad charitable initiatives. “Yours is a story that is rooted in compassion and justice with an emphasis on caring. You inspire the next generation to embrace Jewish life—a life lived generously,” Matlin told the audience of 400 women at the Westin Hotel in Waltham.
This was Matlin’s second trip to Boston in as many weeks. Earlier in the month she was in town to receive the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion—a prize given by the Ruderman Family Foundation in Newton—for her philanthropic work and advocacy for the inclusion of people with all abilities.
Matlin’s unique Jewish story is one of resilience and determination. Born in Chicago in 1965, at 18 months old she was diagnosed with deafness. Doctors advised Matlin’s parents to send their only daughter hundreds of miles away from home to a school for the deaf. “But when my parents asked who would put me to bed each night and say, ‘I love you,’ the doctors had no answers,” she said.
Matlin and her parents forged a unique path for a young deaf girl. Matlin went to neighborhood schools and became an enthusiastic participant at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts, a performing arts center for deaf and hearing-impaired children. “My parents took an ordinary girl like myself, whom society viewed as handicapped, and set me on a path to an extraordinary life,” she said. “They chose not to let the world define me by my deafness, but instead let me create my own definition and gave me the ability to achieve my dreams. That is a definite core Jewish value—standing up to defy expectations.”
Among Matlin’s dreams was to become a bat mitzvah. Her parents gave voice to that aspiration by joining Congregation Bene Shalom, a synagogue that served both the deaf and hearing communities in the Chicago area. Matlin studied with the rabbi, who both signed and spoke. As Matlin described it, she “frenetically” worked to master the Hebrew of her haftarah. The day of her bat mitzvah her proud family heard her declare that she was deeply honored to be Jewish and to be part of the history of the Jewish people.
Her chanting of the Hebrew triggered tears of joy in her family, which in turn made Matlin cry. “When I looked down at my Torah, I was horrified because I had cried onto the Torah parchment,” she said. “My tears stained the Torah and I was mortified.” But as Matlin related, her rabbi turned a potentially disastrous moment into an affecting life lesson. “Our history,” her rabbi recounted, “was one filled with happy moments and other moments filled with tears—tears for those who were rescued and tears for those who perished. Many times it was only the stain of tears that allowed us to remember and to never forget and to continue. Yours are tears of joy. As you became an official member of the Jewish community, our Torah was stained with your tears of happiness. Those tears represent your and your parents’ dreams—accomplishments and achievements of a young girl who happens to be deaf. Tears are a wonderful insight. They are a wonderful message of inclusion and voice.”
Matlin’s life would pivot again when she met “the coolest Jew in the world.” Henry Winkler of “Happy Days” fame paid a visit to her local performing arts center. With what she called her “Matlin chutzpah” firmly in hand, she introduced herself to Winkler and found a lifelong friend and mentor in him. He was there for her eight years later in the wake of her Academy Award win for “Children of a Lesser God,” when one critic called her win a “pity vote.” She turned to her friend, who said the only thing a deaf person could not do was hear.
Winkler, who had coped with his own disability as a child—he was profoundly dyslexic—found strength and optimism in a quote from Theodor Herzl that he framed in his office at Paramount Studio. “It’s a quote that rings true for me today,” said Matlin. “‘If you will it, it is not a dream.’ I took that message to heart. Rather than wait and hope, I made things happen for myself. I broke free of the stereotype of what it was like to be deaf.”
This summer Matlin will travel with the Ruderman Family Foundation to Israel. On this trip, her first to Israel, she anticipates her time there will “really affect change about the importance of inclusion. Don’t tolerate exclusion—that will be my message.”