The Lip Reader

by Michael Thal


   Jews don't have saints. Our righteous ones are called Tzadikim. They do not perform miraculous acts like curing cancer or walking on water. It is said that every generation gives rise to at least thirty-six Tzadikim, and through them our world receives the divine vitality that pushes it forward away from the abyss.

   Though we don't know exactly who these individuals are, I'm certain Zhila Shirazi was one of them. Her zest for life, love of family, honesty, and integrity left a shining beacon for all of us. And for me, she touched my heart with her simplicity and loving warmth.

   This is Zhila's story…

Chapter I

December 2014


   My name is Zhila Shirazi, grandniece of Rabbi Yousef Kohani Hamdani. I tell that to all my Jewish friends. Only the orthodox are impressed. My father is Solomon, a pharmacist, and my mom, Sara, is a housewife. I have two younger sisters, Zandra and Zannna, as well as a younger brother, Ziggy. Zandra is a pharmacist, Zanna is a dentist, and Ziggy is a doctor.

   I once asked my mother, "Why the same first letter in all our names?"

   Maamaan said, "I wanted my children to feel as if they were part of a unit."

   "Since when is a letter a unit?" Sarcasm dripped from my voice.

   She thought for a second and then said, "Your clothes would go to Zandra, and hers to Zannna. If I used the same initial in your names, it would be easier not to lose clothes at school."

   "How about Ziggy? Why him?"

   "So you're all part of the same unit." Maamaan smiled contentedly.

   I have a few medical problems, but the most severe condition is deafness. Even with my cochlear implant, most voices elude me. I rely on lip reading to understand my friends and family. Mickey, who is also deaf, is easy to understand. Sixteen years ago, when we met, he insisted we learn American Sign Language (ASL) together. At first I was reluctant, but soon realized the wisdom of that request. So he took the classes, and when he saw me, taught me what he learned.

   But my real story begins in Tehran…

Book 1

Tehran, Iran

Chapter 2

Winter 1959

   When I was nine, I read an article in the Ettela'at, our morning newspaper, about an audiologist fitting a deaf child with hearing aids. Under the picture of the little girl with dark hair and owl eyes read a caption, "Oh my! I can hear my voice!" Tears stained her smiling face.

   That was when I knew I had to have a pair of hearing aids, too. So I lobbied my mother. I showed her the article and picture, but all Maamaan did was smile and nod. Still, it was a start.

   One day, I brought home my report card showing poor progress in math. My parents wanted to hire a tutor. I told them to invest their money in hearing aids. "If I could hear the teacher, I'd do a lot better in class."

   They didn't seem to care.

   One evening in early February, Papa sat in his leather lounge chair smoking a cigarette and Maamaan was crocheting a blanket, so I tried again. Standing on the Persian rug between my parents, I clapped my hands to grab their attention and made my case. "I can't hear my voice." I pointed to Maamaan. "And I don't have the slightest idea what you and Papa sound like. My grades in school suffer because when the teacher turns her back I miss it all." I crossed my arms over my chest and stared at Maamaan. "I want hearing aids, now!"

   "Go to bed. It's late. Your father and I will discuss it and get back to you." She resumed her crocheting. At least they would talk about it. That was a start.

   I understood even then why my parents were uncomfortable about my wearing hearing aids. In Iran it wasn't safe to be different. Being Jewish in a Muslim country was difficult enough, but if a family member had a disability, people hid that fact from family and friends.

   People with disabilities in mid-twentieth century Iran were considered tragic, pitiful human beings unfit and unable to contribute to society. Their only service was as objects of ridicule and entertainment in circuses and exhibitions.

   Children like me were assumed to be abnormal and feeble-minded. Many of us were forced to undergo sterilization so as not to pass on the deaf, blind, or other disabling gene to our offspring.

   My parents didn't want our family or neighbors to know I was deaf. Getting me hearing aids would be evidence of my inferiority and prove their inability to sire a healthy, normal child. (No one would notice my two healthy younger siblings. They'd just point fingers at the deaf child.)

   So my parents procrastinated until I forced the issue. That day came in early March when I came home dripping wet, crying, and bleeding from the right side of my head.

   "Oh my god, Zhila, what happened?" Maamaan dropped a duster on the living room table and rushed to my side. I kicked off my boots by the front door alcove and ran to my room.

   "Nothing!" I slammed the door behind me.

   Maamaan waited a few minutes, and then knocked softly on my bedroom door.

   "Go away!" I screamed.

   She ignored me, pushed her way in and sat on my bed. "Let me look at that." She pointed to the wound on my head caked with dried blood. "I need to clean it." She placed the first aid kit on the night table, wet a ball of cotton with hydrogen peroxide, and said, "This will sting."

   "Ouch!" I pulled away.

   "It needs to be cleaned or it will get infected. Sit still."

   As she worked, Maamaan asked, "Who did this to you?"

   "My teacher!" I broke down and cried in her arms.


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