Miriam Hearing Sister

A Memoir

By Miriam Zadek
Foreword by Philip W. Bravin

Categories: Jewish Studies
Imprint: Gallaudet University Press
Paperback : 9781954622098, 216 pages, September 2022
Ebook : 9781954622104, 208 pages, September 2022
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A personal account of historical and cultural importance centered on the lives of deaf and hearing Jewish people in the mid-twentieth century.



Miriam Zadek shares her story in this memoir that documents her experiences growing up in a New York Jewish family with both deaf and hearing members from the 1930s through World War II and beyond. Her story is personal and reflective, revealing the sometimes complex and heart-rending dynamics within her family and her community. Through brief and evocative vignettes, Zadek relates her memories of family life, capturing the innocence of childhood, the confusion of adolescence, and then progressing through adulthood. Her recollections evolve from a childlike observance to awareness, pain, and understanding as she matures. Throughout this journey, the author presents a narrative of historical and cultural importance centered on her personal account of the lives of deaf and hearing Jewish people in the mid-twentieth century.

       The prevailing ideological movements of the time permeate her family life. Zadek reveals the traumatic impact of eugenics and the fears surrounding the genetic transmission of deafness. She considers the effects of adhering to the oral method of communication in her home when sign language could have given her family the ability to interact with each other more fully. In this environment, Zadek became an astute communicator and learned to adapt to both the hearing and the deaf world, where she was known as “Miriam Hearing Sister.” Her memoir is an elegant literary work that offers an understanding of how biases and stigmas resonate and evolve, and it showcases her loving family of strong women who pushed against stereotypes and have thrived across generations.


Miriam Zadek is a recipient of the Maryland Governor’s Service Lifetime Achievement Award, given in recognition of her more than forty years of service to deaf and hard of hearing individuals, their families, and others seeking communication access resources. She is the founder of Maryland’s only nonprofit American Sign Language interpreting referral agency, as well as the Zadek Family Education Program. She served on the board of the Hearing and Speech Agency (HASA) of Metropolitan Baltimore and most recently was appointed to the HASA President’s Advisory Board. Zadek’s philanthropic impact includes an endowment at Columbia University’s School of Social Work that supports the graduate work of deaf students, or students who are preparing to work with deaf and disabled people.



"The memoir is a captivating series of candid vignettes about Miriam’s experiences, growing up in the 1920s, as the only hearing child sandwiched between two Deaf sisters. The themes and family Deaf/Hearing dynamics are authentic, relevant, and timeless."

— Roz Rosen, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

“Charts the changing family dynamics of the Zadek family, their surroundings, and the Deaf community. In particular, it primarily explores what it means to be a family member, ally, and sister of Deaf siblings before, during, and after the Second World War. The book deals with key themes in the historical experiences and feelings of families who have members with disabilities: expectations, relationships, parental worries and fears, stigma, assertions of independence and autonomy, and advocacy and alliances.”

— Sandy M. Sufian, H-Disability, H-Net Reviews

Advance Praise

“Miriam Zadek brings more than 90 years of living to the pages of this memoir, and each vignette is suffused with her intelligence, wit, and wisdom. As the ‘hearing sister’ in a family with many deaf members, she observed up close and personally the challenges of being deaf in a hearing world, and came to be a strong and effective advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people. Her own love of life and dedication to helping children and families was a gift to me and many other parents of deaf children, and that love shines through this book."

— Linda Sprenkle

“Miriam Hearing Sister is a deeply candid and refreshingly spirited memoir about a hearing child growing up with two deaf sisters and a hard of hearing father at a time when perspectives on deafness were narrow and constrained. As a child, Miriam is both uniquely bonded to her sisters as well as acutely conscious of how different their experiences are. Distinctive, moving, and powerful, readers will find this book both enjoyable and informative.”

— Maria Hartman, Lecturer and Program Director, Deaf Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

“What is understood about deafness and what it means to be part of a Deaf/hearing family has changed dramatically from the 1920s to today, and yet what it means to be a human being, a daughter, and a sister has not changed so much. Miriam Zadek offers a unique look at a Jewish Deaf/hearing family’s experiences with numerous stories of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and the New York City suburbs in the 1920s, during World War II, and after. Her memoir is a true, rare treasure.”

— Rabbi Darby Jared Leigh

“This memoir is a captivating story that allows us into the most private and sacred moments of a family, and as we enter it, we become a part of that family. Miriam Zadek writes with strength, courage, and grace. It is in this unabashed honesty and vulnerability that this story becomes not only hers, but all of those who read it.”

— Martin A. Thaler, Professor of Theatre, The University of Vermont

“With wisdom and humor, Miriam shares her remarkable life stories from childhood to 93 years old, growing up as the only hearing sister, the middle sister to her older sister, Sylvia, and younger sister, Shirley. Her vignettes testify to the strong and loving relationships between Miriam, her parents and sisters, family, and friends. It is no surprise that her experiences shaped her activism and life’s work. Miriam inspires me every day. I feel blessed to know her, to learn from her, and to partner with her in working for our Alma mater, Barnard College. May she continue to go from strength to strength.”

— Deborah S. Braverman, Senior Associate Director, Individual Giving at Barnard College