Because she’s deaf, Marlee Matlin believes that some people think she lives in a world of silence.
“But silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me,” the Academy Award-winning actress and activist said to an audience of 75 philanthropists June 13 at the Jewish National Fund’s annual “Major Donor Thank-You Dinner and Reception” at Audi Owings Mills. “And after spending the evening with you here in Maryland on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and seeing what you are doing through your generous giving, I know the same is true for you.”
Through a sign language interpreter, Matlin, 53, delivered a talk titled “Israel: A Home for All.” She said she is on a mission to “pass along the message one person at a time” that “all of us deserve to be heard, to be respected and to be treated equally.”
In 1987, Matlin, who grew up in a Jewish home in a Chicago suburb, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Children of a Lesser God.” She was 21, and to this day is the only deaf performer to win an Oscar.
Matlin visited Israel for the first time two years ago, and she said she saw firsthand the opportunities provided by the Jewish state to its citizens with disabilities.
“Though 13 percent of the population of Israel lives with a disability, the spirit of tikkun olam [repairing the world], as well as chesed [compassion], breeds 100 percent through all aspects of Israeli life,” Matlin said. “Israel far exceeds the United States when it comes to citizens living with challenges, with state-of-the-art rehabilitative services and programs that would be considered groundbreaking in the United States.”
Founded in 1901, the JNF coordinates myriad programs in Israel focused on individuals with disabilities. Through the its Task Force on Disabilities, the organization has helped create a more inclusive society in Israel, which includes building accessible playgrounds and parks, state-of-the-art rehabilitation and health care centers and therapeutic services.
“As a deaf woman who has been so successful in her career, Marlee wants to be able to speak for others,” said Naomi Amsterdam, a JNF leader involved in the Task Force on Disabilities. “She has also noticed how some communities don’t include everyone when it comes to philanthropy.”
Matlin said one of the most memorable parts of her Israel trip was visiting an air force base where youth with disabilities were given the opportunity to integrate into the Israel Defense Forces through the JNF’s Special in Uniform program.
“Special in Uniform gives individuals with disabilities the same opportunity to fulfill their potential, serve in the armed forces and to be accepted in society, regardless of the barriers they face,” said Matlin.
Matlin also spoke about the role that Judaism has played in her own life. To prepare for her bat mitzvah, she said she worked closely with a rabbi who could hear and sign at Congregation Bene Shalom in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. She said many of those in attendance wept during the service.
“The rabbi used the crying debacle to pass along a lesson,” she said. “[He said,] ‘Here on your most important day, our Torah was stained with your tears of happiness. Those tears represent yours and your parents’ dreams, your accomplishments, your achievements as a young girl who happens to be deaf and as a productive member of the Jewish community, and I think your tears are a wonderful mitzvah.’ What a wonderful message of inclusion that was.”
In addition, Matlin spoke about her life as a deaf actress. She first started acting at age 8 at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Northbrook, Ill.
When she was 12, she met the actor Henry Winkler, “the Fonz from ‘Happy Days’ and one cool Jew,” at a theater. Matlin told Winkler that she wanted to be a famous actor and he responded, “Marlee, sweetheart, you can be whatever you want to be. Listen and follow your heart, and your dreams will come true.”
Matlin and Winkler, who struggled with dyslexia as a youngster, went on to form a lasting friendship. She even married her husband, Kevin Grandalski, on Winkler’s front lawn in 1993.
Matlin recalled turning to Winkler after receiving a negative review in the aftermath of her Oscar win.
“Henry inspired me with vision, just like my parents did,” Matlin said. “He did it with a quote from [modern Zionism founder]Theodor Herzl, which a fan had sent to him on a plaque. It said, ‘If you will it, it is not a dream.’ What a wonderful bit of affirmation.”
Throughout her career, Matlin, a mother of four, has received four Emmy nominations, including one for a memorable appearance on “Seinfeld.” She also became a New York Times best-selling author and formed her own production company.
“As someone who overcame barriers, may I encourage you to look beyond the traditional means of supporting the JNF with dollars and encourage those who don’t typically fit the donor profile,” she said to the audience. “I’m talking about Jews with disabilities, Israeli-American Jews, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and, yes, even the millennial Jews. …
“Courage plus dreams equals success,” Matlin said. “I believe that equation is a way to address the challenges, trends and opportunities of helping to heal the world, one person at a time.”