Try Being Deaf and Blind in Tel Aviv

The Nalaga'at Theater in Jaffa, Israel's Old Port, has just opened and offers a unique and unforgettable experience.

At one and the same time, it houses the world's only theater group of blind and deaf actors, as well as offering visitors a restaurant where diners eat in complete darkness, and a cafe where all the waiters are deaf.

It's a chance for those who can see and hear to taste the life of the deaf and blind.

The restaurant is called Blackout and is housed in a specially designed space sealed from all sources of light. Diners are briefed by staff before they enter. Mobile phones and all electronic devices are left in lockers outside.

In the small, dimly lit lobby, I met Yuval, my waiter, who along with all his colleagues is blind. Hands on his shoulders we walked into the darkness.

But the word darkness does not adequately describe the utter blackness of the restaurant's interior. After being carefully shown to my seat, I heard voices opposite but had no visual information whatsoever.

"Has someone joined us?" asked a disembodied voice. It belonged to Judy Blanc from Jerusalem, recently widowed, her husband had been blinded during Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

Eating in Blackout gave her some impression of what her husband had been through. For her granddaughter Michal, it was more about the eating. "I used my hands and it was fabulous," she said with a laugh.

According to Arieh Rosen, the theater's producer, Blackout has been a big hit. A few have been unable to stand the darkness, but most have come away with a new understanding of the challenges facing the blind.

The restaurant is also about helping the waiters and putting them in charge — not an experience normally enjoyed by people with disabilities in society.

"We focus here in a very creative way on empowering people, on people's abilities as opposed to their disabilities," said Rosen.

In the theater the current production is called "Not by Bread Alone," performed by the in-house troupe of blind and deaf actors. Formed in 2002, it is the only one of its kind.

The show opens with the cast kneading dough and each actor tells the audience of their dreams and ambitions challenging the audience's notions of what blind and deaf people think and feel. The message: that people with disabilities do not live by bread alone.

On stage, specially trained staff help the actors move and interact. A screen carries the words in Hebrew, Russian and English. At the end of the hourlong performance the audience joins the actors on stage to eat the freshly baked bread.

Afterward guests can enjoy a coffee in the Kappish cafe, in English "understand."

Here the waiters are deaf, and on each table there is a sheet of sign language instructions. After some time this correspondent managed to order a cappuccino without sugar. My waiter was very patient.

It is another challenging invitation, this time for the hearing to enter the world of the deaf. And as with other elements of this extraordinary place it is trying to tear down barriers between those of us who can see and hear, and those of us who cannot.

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