Akiva Mandel, his wife, and his daughter speak candidly about the many facets of life with hearing loss
here are rare moments in life when the scene shifts enough for you to see there’s an overlay. Even without fully understanding it, you realize there’s something more there.
For me, that moment came when my headphones were blaring music, and I didn’t hear my father come into the room. I jumped, caught off guard, when he entered my line of vision. “Oh, I got so scared!” I said with a hand over my heart.
I took off my headphones and explained myself. “You know when you can’t hear someone approaching?”
“Of course,” my father said with a smile. Of course…. Because even though my father has been wearing hearing aids for 20 years, he still misses the nuances of daily life. My five seconds of heart-stopping surprise are the grind of his every hour.
It was one of the first times I thought about a world with barely any sound and what it’s like to live in it.
My father likes to say that his particular story has three chapters. The first was a time when he couldn’t hear. The second was when he started to wear hearing aids. The third chapter started a few months ago when he got hearing aids made with top-of-the-line technology.
Until he got his top-of-the-line hearing aids, he thought his hearing was as good as it would get. The novelty of hearing cars rush by and babies whimpering had worn off. But with his new hearing aids, he discovered that so much of what he’d perceived as silence, the rest of us perceived as the vibrant, hustling sounds of life.
The third chapter, when my father was able to hear well, was a shift for the entire family because we suddenly realized how challenging his life had been until then.
A running joke in our family has always been the way my father leaves the blinkers on after switching lanes. He flips it up to signal, merges, and then forgets to flip it down. The tick, tick, tick drives everyone mad until someone finally says, “Ta, the blinker!”
My father was amazed when he drove for the first time with his new hearing aids because, no wonder he was always forgetting about the blinkers — everyone else had a ticking reminder. All those times when I was gritting my teeth in the back seat, I didn’t recognize that my father’s struggles were larger than I gave him credit for.
Part of it is because growing up, my father’s hearing aids were nothing more than a fact of life. Mommy wears a sheitel. I wear glasses. Tatty has hearing aids. They were another piece of furniture, something we passed every day without paying attention.
We discussed them only in practical conversation. We knew that trips to Costco meant stocking up on the tiny yellow #10 batteries. We knew that the subtle whistling was the sound that the little pieces made when my father put them in his ears.
We knew that after showering, before his ears dried out, my father walked around with close to no hearing at all. “I’m not plugged in,” he’d say and cup his ear. “Speak up.” And then we turned to face him, talked a little louder, and assumed he’d only catch every other word.
My father’s hearing impairment never made a difference in my life. He didn’t ask us to share the handicap with him, and we didn’t volunteer to. On the rare occasion my father mentioned missing something — at the Shabbos table when the simultaneous conversations about the devar Torah and community news required skilled navigation — I’d repeat it to him, slowly, in a tone that barely hid my impatience.
At the same time that my father’s hearing aids improved enough for him to hear the blinkers, I met Hadassah at a summer program in Israel. My first impression was her voice — the curious pitch and unusual singsong she spoke in. When she came to dinner on the first night with her hair pulled back and her cochlear implants visible, I felt bad for wondering.
Hadassah spoke about her implants often, usually to answer people’s questions or explain a certain habit. We once sat on the dorm stairwell well after midnight as Hadassah drew a diagram of her inner ear to explain how the implants worked and which noises she still couldn’t hear.
When a friend mentioned how loudly Hadassah talked, I was quick to respond on her behalf. “Yeah, it’s hard to realize you’re talking loud when you can’t hear…” I said it softly enough that the message was smoothed over — and then I felt like a hypocrite. Every time someone judged Hadassah, I could see their outline as mine.
A large, screaming part of me wishes I’d met Hadassah earlier. I spent years knowing there’s a side of my father I don’t understand — although I thought I knew what that side was. When my father began to hear more, and when Hadassah let me into her world, I began to hear the things my father never said. A deep appreciation began stirring, an awe swirling around the notes that are our regular voices. There are so many blanks that my father fills in on his own, and there’s still so much more room for me to give.
During the same summer I met Hadassah, I was walking through Machaneh Yehudah on Erev Shabbos. The plastic handles from the heavy shopping bags were digging into my arms, and it took careful choreography to avoid bumping into the many other people streaming in every direction. When I saw that my father was calling, I debated whether to answer because I doubted he would hear me.
But it was getting late, and I wanted to speak to him before Shabbos. So, I swiped to answer the call and shouted hello to him across the sea. I couldn’t hear his response so I asked him to give me a minute as I crossed to the quieter side of Jaffa Street. “Sorry about that. It’s crazy noisy in the shuk,” I told him.
“I could actually hear perfectly,” he told me. His new hearing aids block out background noise so in a tumultuous place like the shuk, my father actually has an advantage.
I laughed at the irony. “Who would have thought that one day you’d hear better than the rest of us?” My father chuckled too.
Then he said in a quiet, even tone. “Even with all this technology, I’ll never, ever have what you have.” I heard him take a breath. “I’d give all the money in the world to be able to hear properly.”
Something in my heart clenched from his comment. It was one of the few times I ever heard my father speak about his hearing as a loss.
When I told my sister about this article, she wondered whether I had what to write about. “Do you actually feel like it was a ‘thing’ for us growing up?” she asked.
That’s what I want to write about, I told her. That it wasn’t. While this huge factor can easily take center stage, my father chose to keep it quiet. He gave up so much by not making his hearing a part of our lives, and for me, this chapter has been about a new understanding of parenthood and sacrifice.
His side of this story is the impact his challenges had on his life; my side is about how little impact my father allowed his life to have on mine.
The Big Talk
Frumie Mandel, Akiva’s wife
It was on a summer Sunday more than 20 years ago when I once again broached the topic of hearing aids with my husband.
We were sitting outside our bungalow, surrounded by parents calling their children home, bikes whirring past, brakes squealing, misaligned screen doors banging, and the symphony that nature plays at dusk — chirping crickets, rustling leaves, and creaking branches. I knew my husband didn’t hear most of it, which is why I wanted him to buy himself hearing aids for my upcoming birthday gift.
It was a request that came from years of watching life go past him. I wanted him to hear the children’s dinner table chatter. I wanted him to be part of gatherings with his siblings and elderly parents, and I wanted him to have long distance phone calls with mine. I wanted him to no longer be a bystander.
My husband’s simple response was, “Okay.”
I was surprised. It wasn’t the first time we had had this conversation, but it was the first time he agreed to my idea. After the relief came the uncertainty. The enormity of the cost, finding a doctor…
And it was unsettling to officially join the world of the hearing.
With the support of a doctor who was a close family friend, we found an audiologist who was the right shaliach for us. Even with his guidance, it was still a journey. There were headaches from the bombardment of novel noises, earaches from the unfamiliar pressure of the hearing aids, and social fatigue from the increased quantity and quality of interactions; instead of avoiding scenes that caused frustration or embarrassment, my husband could indulge in his extroversion.
It was a steep learning curve, and it still is today.
When I was 16, my friend’s brother tried out his new cap gun by sneaking up behind me and blasting two shots right near my ears.
For the next few weeks I heard constant ringing. I didn’t want to worry my parents, so I went to the doctor on my own. Because the doctor thought I was imagining it, it took a while for him to take me seriously. I was devastated when he finally tested me and confirmed that I had permanent hearing damage.
(Today I know that it’s mostly genetic because many of my family members wear hearing aids, and in hindsight, I didn’t hear properly a single day in my life. The cap gun was definitely a trigger, though. Something irreversible changed that day, and there was a marked difference in how much I could hear.)
I still regret that I didn’t get hearing aids back then. Instead, I kept my disability a secret from everyone but my father. I stopped hanging out in quiet places like libraries because people speak too quietly there, and I felt silly asking everyone to repeat themselves. In a noisy area, it made sense for me to ask people to repeat themselves, and I felt less self-conscious.
Although it wasn’t a conscious decision, I became known as the boisterous guy, the one who greeted you with a loud hello from across the street. I started the conversation loudly, because people would often respond with a similar energy, and then I’d be able to hear them.
When I was worn out, I would avoid people. Sometimes it was easier to stay away than to struggle through a conversation, which I know meant that people saw me as arrogant.
Things changed once I was married and became a father, baruch Hashem. One of my sons had a particularly low-pitched voice, and I had a hard time speaking to him. Even at five years old, he knew he had to talk directly into my ear. I was putting him to bed one night when he asked, “Ta, why do you only listen to me when I tell secrets?”
I repeated the conversation to my wife, and for the thousandth time since we got married, she encouraged me to consider hearing aids. I still wouldn’t hear of it, but my son’s question played in mind a few weeks later when she told me that she wanted the $5,500 pair as her birthday present. Finally, I agreed, and we went out to purchase it.
The hearing aids were supposed to last three years, but I pushed them for seven. At this point, 20 years in, I’ve spent more than $25,000 between four pairs. Insurance covers close to none of it — only $10 for each hearing aid — but being able to hear is worth every penny.
When I got hearing aids, I kicked myself for waiting so long. I didn’t know what I was missing until then, which is one of the things that makes a hearing impairment unique. (Even when I take off my glasses, at least I can tell that there’s a blurry scene I’m not seeing properly. Without hearing aids, I had no way to know that certain sounds existed.)
When I walked to shul the first morning after I bought my aids, I was shocked that birds actually chirped. I walked into the kitchen and learned that frying onions make a sound.
The difference being able to hear had on my personality was marked as well, so much so that someone gave me a backhanded compliment at a community event. “You used to be the biggest snob in town,” he told me. “You really changed.” With a straight face, I reached up to take out my hearing aids. The man stood in shock — laughing, crying, and apologizing all at once.
Hearing aids changed my life, but it still wasn’t perfect.
The third part of my story constantly evolves as technology improves. While most people struggle to talk above the music at a simchah, my hearing aids automatically shift the music lower and amplify the voices.
Even though I now live in a regulated world that often feels fake, I know the other side and am infinitely grateful to Hashem for every sound.
*All names have been changed
Looking out for Hearing Loss
I was at a wedding with music so loud that when someone put a mic near the speakers, the squeak blew the transformers in both my hearing aids. I went to get them repaired the next day, and the doctor pointed out that if my hearing aids busted, imagine what was happening to healthy eardrums….
At another wedding a few days later, I asked the musician to turn the music down. Annoyed, he told me to go buy ear plugs, so I took my hearing aids out and laid them in my open palm. “I would pay all the money in the world to get these plugs out of my ears,” I told him. Ever since then, he turns down the music when he sees me on the dance floor at a simchah.
I care about other people’s hearing because I know what a big deal hearing loss is. I can’t even tell you how many people didn’t realize they were missing out on life until I came to them and said, “You can’t hear. Get it checked out.” I recognize some of their behaviors as the things I did for the 30 plus years when I tried to hide my hearing loss.
Here are some of them:
- Do you turn your head to the side when listening to someone so that their voice is closer to your ear?
- Do you ask people to repeat themselves because you couldn’t make out what they said?
- Do you have to stand close to people to carry on a conversation?
- Do you get overwhelmed by the idea of a busy conversation with many people, such as at a Shabbos meal?
Akiva’s audiologist, Dr. Clare Villanueva of Manhattan Avenue Hearing Aids, answers common questions:
What exactly is hearing loss?
There are three main kinds: Sensorineural (permanent nerve damage), conductive (damage from fluids, infections, or a hole in the eardrum, all of which can usually be treated with medicine or surgery), and mixed, which is a combination of sensorineural and conductive.
Sensorineural damage can be genetically linked; it can come from noise exposure — such as working in construction or as a musician; or it can be a side effect of medications or other syndromes that people suffer from.
Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, is also sensorineural. If someone has conductive hearing loss, the first step would be exploring medications or surgeries that could resolve the issues. If that doesn’t solve everything — or if they have mixed hearing loss — then they can get hearing aids.
What are the different hearing aids available?
The person’s range of hearing loss (mild, moderate, moderately severe, or profound) is what determines what kind of hearing aids he should consider. Hearing aids come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but essentially, they all have the same three components: a microphone that picks up the sound, an amplifier, and a receiver that sends the sound back into your ear. Some hearing aids are small enough to fit inside your ear, and some are larger and go behind your ears.
What’s the advantage of the larger hearing aids?
I’d say that 80% to 90% of people wear the kind that goes behind their ears because they have more power. The larger ones have more features — they can stream to a phone and connect via Bluetooth. The bigger ones also have room for a T-coil (or telecoil) — a small copper coil that can sync up with the speakers in public places.
The behind-the-ear hearing aids also come in rechargeable versions, which can be helpful for people with dexterity or vision problems and may struggle with changing the tiny batteries.
With all these features, do you ever recommend that people get the smaller hearing aids?
Almost never — unless it’s a matter of someone wearing a small hearing aid or not wearing one at all. Then I’d recommend that they at least get the small one. Some people choose the small one because they want to be discreet, but they really lose out on a lot of features.
What can people do to protect their hearing?
Hearing damage is from a combination of sound duration and loudness. That’s why OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has rules that limit sounds above a certain decibel to certain lengths of time.
If someone’s hearing loss will be genetically linked or the side effects of a medication or syndrome, there’s not much they can do, but if you know that you work in a noisy environment, wear ear plugs or keep the noise down.
Even if you don’t have a noisy job, try to always lower the volume when listening to music, especially with ear buds. If you like to listen to loud music, listen for a shorter amount of time.
Some form of hearing loss is inevitable — no one at 100 has perfect hearing, but it’s important to be careful because once you lose your hearing, it can never come back.
Here’s what to keep in mind when considering hearing aids:
Most people don’t notice my hearing aids, and I can get away with them not knowing, yet I purposely mention them often. People are more accommodating when you include them in your story. They don’t think that I’m rude for not responding, and they don’t get annoyed when I ask them to repeat themselves. It makes my life easier when they know, but more than that, I tell people because hearing aids should be as accepted as glasses. I want people to see a normal example of someone with hearing loss, and maybe then they’ll be encouraged not to wait as long as I did.
Consult Daas Torah
When I first considered getting hearing aids, I wondered about the halachic ramifications. As with every big decision, it’s important to consult daas Torah. Even after my rav spoke to my audiologist and paskened that I could wear hearing aids on Shabbos, it felt strange to put them in. Today it’s become normal to me, but when it comes to shofar and Megillah, I still have to take them out. Those two times a year I have a makom kavu’a right near the bimah so that I can hear “naturally.”
It’s an Adjustment
First you have to get used to hearing in the first place. Then you have to get used to hearing things that no one else hears. Hearing aids are electronic devices and nowhere near as perfect as the natural sense Hashem gave us. For example, when someone rustles a paper near a recorder, it will amplify the sound more than in real life. My coworkers laughed because I went from being the person who heard nothing to the one who could hear the copy machine from down the hall. I wasn’t used to hearing that much and had to learn which noises to fade into the background, which is something most fully hearing people do instinctively.
Trust Your Doctor
It takes adjustments to get hearing aids right. Some people get frustrated by the long process and give up before they make it to the end. While it’s possible to buy hearing aids from a place like Costco, and they may be cheaper there, I don’t recommend it because you need to feel like your doctor has the time and patience to take your concerns seriously.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 676)