As the darkness settled over us, I felt an unanticipated sense of panic. I had been expecting to be unsettled, startled, certainly disoriented; I didn’t realize it would bring up so many deep and hidden emotions.
To set the stage: my wife Jody and I were dining in the Black Out Restaurant at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa. Nalaga’at calls itself a “cultural, entertainment and training center” for deaf, blind and deaf-blind Israelis. A troupe of a dozen actors puts on a play each evening that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming as it illustrates what it’s like to live with their particular disabilities.
Many theatergoers choose to start their night with a meal at the Black Out, a restaurant where blind and seeing impaired waiters guide their guests through a meal in total darkness. Not just “dark,” but total – not a speck of light seeped through the heavy curtains. We were even instructed to check our cell phones before entering, to prevent any light if they flashed from swarming through the room like Internet-savvy fireflies.
Our waitress Ma’ayan introduced herself to us and then led us to our table by placing hands on shoulders. We had to feel for our chairs, locate our water and glasses and silverware as if we were blind – which for the next two hours we essentially were.
There are two meal options at the Black Out – dairy and fish; we opted for the former. Within each option, there are three entrees and a “surprise me” choice, where the chef picks the dish and the diners try to discern what they’ve been served (mine was some sort or ravioli with sweet potato and peas – unusual but good).
First, though, we were brought a basket of fresh baked bread, pre-buttered with garlic and dried tomatoes. Perhaps (or probably) because one of our senses had been taken away, the taste of the bread was astonishing.
Jody and I also used the breadbasket to navigate the table, and to find each other’s hands to hold as the volume from the other diners in the small space cranked up towards metal head level, threatening to sonically overwhelm us. Ma’ayan explained that when you can’t see someone and you’re not used to that, you naturally tend to shout. The ears also compensate for the lack of sight, amplifying everything.
Which is when I started to panic. The sound level, which I am loathe to call deafening for abuse of a cliché, although it might nevertheless be the most appropriate, became oppressive, much like the humidity we’d earlier slogged through outside on the Jaffa beach.
I became silent. Jody tried to engage me in conversation. I couldn’t respond. It was then Jody’s turn to panic – had I left the table without telling her? Where was her usually unstoppably chatty husband?
Upon hearing Jody’s concern, I snapped out of my momentary melancholy fairly quickly, but my words were forced, uttered more for the sake of compassion than ordinary discourse.
Once the main meal came, my alarm was mitigated somewhat. I tried my best to eat with a fork, but lapsed too often into using my hands – after all, no one could see me, right?
Everyone will react differently to the temporary deprivation of one or more of their senses. Jody was calm but couldn’t keep her eyes open. My response to the sounds around me (made worse by the presence of a particularly boisterous group of un chaperoned teenagers) was not entirely surprising: I have always been sensitive to noise and the Black Out restaurant magnified that susceptibility a hundredfold. I can’t imagine how it must be to live like this all the time. I am thankful I don’t have to. And saddened that others do not have that choice.