Folklorist for the deaf explores similarity in hearing-impaired cultures

Folklorist Simon Carmel knows all of the popular jokes in the deaf community. For instance, there's the one about the woodsman who decides to cut down three trees. He cuts down the first tree, calls 'Timber!' and the tree falls with a mighty crash.

He cuts down the second tree, calls 'Timber!' and the tree falls with a mighty crash. He cuts down the third tree, and calls 'Timber!'-- but nothing happens.


Alarmed, the woodsman calls a tree surgeon who examines the tree and tells him it is deaf. The woodsman says, 'Oh. Please move back, doctor.' Then he fingerspells 'Timber' to the tree and it falls over quite gracefully.

"Deaf people love to listen to stories with deaf characters or deaf culture inside them. They want to look for the similar cultural identity of deaf persons mentioned in anecdotes, jokes, riddles or personal-experience narratives," Carmel said recently in a phone interview made possible by a special telephone device for the deaf. "Every ethnic group has its own folklore and culture different from any other."


Simon Carmel may be the only deaf folklorist working in the United States. Born and raised in Baltimore, he is a professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf/Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the country's foremost authorities on deaf folklore and culture.

"All deaf people around the world have their similar culture based on a strongly visual dependence, except that they have their different sign languages and manual alphabets," he said. "They share a custom of having their respective deaf clubs, which work something like sports clubs. Most of the deaf people come to meet together -- mostly on the weekends when they don't work -- to catch up on news about other deaf people, or jobs, or things like that."

Carmel will speak about deaf folklore and culture at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at The Park School in Brooklandville. He is one of 37 Park School alumni, parents, grandparents and faculty members to discuss their specialties as part of "Brain Thrust," the school's annual academic festival. Other speakers include Kathy Levin, Tony Award winning producer of "Gypsy"; David Zinman, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Susan Levitan, law professor and president of Advocates for Children & Youth; Jim Guest, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland; chef Billy Himmelrich and ballroom dancers Richard and Therese Landsburgh.

"Brain Thrust" runs from 5:30-9:30 p.m. at the school's campus on Old Court Road. The $10 registration fee includes dinner. For details and registration, call 825-2351, Ext. 58.

Carmel attended Park School in the 1950s, at a time when he was not permitted to learn sign language because of the erroneous belief it would compromise his ability to communicate with the hearing world.

Born deaf, he learned to sign only when he attended Gallaudet University in Washington. He received his degree in physics in 1961 and went to work for the next 20 years as a physical chemist for the National Bureau of Standards.

During several trips to Europe as coach and team director of the U.S. Deaf Ski Team -- which he also founded -- Carmel became captivated by the different customs and the similarities he found within the various deaf communities he visited. After he published the first international hand alphabet charts, he decided to return to school part-time to study anthropology. He eventually received his doctorate from American University.

He served as one of two coordinators of the first deaf folk life section at the Smithsonian Institution's annual folk life festival on the Mall. Traveling widely to lecture about the culture of the deaf, he has conducted seminars at international symposiums. Carmel is also fluent in German and Russian, knows international sign language and the Israeli and Russian sign languages.


He is working on a project to document deaf survivors of the Holocaust.