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Sanctifying the stutter: How I embraced my speech disorder as a Jewish cantor

A space in which I was given the time to speak freely became my Shabbat

I’m a person who stutters. I’m also a cantor in the Conservative movement. My Jewish and stuttering identities feel increasingly intertwined, as both are related to the experience of time.

As a person who stutters, nothing is more liberating to me than the sensation of having time while talking. This sense of time can be inhibited by a fear of dismissal, and doubt of acceptance and efficacy. Even the common experience of someone asking if I “forgot my name” when introducing myself can subtly inhibit my confidence. When I’m not afraid, I know I have time to express myself, regardless of blocks, repetitions and other disfluencies. I can share my authentic self with the world.

As a Jew, nothing is more central or pressing for me than time. We deliberately sanctify time with Shabbat every week, creating space for self-reflection, connection and joy. In his famous book “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that Shabbat is “not an interlude, but the climax of living.”

Like many people who stutter, I don’t stutter when I sing. However, I stutter when I teach, when I announce a page number at a Shabbat service, when I give a eulogy at a funeral and when I tell preschoolers about dinosaurs that love to eat challah.

For most of my life, I tried to hide stuttering as much as possible, an experience of constant anxiety, shame, frustration and exhaustion. As a chubby kid who stuttered, raised in a very observant, Orthodox household in Columbus, Ohio, I was desperate to fit in. If I was capable of hiding stuttering, even a little bit, I would. For me, hiding a stutter often meant simply not talking, even when I desperately wanted to. I also avoided stuttering by constantly changing words and phrases as I spoke, usually approximating what I originally intended to say, but not always expressing the complete intent of what I wanted to.

A sea change occurred when I listened to the StutterTalk podcast for the first time in 2019. I taught voice lessons in college to a person who stuttered, and he had posted about the podcast on Facebook the previous day. I was driving to officiate at a funeral, and I was a little anxious: I hadn’t slept well the night before, and disfluency increases with fatigue. It’s deeply important to me that the deceased receives all of the honor and attention at a funeral. If I stutter too much, I worry that people will focus too much on me, and I will take time away from the funeral.

I pressed play as I was stuck in traffic, trying to cross the Throgs Neck Bridge. The host stuttered as she introduced the episode. She stuttered over and over again, but she stuttered like it was the most normal, natural thing in the world. She described the beauty and courage of living openly with a stutter and encouraged her teenage guest to do the same. I started to weep as I inched across the bridge in my car. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to stop.

Initially, the idea of living openly with a stutter was terrifying. Camouflaging stuttering keeps at bay an overflowing river of emotional baggage, and I was afraid to let it out. When I hid stuttering during interpersonal conversations or during public speaking, I was also trying to hide questions and feelings like:

Does the other person think I’m stupid? Are they bored? Do they think I’m incompetent? Do they think I belong here? Will I ever be able to truly get out what I mean? When will this block end? Will they make fun of me?  Will someone wonder why the cantor with a stutter is officiating at their loved one’s funeral? Can anyone see that I’m thinking all of these things? I’m just so embarrassed and ashamed.

In the moment of a block, these giant emotions of shame and unworthiness can come rushing through.

In a conversation with Oprah Winfrey on SuperSoul Sunday, Brene Brown argues that the antidote to shame is empathy. By talking about shame with a friend who expresses empathy, the painful feeling cannot survive. Brown continues that “shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone.”

Fortunately, I had friends and communities around me who were ready to listen with empathy. I began to attend monthly chapter meetings of the National Stuttering Association. I talked about it endlessly with my therapist. I tentatively began conversations with the rabbi and congregants of my previous congregation. Would it be OK if I began stuttering more openly? If I stuttered openly on the bimah? In pastoral situations? If I just stuttered more in general? Everyone was proud, supportive, and wanted me to be myself.

Slowly, I’ve become more and more comfortable saying exactly what I want to say when I want to say it. In pastoral situations, I’m more able to be present and to care for my congregants and their loved ones because I’m less worried about my stutter. When I looked for a new job several years ago, the prospect of talking in front of interview committees was scary. Ultimately, acknowledging and owning my stutter for all of these communities only helped to make a connection with them. The congregation I picked, Sutton Place Synagogue, has encouraged me to teach and talk as much as possible.

I attended my first National Stuttering Convention in July. Eight hundred stutterers, plus their friends and loved ones, gathered at a hotel for four days to connect with each other, learn about and celebrate stuttering — a concept that would have been foreign to my ashamed childhood self.

I experienced a luxurious feeling of time. I could stutter and block with frequency and length that felt natural. The pressure of speaking like a fluent person fell away, and I could be completely myself. I felt the power of a community that understood me in a way that no one else could. We ate together and learned together. We took over a shellshocked karaoke bar one evening and sang our hearts out. We had deep conversations. We experienced the blessing of each others’ company and the peace of knowing that each other existed.

In Judaism, we sanctify time through the observance of the Sabbath. At the stuttering conference, we sanctified the time of a stutter, that disruption of fluency that might be nearly imperceptible or last ten seconds. We affirmed for each other, over and over again, that stuttering was not only OK but beautiful. We transformed a painful, shameful and traumatic experience into a holy one.

For me, the conference was a Shabbat because as a community, we were truly present to each other. The truth is, we all need this experience of communal holiness, both people who stutter and people who are fluent.

Our first step might be to try to truly listen to each other with presence, patience and generosity, giving each other the holy gift of our time. We all need to connect with our friends and families, to listen and to be listened to, so that we can affirm ourselves in the face of our insecurities.

We all need to feel like we have the time to be ourselves.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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