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Linked by challenges, actors headline at B’nai Jeshurun
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Linked by challenges, actors headline at B’nai Jeshurun

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Henry Winkler and Marlee Matlin with Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, at Temple B’nai Jeshurun’s Cooperman Family Distinguished Speaker Series, held April 29. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Henry Winkler and Marlee Matlin with Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, at Temple B’nai Jeshurun’s Cooperman Family Distinguished Speaker Series, held April 29. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Marlee Matlin and Henry Winkler lit up the bima as they discussed their intertwined stories at Temple B’nai Jeshurun’s annual Cooperman Family Distinguished Speakers lecture, held April 29, before an audience of about 400.

Plenty of children were in the audience, although few have any idea who “the Fonz” is, and surely fewer have seen Children of A Lesser God, for which Matlin, then 21, won a Best Actress Oscar in 1986. Instead, they were there to see Winkler the author — of the “Hank Zipzer” book series about an older elementary school student with a learning disability.

In addition to two sign language interpreters (one for Matlin, who is deaf, and one for the audience) the synagogue also provided CART, or Computer Assisted Realtime Translation. An increasingly popular alternative to an interpreter, it allows people to read, on a large screen, what a speaker is saying, almost simultaneously (or at least as fast as a human translator can type).

Matlin’s history offers a kind of counterpoint to Winkler’s; her story softens his. Together, they offered a way of navigating life and overcoming obstacles.

Winkler, who could have passed for a TBJ board member, told the audience that he realized he had a learning disability at the age of 31 when his own third-grade son was diagnosed with dyslexia. Until then, he said, he simply thought he was stupid.

He recalled a conversation he had with the dean when he was a student at the private McBurney School in New York City. “The dean said to me, ‘I want to know why you are not succeeding.’ I said, ‘That makes two of us.’ It was horrible.”

The lack of support from his parents, German Jews who had fled the Nazis and settled in New York City, didn’t help. “My parents had an affectionate phrase for me growing up: ‘stummer hund.’ For those of you who don’t speak German, it’s ‘dumb dog.’ Very supportive human beings,” he said with obvious sarcasm. They did show their pride he said, after he gained fame as the motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing ’50s “greaser,” Fonzie, on TV’s hit show Happy Days. “But by then it was too late. I needed their support when I was having trouble in school,” he said.

Matlin’s parents, on the other hand, were supportive, even ahead of their time, as they mainstreamed their daughter, who has been deaf since she was 18 months old, in elementary school, disregarding a specialist’s advice to send her away for help. And they joined Temple Bene Shalom in Chicago, a local synagogue that happened to be the only one in the country at the time serving both deaf and hearing Jews. Matlin called her bat mitzva training “the best thing they ever did for me.” But she cried while reading from the Torah when she saw her family and friends crying. To her horror, her tears stained the parchment, and she fearfully told the rabbi. But he was not concerned, telling her, she said, “On this most important day, our Torah was stained with your tears for your dreams and your parents’ dreams. Your tears are a wonderful mitzva.”

Where Winkler had no role model until he met director Garry Marshall, it was he who turned out to be the one who was always there for Matlin when she needed support.

The two met one day in Chicago, when Winkler visited The Center on Deafness, where Matlin was a young student. He was so impressed with her turn in the show presented that day that he came backstage to meet her. She was, she said, “wowed. He was more famous than President Clinton.”

After the performance, her parents urged Winkler to tell Matlin to give up her dream of becoming an actress.

Winkler recounted: “I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I cannot do that. What I just experienced is something that is so profound.’ I went back to Marlee and I told her, ‘I’m telling you now, if that’s what you want to do, you will be able to do it. What just jumped off the stage into the audience was something that you have a gift for and that’s all there is to it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

In fact, Winkler told the audience, hanging on the wall in his office is a metal cutting bearing Theodor Herzl’s famous phrase, “If you will it, it is no dream,” a philosophy he has embraced.

Eventually, after winning her Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God — the youngest person ever to receive Best Actress honors — Matlin turned up on Winkler’s doorstep, award in hand. A few things had turned sour in her life, and she was furious with Daily News critic Rex Reed’s summation of the award as a “pity vote.”

Winkler invited her to stay the weekend. She stayed two-and-a-half years, sealing his role as a father figure and mentor to her. When she married, the ceremony was held on the lawn of his home.

He said, “I knew what it was to be told no, you can’t, and to struggle.”

To an audience member who asked about a son managing with dyslexia, he said to tell him, “You can figure it out. Dyslexia will never define you. It just makes everything a little more complicated. You put one foot in front of the other, and it will never stop you from being magnificent.”

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