The SAJM’s unforgettable visitor

Pippa Raphaely-Walls and SAJM director Gavin Morris with Cyril Axelrod

Not a person in the room was left unmoved on Tuesday 25 October when hearing the deafblind priest-rabbi Cyril Axelrod OBE telling the story of his life. 

If the story had been only about overcoming immense obstacles, learning to communicate with disability and changing thousands of lives, dayenu, it would still have been enough to touch every heart. But this story was all those things and also something more profound. Through his great friend and interpreter, Larry Kaufman, the 82-year-old revealed a life with more than average liability, frustration and fear, but also tremendous achievement, trust, friendship and love.

With hilarious anecdotes showing his wicked sense of humour, Cyril explained what it felt like to live every day without sound or sight, how he was encouraged by teachers as a boy to stay strong, how he communicates through touch, how he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, became a Catholic priest but never lost his Jewish identity, how he met the Queen and received an OBE and how he worked with deaf communities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and China. Without planning to, Cyril showed us that his unique combination of determination, fighting spirit, generosity, humour and humility is why he has managed to do more in his life than many people who can see and hear. 

Two moments stood out during the evening. The first came when Cyril and Larry, in answer to a question about their decades-long friendship, spoke about the depth of their connection and made us laugh at the description of how they argue! The second lump-in-throat moment was when Cyril presented to SAJM director Gavin Morris the beautiful stole that he received over fifty years ago when he was ordained as a priest, embroidered with Jewish symbols by a nun who knew his background. 

After signing his books and meeting most of the audience, Cyril Axelrod rubbed his face and yawned. At the end of another busy day, the deafblind painter, writer, gardener and aromatherapist who has climbed Macchu Picchu and travelled all over the world was ready for a good night’s sleep.

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• Published in the November 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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