Zebediah Berliner can “sing” entire songs without uttering a word.
He’s so good at it that next month he’ll perform two songs at a Good Friday concert at Mattituck Presbyterian Church. But instead of singing along like everyone else, Zebediah will stand at the side of the stage and sign the songs.
The 17-year-old has studied American Sign Language for three years at Shoreham-Wading River High School.
“I enjoy the movement and just how fluent you can be,” he said. “What I would like to achieve later on is to be fluent. When I watch people [sign,] it’s just beautiful.”
While Zebediah has no hearing loss or any deaf friends or family members, he decided to enroll in a sign language course his freshman year to fulfill the school’s language requirement for graduation.
Having no previous experience with signing, he didn’t know what to expect.
What he discovered, he said, was his calling. Now just months from graduation, the Wading River resident plans to major in American Sign Language at Suffolk County Community College this fall, in hopes of becoming an interpreter for Christian musical performances.
“I want to do songs,” he said. “When people watch me sign a song I think they really do enjoy it.”
Ann Welcome, a Mattituck Presbyterian Church member, has been working with Zebediah and the church choir/orchestra ensemble to coordinate the upcoming performance. She’s also helped coordinate a handful of Zebediah’s previous interpretations.
“Everyone who watches him says they’ve never seen a person do American Sign Language with such expression,” Ms. Welcome said in an email. “It’s almost like a dance.”
Since Shoreham-Wading River offers only three levels of ASL classes, Zebediah has spent the last year teaching himself vocabulary on his own time. Some of his favorite words and phrases to sign include “freedom,” “heaven,” “chocolate” and “How are you?”
Every day he signs along to songs at home, both favorites — such as “Glorious Day” by Casting Crowns and “How Can It Be” by Lauren Daigle — as well as new ones he hasn’t practiced yet.
He also meets with the school’s ASL teacher, Kathrine Ziegler, every morning before classes begin. The two communicate almost entirely in sign and Zebediah uses that as an opportunity to continue learning even without a formal class to attend.
“He’s diligent, motivated and focused,” Ms. Ziegler said. “Other students turned to him for help. It was like having another teacher in the classroom.”
A quiet child, Zebediah said that, growing up, he communicated more with his hands than with words. For example, instead of saying “camera,” he would try and make a camera shape with his hands in order to get his point across. As a teen, he’s still shy, but feels sign language is a natural extension of his former communication skills and something he finds more comfortable than speaking out loud.
In fact, Zebediah said he’s so comfortable signing that he often finds his first instinct is to sign with friends and family rather than speaking.
“I sign to my brother and he’s like ‘Zeb, just talk to me,’ ” he joked. “And the other day I was sitting with my friend and we went out to eat and she asked me a question and I just started randomly signing what I was saying. I can’t help myself.”
Photo credit: Nicole Smith