“Not for a moment, beautiful aged Walt Whitman, have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies.” ~ Federico Garcia Lorca
I grew out my beard ten years ago for what I’d considered to be religious reasons. I knew that one need not have a beard to be a frum Yid. But I was joining a club, too, and buying into a system. And I wanted to do so with strength and conviction.
All philosophies aside, punks look like punks, Rastafarians look like Rastafarians, and Chassidim look like Chassidim. After taking on mitzvahs, slowly but surely, I took on the uniform.
First, I started wearing a kippa before and after work. Then I started wearing a jacket to shul on Shabbos. Soon, I started teaching at a Jewish school and wore the kippa all of the time, adding to that wool tzitzit. And, finally, I didn’t trim after Shavuot that year and let it go. It didn’t take long after that to tie on a gartel for davening, to don a hat for Shabbos and yomim tovim, and then add to that a kapota.
But the beard was my flag, my banner of a spiritual warrior.
The beard that grew on my face was thick and majestic. Wavy strands in shades of red, gold, blonde, and eventually some white as well grew densely from my cheeks and chin down to about my solar plexus. I was complimented by Chassidim and jiu jitsu fighters alike. A young bochur, son of a long-bearded rabbi, once said to my own son, “Not everyone can have such a beautiful beard like your father.” The beard was respected, even revered.
My family took it in stride, some of them playfully so. My brother-in-law sent me a picture of Grizzly Adams.
It also disquieted some old friends. The first time George saw my beard, it was with his hand that I took in mine and brought to my face. George is 90% blind in one eye and totally blind in his other. I hadn’t been able to hang out with George for a while before that night. So as his fingers traversed the terrain of straggly hairs along the contours of my face, recognition formed his mouth into the shape of concern. “This is new, Dave.” He asked, “I’m sure you’re sure, but are you sure?” I nodded. “Cool,” he said.
As soon as I grew it, my beard became the dominant factor of my physical identity. I thought it was also a symbol of my spiritual identity
It was a challenge to the status quo. . . Until recently, anyway, when beards have become so popular that sales of shaving razors have gone down.
And then, two weeks ago, right after the three weeks ended, I trimmed my beard short to my face for what I know are not religious reasons.
I knew for a while that it had been bound to happen. A lot of study, discussion, and thought went into trimming. I needed to make sure the decision to do so came from a place just as positive and – ironic pun warning – growth minded as the original decision to let it grow.
The reasons for which I’d grown my beard had become less relevant. I no longer felt beholden to a particular system. The “other opinions” on the halacha seemed more relevant to me. That I had come to know beautiful holy Yidden with and without beards seemed more relevant to me. That it became terribly uncomfortable and a bane to my own humble sense of vanity seemed more relevant to me.
As I thought about it, I considered the long, sordid, and holy history I’ve shared with my facial hair. The following is a sort of partial chronicle of that history:
Saturdays during the early 1980s:
I’m 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14 riding the city bus to my grandparents’ store on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach – where I work the register, vacuum, dust, and tally inventory by hand – when I spy black-and-white clad, bearded Chassidim walking the sidewalks, presumably to shul. The reverence as I pressed my nose to the grimy window! Those are Jews, real Jews! And here I am on my way to work on Saturday. What’s that all about? Aren’t they doing what I’m supposed to be doing? At the same time, I can’t wait to see my grandparents or my uncles, who are demanding, but take a lot of breaks to tell stories about life in Cuba or to feed the pigeons on the sidewalk in front of the store. We aren’t religious, obviously. No one wears a beard. But I know Zeide would be at the store only after having attended shul at The Cuban Hebrew Congregation that morning. Zeide Wolf never grew a beard, but his kisses are always rough on the skin. In fact, there are only two familial beards I remember as a child. The first is that of my great grandfather Zeide Zalman, who was never closely shaved and grew a short, stubbly beard only when mourning his wife Rochel the year before he too passed. Then, one time my father returned from somewhere with a full beard that curled an inch or two off his face. It didn’t last too long. And he didn’t grow it for spiritual reasons at all. But those Chassidim walking to shul on Shabbos? That’s what true, Gd fearing Jews are supposed to look like, is what I’m thinking. And although I speak to Gd all the time, I don’t know about being Gd fearing or Gd loving, and I certainly have no idea why beards – long, straggly, unkempt beards – are Jewish in my mind. . . A romantic notion, of course, no doubt given substance in the images of Fiddler on the Roof and in the hours upon hours of Holocaust documentaries various Jewish youth groups inundated us with in those days. But as I grew older, it was a different image that became quintessentially Jewish in my imagination: the clean-shaven, bronzed, Israeli hero in the personhood of Paul Newman playing Dalton Trumbo and Otto Preminger’s Ari Ben Canaan in the 1960 film Exodus.
Robert “Gorby” Feingold, z”tl, shows me how to shave in the bathroom of our cabin at Camp Tel Yehuda in Barryville, New York, just east of the Delaware River. We are in the mountains, but this summer is hot and sweaty, so the shaving cream liquefies quickly. The thick, blonde fuzz on my cheeks and chin comes off easily. My face stings and pimples appear on my neck within an hour. I am happy. This is a rite of passage. Whereas my bar mitzvah had been a chance to charmingly embarrass myself in front of friends and family by reciting the haftorah mostly by memory, shaving under Gorby’s tutelage broadens my shoulders and makes me feel like a real man on my way to more manly-man experiences.
Mrs. Norkin, my 11th grade English teacher, reprimands me for not shaving one week. “Why cover such a face? Shave and you’ll find yourself a girlfriend in no time.”
College freshman. No girlfriend, which of course is my main concern. Grow my beard in less than two weeks. A girl I fancy says I should shave it. I do. Still no girlfriend.
Grow a goatee just before school starts again. Sitting in a Linguistics class on the first day of fall, a platinum blonde, blue jeans wearing rocker walks into the class and surveys the seating arrangements. She sits next to me, opens the Metal Edge magazine she has in her binder, and starts flipping pages. Sitting to her right, I can see the pages as she’s turning them. I can see the next article is about the rock band Def Leppard. If she stops to read that article I can’t and won’t talk to her. I have too many artificial standards to maintain. She keeps turning the pages. I breathe deeply and peek again. The next article is about Faith No More. I love FNM. I glance at her face. She’s chewing mint flavored gum. She glances up, catches my eye, and she smirks with an attitude the size of New York. Electric currents numb my fingers. She stops turning pages to read the article. This is my future wife, I think, stroking the short hairs around my dry mouth. And I am right. Girlfriend issues solved forever.
A day before our wedding, my parents ask me to shave my goatee for the family pictures. Mr. Rebel. Mr. Anger. Mr. No. But I dutifully comply. I don’t understand it myself. On the worst day possible, I cause my wife unhappiness. We get over it, of course, and have a blast. Although I grow it back in the days that follow, that habitual compliance sets a bad precedent for many years of our relationship. Despite this, we survive and thrive. And the whole time I keep a goatee nice and neat.
Living in Plantation, Florida, we walk into a Chabad storefront shul on Simchat Torah. In the midst of celebrating and dancing with the Torah, the rabbi and a couple of other thickly bearded Chassidim among many more beardless Jews like me are singing out hakafos and throwing back shots of vodka or whiskey like it’s nobody’s business. I feel like Dorothy: “We’re not in Plantation anymore. We’re in Poland. No, further back. We’re in the Holy Land. This is the real deal.” What could be more authentic than drinking l’chaims while singing like brothers with men I’d never met, holding the covered holy Torah scrolls, kissing them, dancing with them, raising them in glory to Gd? I’m high on the singing and dancing before I’m drunk. By the time I feel the effects of the alcohol I want to ask my wife if we can keep coming back. When I find her, she’s glowing. There’s no need to ask. I go back to dancing into the night, fancying myself a player on a stage set long ago – I’m Tevye, I’m Walt Whitman, I’m Herzl, I’m Hemingway, I’m the headbanging hippy rebel offspring of Metallica and Bob Marley and Tolstoy, I’m the anti-Karl Marx and the anti-Fidel Castro, and I’m a Chassid of the Rebbe. I would set myself apart internally and externally. I was already envisioning myself wild for Gd with a colorful knit kippa, flying tzitzit, knowing a whole new vocabulary with which to define the world around me, and wearing a flowing beard.
My beard is short and tight to my face. The learning is beautiful, the changes we take on are amazing, but we cling to modern culture and are walking a tough line. A young bochur I learn with regularly hands me an unlabeled cd and says, “This is going around yeshiva. It’s not my kind of thing, but I think you’ll love it.” I slip it into the player. Dude beatboxing and rapping about Torah and Chassidus and chiming melodies so sweet – I look him up online and pre-order what would be his first album, Shake off the Dust… Arise. A fellow traveler, Matisyahu, with his glorious beard, becomes an inspiring force for our growth in frumkite. He’s doing it. He’s bringing holiness to the mundane. He’s breaking all the barriers we’d thought were caging us in. He’s singing our song. His pride is infectious and his long beard is the most punk thing in my world.
Counting the omer, I say to my wife, “I have no excuses. This is the path we’ve chosen. It’s time I let it grow.” She agrees. After Lag B’Omer, a precocious middle school student asks why I haven’t trimmed back my beard. I answer, “When you imagine the avos and their followers, do you see them with or without beards?” By now, Matisyahu and his iconic beard have made it into popular culture. I am learning Chassidus on a regular basis. The romantic vision of myself that I had Simchat Torah 2002 has become a reality. I will stop trimming. That same week, a school administrator asks if I would consider shaving my beard if the students raise a certain amount of money for a charity by Shavuot. I see the challenge to my decision as divine providence. In fact, after saying no, I am asked two more times on the same day. All three times I smile and say no, but that I wish the students luck. Suddenly, the beard I’d decided to grow in order to better follow a halachically based cultural custom is something that gives me a sense of pride.
Meet and greet in August with Matisyahu at Uncle Sam’s Musicafe in South Beach. We’re the only two guys in the place with beards. I say to him, “This is like full-circle for me, brother.” He says, “Yeah? Why?” I look around the store, back to him, “A very different, yet very familiar me spent the formative years of my 20s here during the 1990s. And now I’m meeting you here in a full beard so full of nostalgia and so full of now.” He laughs. “That’s cool, man.” Three months later Matisyahu shaves his beard. Disappointed for all sorts of reasons I feel no need to completely rehash. The worst part about it is not the shaving itself but what he says about it. On Facebook, I rant on, joining in the general cacophony that rages for months about the influence of his use of the word “alias” and phrases like “too many rules” and about his need to reclaim himself. I begin to doubt the veracity of the truth behind his lyrics on his previous albums. I ramble on about how with one action and a few words about disguise and a few words disparaging some of his initial supporters he destroys the notion of himself as a great example, a symbol of how religious culture and secular culture don’t have to be so divided. His symbolism – and his relevance to me – disintegrates, disappears down the drain with his beard.
While visiting a gym in Boston, I discover a new guard from which to attack my discomforted training partner. Beard guard. Like all of the best kind of jiu jitsu, beard guard happens without thought or obvious intent. It’s so good, so subtle, that the opponent knows it happens before the practitioner knows he used it. In the middle of rolling, your training partner will suddenly make a face like he’s choking on a fish bone. But it’s no fish bone. Now you know that you’ve successfully accomplished beard guard. Devastating in its affect, your training partner will start hacking like a cat with a hairball and soon leave the mat, humiliated, spitting into the trash can, and then getting a drink of water.
My son’s red beard is coming in thick and he’s not happy about it. After a disheartening year at mesivta, he’s now at a Chofetz Chaim school where none of his classmates are bearded. Only the rabbis have beards. But he claims that’s not what bothers him. He admits he’d always dreaded growing a full beard, especially if it grew in awkward and he looked more Amish than Jewish. He admits he’d be fine with a neat, trim beard. “But that’s not our way,” I say or growl. And I feel like a hypocrite. I feel like a jerk. Because I too have been struggling with the beard.
And then one day I realize how stupid I’m being. We have no long family tradition of bearded Jews on either side of our family. I know my great grandfather Isaac, z”tl, who never made it out of Rumania before the Nazis came, had a beard. But none of his sons did. I know that my great-great-great grandfather, whose name no one alive knows, was a bearded Chassid of the Ger Rebbe. But what does that mean to my son whose grandparents whom he loves so dearly are as secular as ham and challah sandwiches? Not much.
Plus, although I do not admit it, my beard has begun to bother me. Rolling it up is bothersome. Keeping it neat is impossible. And all of this coincides with my wife, daughter, and son changing schools, leaving our Chabad community schools for a Chofetz Chaim day school and yeshiva of the same vein. Finally, the last hold-out, I give in and give my consent. My son and my wife are over the moon with happiness. After getting over the natural anxiety of going to shul with his new face, my son’s neat beard is our new normal and we don’t even think about it. But I can’t stop thinking about my own.
Now I too have a trim beard and I’m finally being public about it. I have no fear of what anyone will say about frei-ing out.
As a family, we may have left a Chabad community, but we continue to grow in our frumkite.
Before trimming, I went back to the sources, learned the differences between “destroying” and “shaving” and why we don’t use razors. I learned about the various opinions one way or another about what is heter and what is not.
When I write “I learned” I mean I read about them. I didn’t become an expert. But I am well informed now on why some frum Yidden wear beards and why some choose not too.
And Matisyahu’s iconography is no longer an issue. In fact, although I still find the words he used to describe his experience distasteful, I now empathize with his sense of journey and self-discovery.
A couple of days after Tisha b’Av, we bought the right equipment, I closed the door to the bathroom, threw on the latest Christopher Paul Stelling that I can’t stop listening to, and trimmed my beard.
When I opened the door, my wife yelped with joy and hugged me tight. My son smiled and hugged me. My daughter said, “It’s weird. It’ll take getting used to.”
And I threw away the bobby pins I used to roll it up tight.
And when I said Shema that night, I did so with a smile I could not stop.
And the chorus of an old Marley tune played over and over in my head, “I’m on the rock (running and running)/ I take a stock (running like a fugitive)/ I had to run like a fugitive just to save the life I live/ I’m gonna be iron like a lion in Zion.”
(Click here to read a follow-up post in response to emails I received from concerned readers.)
Image of lion from Flickr.
Image of author and Matisyahu taken 8.26.11 by Nancy Goldwin.