My Husband, His Beard, and Me: A Story of Love and Balance

My husband, whom we’ll call Raphael, is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves.

I first laid eyes on him on Shabbos at a Chabad House seven years ago. He was wearing a short-brimmed black hat and had a clean-shaven face. He was laughing about something with a friend, his entire being taken up by his laughter, the features of his face free of the obfuscation of a beard.

I was getting towards the end of my bachelor’s degree in music, prepping for masters degree program auditions, and officially “not dating,” because I committed to only dating for marriage, and I was afraid of getting married. I was five years into keeping Shabbos, had gone to Chabad women’s Torah study programs, and had certainly envisioned what my husband might look like. He’d look kind of like my rabbi, which is not weird for me to say, because my rabbi looks like many other rabbis. A gloriously flamboyant beard. Long-brimmed hat and long-tailed coat on Shabbos. These were the male cognates of my below-knee hemlines, covered collarbone, stockings, and accepting that I’d cover my hair when married. The husband would probably have a similar story as mine, of being in some sort of creative field that led him to seek a deeper spirituality and found it answered by a Chabad House somewhere.

Raphael studied electrical engineering at West Point, and was training for a deployment at the time that I met him. The army uniform required him to shave his beard. His life was so different from mine that I simply didn’t think he’d become part of my life. I actually hadn’t ever met anyone in the army my age. I had been immersed in the intellectual liberalism of the arts world of New York City my entire life. My family were not supportive of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. The classical music world’s culture is so distant from that of the military, with some who go into music to avoid army service in their countries, and I thought of people who enlisted as desperate, directionless, pitiable.

Well, we did share some important interests. He made a long-planned classical music joke when we were introduced. It was cute and indicated he had above-average knowledge of cello repertoire. He then gave a dvar torah that Shabbos that I thought was very knowledgeable and intricate.

We got engaged about a year and a half later. I didn’t bring it up with him directly, but I spoke to others about my concerns about his beard. The lack thereof. I was afraid that it meant that he accepted the army’s dress standards over our religious ones, allowing a foreign body to dictate his religious choices. My point of reference for that was my having given up playing music on Shabbos, despite that being antithetical to the standards of practicing and performing in the music world. Did that therefore mean that we didn’t share some important values, ones that would affect our relationship in the long term? I knew, of course, that there were plenty of G-d-fearing Jews who believed that it was proper to be clean-shaven, and that Raphael had rabbinic guidance for his life in the army. But I felt connected to Chassidus and Kabbalah, and had heard about the Kabbalistic tradition about beards being a conduit for blessings from Above. He was going to make us poor, G-d forbid.

However I arrived at these fears, I did have good guidance that countered them. I was living with a family in Kfar Chabad, Israel, when we were dating, and I shared my concerns about our differences with the father of that family. He is a very pious man who had grown up in the extremes of Meah Shearim, the famously restrictive ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. We managed to communicate in turns of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. He stifled a laugh. He had met Raphael, and assured me that despite the language barrier between them, he could tell he was a good person and that I was worrying about the kinds of things that sort themselves out.

A neighbor of his was a respected rabbi and author of books that appear in many Chabad libraries, and had been involved with the seminary I had gone to. One memorable Shabbos afternoon, I told him and his wife about Raphael. Before I could even talk about the shaving, the rabbi had stopped me. I had told him about a photograph that exists of Raphael, at the wheel of a tank in Afghanistan, tefillin wrapped around his arm and his head in his hands. The rabbi had gotten very emotional over this description. I had also, of course, found the image very compelling. The rabbi, in a voice of wonderment, repeated the description: A soldier in Afghanistan, looking war, extreme poverty, and oppression in the face, and still managing to talk to G-d. He slapped the table and concluded, “if he went to West Point, you marry him!”

I was still stuck on the facial hair, though. Raphael really stood out. I feel so silly now, realizing how seriously I took such a superficial feature. But that’s where I was at that point in my life. And it wasn’t just me being superficial, it was others who saw Raphael, sized up his appearance, and assumed a lack of learning or fear of G-d. It became clear that it was a touchy subject for him, and I didn’t know how to ask the man himself what the deal was. I knew he grew it out when he wasn’t on duty. But wasn’t he struggling about it somehow? Meanwhile, my best friend had gotten married to a man who had grown up religious, whose beard grew halfway down his white buttoned shirt.

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We got married. We went back to Israel so I could finish my master’s degree. Raphael managed to set up his army drill days so that we could stay for six months at a time in Israel, and his beard grew. But in those times when we were back from a trip home and his beard was conspicuously absent, there were more incidents with rabbis who gave him a hard time about the preciousness of his beard. They were invariably insensitive and extremely dogmatic. Raphael was used to this by now, but I was just starting to see patterns in how these interactions went. These were rabbis who did not attempt to relate to or accept Raphael. Like me, they also hadn’t known anyone in the U.S. Army until meeting Raphael. They didn’t understand why Raphael simply wouldn’t just leave the Army to live a life more harmonious with Torah and mitzvos.

I realized that I had encountered this type of rabbi before. They were the same type of people who expressed disdain, confusion, or pity when I would clarify that yes, I don’t restrict myself to playing only Jewish music, and yes, I play together with men and for audiences of men and women together. This type of person really got to me. Why not leave music so that I could live more harmoniously with the obligations I felt looming over me as a Chassidic woman?

My classes ended. I had my first kid. I did quit playing cello for awhile. I didn’t see how my life in music was going to work now that I was a full-blown Chassidic woman with a husband and kid. Didn’t I need to live my best religious life for the health of my marriage and children? The stakes were high. I heard the message over and over that exposing my children to non-Jewish music would put them in a vague but serious spiritual danger. It’s awkward, but there isn’t another way to put it. It’s a prevalent approach to music in some of the Jewish spaces I have been.

One of those places was the yeshiva we ended up living in when we first came back from our time in Israel. I had a couple friends in that community, and eventually they would tell me that they were so curious and confused about Raphael’s beard. Every other man in that yeshiva had the long, untamed beard. Did that mean Raphael was rebelling? Was he distancing himself from the values espoused at the yeshiva? Was I OK? These were all questions I asked myself too.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Raphael was rebelling. Sort of. Not in the way it seemed, though. And I wasn’t OK.  We were isolated out there. I had no professional music opportunities for about a year, a result of being in a community that didn’t value classical music, as well as my depressed withdrawal from my music network. When I finally started getting back into performing, I didn’t even tell my community at the yeshiva about most of it, because I had started teaching at the girls’ elementary school and I would have to face difficult comments from my students who would hear about it. Many of the girls I taught were raised with that distrust of music composed by non-Jews, and I was caught in between trying to be a classroom teacher for the first time, trying to make relationships in that community to sustain me through the time I lived there, and trying to make sense of my need to be tethered to the music world I came from.

That was when I finally started to understand why Raphael had such clarity about shaving his beard. Why he simply wouldn’t engage when he detected a certain tenor of questions about his beard, or didn’t know the intentions of the person asking. There hadn’t been room in his life for a few years for the kind of ideological absolutism that demanded that he essentially leave the army. For Raphael, that would negate so much of his identity. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had served. He had committed to put himself in danger when called to do so. Many of his defining experiences and skills came from his service, including becoming religious. His inclinations towards tradition and meaning found expression both through his army service and through his religious service, which he built at that same time. It was while he was at basic training that he went to Jewish services for the first time on his own. And yet, there was that encouragement to leave all that behind. It was a dismissal, by people who were ostensibly mentors, of those deeply held values, his thoughtful integration, and that ultimate commitment.

So. As a musician, I certainly don’t put my life on the line. I don’t have that at my defense at the hearings of the prosecution in my head. But I also don’t wear the invitation to size up my spiritual life on my face, the way Raphael does. The perspective of time and a certain distance from those more insulated, extreme, absolutist people and communities has also been helpful toning down their volume in my mind. I needed to be able to listen to myself about the value my profession has for me, my family, and others around me. It is detrimental to my mental health when I “can’t” play music, and demeaning when I “can’t” do it professionally. I become a terror. Mostly quiet and withdrawn, but with embarrassing outbursts directed at my family. I get weird in the way people do when their identity is called into question.

Raphael’s experiences in the army are therefore not that distant from mine as a musician. I can now see that for both of us, there are choices we make that I thought for a long time were compromises. But really, that’s how we keep focus on what we need to get done in this lifetime. I lost touch with that for too long. But being a spectator, up close, of someone else successfully letting go of that pervasive yet toxic way of being religious has turned out to be something I really needed. Now it’s my turn.