These past few months, I’ve taken great amusement in others’ reactions to my newly bushy beard, and in their questioning why I’ve chosen to let it grow so full and long now that I’ve turned 60 and my beard has turned white.
For most of the past 40 years, I’ve worn my (mostly brown) beard neatly trimmed and close-cropped, barely a week’s worth of growth beyond stubble stage. But half a year ago, I decided to let loose. By no means do I want a Merlin (Dumbledore) long-scraggly-wispy beard. I’m careful to trim split ends and maintain a neat shape so that my beard somewhat approximates the thick-and-bushy look of Charleston Heston’s at the end of The Ten Commandments. In fact, during a recent hike through a Palm Springs Indian canyon during a heatwave, as I grasped a walking stick to help negotiate the rocky, sun-baked desert wilderness, my husband, Leo, looked at me and remarked, “I feel like I’m walking through Sinai with Moses.”
In my twenties and early thirties, I worked as a Boston lawyer, a profession just a hair less conservative in manner of dress than that of Boston banker—my first lawyer suit in 1981 was a de rigueur three-piece, a pin-stripe. An unkempt beard was unthinkable. Indeed, when interviewing in 1984 for what would be my final lawyer job, I shaved off my trim beard completely so as to improve my chances of securing employment. In the two weeks between my hiring and the start of the new job, I grew the beard back, trimming it close daily. The first morning at the office, my clean-shaven, ultra-WASP new boss, who jocularly defined his own social views as “a little to the right of Hitler,” greeted me with a flat: “You didn’t have that beard when I hired you.”
But that was 35 years ago. Today, beards are much more in fashion. Besides, I now work as a writer and creative writing teacher, spending the vast majority of my work time alone. And in the classroom, the beard lends me a bit of anti-establishment, mildly rebellious artsiness, an affect adding credibility to my encouragement that students explore themselves honestly and avoid cliché conformity of self-expression.
Fortunately, Leo (who sports a trim and dapper goatee), finds thick beards to be rather sexy on a man. Hadn’t we often attended gatherings of gay “bears,” burly and bearded gay men who prefer the mountain-man look to that of the urbane, eyebrow-plucked, back-and-chest waxed metrosexual? About 15 years ago, we attended one such bears gathering in San Francisco, and I recall a moment when a dozen or so of us guys were standing outside the event’s hotel entrance on Market Street when a young woman passer-by stopped, looked at us all and asked, “What is this—a beard convention?” As good a description as any.
Leo and I recently flew from California to New Jersey to attend a wedding. Upon greeting me, the bride’s mother, Miriam, one of my oldest friends, commented, “Your hair’s migrated from your head to your face!”
“One grows it where one can,” I replied with a chuckle, realizing that my enhanced beard is partially intended to boost my sense of masculinity. Having grown up gay in an era when gayness was often equated with femininity, an aspect considered demeaning in a man, I’ve always been rather defensive about my masculinity. Yet now I feel a Samsonesque surge of empowerment in my ability to grow a surfeit of hair on my face (if not on my scalp).
Then I whispered to Miriam another motivation: my historically trim beard failed to hide the increasing sag of my jowls, but the new bushy beard masks it well. A shared laugh at my vanity.
I turned to embrace Miriam’s tiny mother, Dubby, who reached up, clasped me close, and asked, “What’s with the beard?”
“I figured … just in case you needed another rabbi at the wedding.”
Dubby laughed heartily as she gazed up at me—full white beard, suit and tie, large white cloth yarmulke covering my bald head—appearing every bit the Orthodox rabbi poster boy.
On our way back to California from the wedding, Leo and I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for months. Coincidentally, Jill, returning from her own trip to the Northeast, was on our same flight home. Jill’s a 70-year-old Jewish woman originally from New York City; so, her matter-of-fact remark upon greeting me was no surprise: “That’s quite the beard. Very rabbinical.”
At home the next morning, an observation by Leo added yet deeper understanding as to why I’ve grown this beard. Standing over me while I sat at my desk, as he was about to give me his routine kiss goodbye before heading out to work, Leo picked up the only postcard I keep propped on my desk, to the left of my computer screen, facing me: a painting of El Greco’s “The Penitent Saint Peter,” that depicts a white-haired, muscular forearmed, enrobed man folding his hands in prayer and beseechingly gazing up to the heavens. His bushy white beard is not all that dissimilar to mine. I’d bought this postcard at the San Diego Museum of Art two months before deciding to let my beard grow long. I’d bought it because the pose and facial expression captured my own mix of sadness and longing for connection to something eternal. You see, I’d gone to San Diego by myself for a week to indulge my grief over the recent death of my beloved mother, a grief compounded by its resurrection of grief over the prior loss of dear Dad. Standing there, holding up this postcard that I’d set in a frame and that I’d been looking at every morning, Leo said, “Your beard is a sign of mourning.”
Perhaps part of me had indeed chosen to wear my pain more visibly on my face now, as symbol of respect for the significance of this loss, for the memory of my parents. But something about this explanation felt less than complete.
That same morning, as I looked into the mirror, I glimpsed a shadow and then recalled one of my farthest-back memories, that of Mr. Epstein. We lived in North Jersey when I was a little boy, and often spent weekends and holidays visiting both sets of grandparents in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. We’d typically stay with Mom’s secular parents, who had extra bedrooms, and then walk to shul, synagogue, with Dad’s Orthodox parents who lived 10 blocks away, closer to Yeshiva University where we’d daven, pray. In the 1960’s, many of my grandparents’ fellow congregants were Holocaust survivors from various European countries. Some of the old men were clean shaven, but others wore traditional long white beards. Mr. Epstein was one such Holocaust survivor.
When I was five, I cringed the first time Mr. Epstein approached to greet my father and me because he looked so scary dressed in a black suit, his long white beard reaching down nearly to his waist, his face all wrinkled. Holding Daddy’s hand in the shul’s hallway, I clung closer as Mr. Epstein approached. “Say hello to Mr. Epstein,” Daddy said, dragging me forward to this scary man with animated eyes. Mr. Epstein reached out, patted me on my blue-yarmulke-covered head, then reached into his suit-jacket pocket and pulled out a wrapped hard candy, which he handed to me.
“Thank you, Mr. Epstein.”
“You’re velcome,” he replied with a thick Yiddish accent. Another pat on the head, and he walked away.
Daddy leaned over then and whispered, “Always be nice to Mr. Epstein. The Nazis stabbed his baby to death in his arms.”
As a child, I didn’t quite know what to make of this experience. But now I’m overwhelmed by the significance of Mr. Epstein’s gesture. He would carry and hand candy to me and other children on Shabbes, as well as on other sacred days when, among the Orthodox, carrying was forbidden. So forbidden, that they wouldn’t even carry prayer books or prayer shawls to shul on those days; rather, they’d bring them in advance the prior afternoon, before the holiday would begin at sunset, and would leave these most personal of possessions on their seats, unprotected from potential (albeit unlikely) theft. To carry on a sacred day was so forbidden that my grandfather never took his housekey when going to shul on such a holiday, but left Grandma to tie her key onto a string and wear it as a necklace—there was no prohibition against wearing holiday jewelry. (All the same, Grandma wore her key pendant hidden beneath her blouse.)
Mr. Epstein, this patriarchal figure with biblical face and beard, dared to violate the no-carrying prohibition openly, in full sight, prioritizing over all else his wish to bring children the association of holiday with sweetness and joy. When this memory comes to me now, I know that I have stumbled upon yet another reason for wearing my full beard—to remind myself of kind Mr. Epstein, a man who embodied the best of Jewish loving, a man who honored his loss by showing love to the living, by nurturing future generations.
Contemplating these musings, I laugh out loud today as I see reflected in the mirror my own childhood’s scary stereotype of an old Jewish man. Such irony—as a teenager, I felt that my body’s feelings—my gayness—set me beyond the Pale of acceptable Jewishness; but now my body—my bearded face—asserts my very belonging. Confirms it.
It turns out that my beard’s Jewish associations are not at all incidental to my decision to grow it thick and long and bushy and white, but central. My beard is reward for my having grown into my Jewish age, bestowing upon me as it does a countenance that connects me to lineage. My heritage. My beard is my body’s assertion of my birthright to perpetuate, through daily existence, the world of my parents, my grandparents, and all the honored generations who came before. May their memories be for a blessing.
- My Jewish Beard - March 12, 2019