Not to generalize too much, but we Jews are not a hairless bunch. Quite to the contrary, which can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment when you grow up in a world that champions smooth, non-hirsute skin. Bill Gray asking my dad, “Aren’t you going to take off your sweater before you go in the pool?” in 1973 may have demonstrated a quick wit, but it also underlined the reality of being a hairy guy in a waxed world.
How I envied my cousins, growing up in Jew-centric Great Neck, New York, where everyone was swarthy. I remember my amazement once, glancing through their Great Neck North High School yearbook, amazed: “You mean you had Jewish football players? Jewish cheerleaders?”
At El Modena High School, in Orange, California, we had me, Dena and Greg Schwartz and Kim Geller. Greg Kelman, who actually did play football, kept his Judaism under his hat. Literally. He wore a baseball cap every day and, rumor had it, blow-dried his hair with the hat already on. For metaphorical reasons, I will now ask you to imagine a kippah under Greg’s hat.
These people, the combination of WASPs, Hispanics and Irish-Catholics who made up my high school, they were a smooth bunch. The contrast between them and the few of us who were hairy was great enough that having chest hair became a calling card, like juggling or throwing a 90 mile-per-hour fastball. “You know him? The hairy guy?”
“Oh, yeah, of course. That guy always looks like he needs a shave.”
How I hated being a hairy guy. To this day I won’t walk around with the second button on my shirt undone. How I hated it at age 23, during my first year in Seattle, when I spent almost every day playing volleyball at Golden Gardens, to see the difference between my smooth-talking, well-defined, hairless peers and myself. Of course I couldn’t jump as high or move as well in the sand; I had all that hair to carry around.
So much so was it on my mind that when we first became pregnant with the Jawa, I spent sleepless nights imagining that he would come out looking like an orangutan. Having only my niece as a baby template, I gnashed my teeth over the fact that, while my sister had this blonde, fair-skinned child, I would be bringing a miniature Gabe Kaplan into the world.
Fortunately, while he did arrive pretty hairy, the Jawa did not look like either Gabe Kaplan or a primate. He looked pretty much as he does now, only smaller. But he was covered with fine hair, prompting the nurse to say, cheerily, “That’ll all fall out soon.”
“Yes,” I said, gravely.“Only to return in 30 years.”
Now that he’s 40% of the way to 30, the Jawa is coming into his own as a hairy Jewish guy. It was inevitable.
He’s taking it much better than I did. Far from being embarrassed, he’s very proud, often finding excuses to point out the dark hair now setting up shop under his arms. Maybe the Jewish Day School experience, where he is surrounded by similar ethnic types and not Glenn Poyser, who would arrogantly and confidently strut around the showers in eighth grade P.E., despite not having yet reached puberty,
Over the past half-year the little rumor of a moustache that’s been sitting on his upper lip for – seriously – the past five years is starting to become more prominent. Perhaps this, and not being called to the Torah, is the true dividing line between a Jewish boy and a Jewish man. Before you know it we will be standing side-by-side in front of the bathroom mirror, our faces lathered up, scraping the demon beards from our faces.
The first time I noticed the Jawa’s little moustache, I immediately thought back to a time when I was six, sitting between my mother and her cousin Alice during a winter, 1971 trip to San Francisco, when suddenly Alice said to my mom, “I wonder what he’d look like with a moustache?”
“I noticed that, too,” said my mom. “He’s got a little moustache there.”
Some kids, maybe the ones who never in their whole lives have to shave more than once a week, who are probably the same kids who grow up to be guys who complain they “just can’t keep weight on,” would immediately run to the nearest mirror and look for that hint of macho on their face.
Not me. But I want everyone to know that absolutely did not spend the next eight years looking at myself every single time I passed anything reflective to make sure a Fu Manchu hadn’t broken out on my face while I wasn’t paying attention.
I first shaved a few weeks after my Bar Mitzvah. By the beginning of ninth grade, a little over a year later, guys were bragging about shaving. Tino Younger, during one of the periods during adolescence when he wasn’t my sworn enemy, once confided in me during History class, “Yeah, my face always feels numb after I shave. Isn’t it weird how your face gets numb when you shave?”
And, of course, our school – like every school – had its share of guys who didn’t shave but needed to. I’m talking about you, Martin Gascon and your swirling, patchy eighth-grade beard.
No, I never reveled in shaving. I hated it from the start. I hated more my ability to grow a beard in a week and have never had one for that reason. Even during the 90s in Seattle, when you could practically buy a goatee at Walgreen’s, I stayed clean. When beards came back into style, I was unimpressed. “Amateurs,” I scoffed, secretly knowing that if I were to grow a beard I’d instantly become Prototypical Middle-Aged Jewish Man.
I’m not going to take away the Jawa’s thrill at his changing body, but he has confided that he’s not too keen on the budding facial hair. Come Bar Mitzvah time, he says, he will be ready to enter the world of shaving. Today I am a man and all that.
We will make it an important father-son moment, since I already botched the “learning how to put on a tie” lesson. Sandra Bullock has suggested that we use my grandfather’s electric razor, the only thing I took when we were cleaning out his room back in October. “It would mean a lot to him,” she said, but I wasn’t sure which “him” she meant: the Jawa, me, or my grandfather?