5 (Very Jewish) Lessons I Learned from Cutting My Own Hair

It was 1:00 am, and I was done, just done. Done with screens and lights shining in my face. Done with trying to think of everything I might need or want from the grocery store and pharmacy for an entire week. (I gave up on the idea of planning for two weeks at a time a month ago.) Done with having a stagnant list of answers for a growing list of questions. But at this late hour on this particular night, all of my frustration had concentrated itself into one thing: My unruly, out of control, driving me crazy… hair.

It’s generally inadvisable to make rash decisions one cannot undo in the wee hours of the morning, especially decisions that involve scissors. I know. There is an entire professional force of stylists and hairdressers for a reason. In fact, when it comes to professionals I value for their experience and expertise, stylists are definitely in my top five — and not just any experience, but experience with my hair, which makes me a very loyal client. So I have only the highest respect and most profound appreciation for those who actually know what they’re doing in this field. (Even more so now!) But as I looked in the mirror, proverbial wrecking ball in hand, ultimately it was my confidence in their ability to eventually fix whatever damage I would do that emboldened me to take the plunge. That, and the ability of a flat iron to literally smooth over a multitude of sins. (Oh, if I could only return to middle school knowing then what I know now…)

So I did it. I cut my hair! And here’s what I learned:

(1) It wasn’t just about my hair, of course. But in a sea of variables I couldn’t control, this one had stood out. Maybe it was because salons were starting to open up and customers were able to avail themselves of that singular satisfaction of looking, and therefore feeling, like themselves again. I don’t begrudge anyone that experience. I trust stylists and customers are taking necessary precautions and we all have to determine how we are going to navigate our way through a sea of risk. But since I’m one of those with a suppressed immune system, the physical proximity of a haircut feels like a risk not worth taking for the foreseeable future, no matter how much I want one. (And I desperately wanted one!) So a haircut had become a reminder of all of the other risks it wouldn’t be worth taking — and it was weighing on me, literally.

One simple, self-actualized haircut, and that weight was lessened.

I have always found great power in the act of just doing something, one thing. I remember someone’s wise council when I once complained of feeling overwhelmed by a “to do list” a mile long. “So do something and cross it off,” she said. Ha, ha, I smirked, very funny. Why hadn’t I thought of that? But she was absolutely right. I did something, the easiest thing on the list, and as soon as I crossed it off I felt better. I felt energized and motivated to tackle item number two. It’s the same way Jewish tradition approaches observance. All of the strictures of a traditional Shabbat feel overwhelming? OK, start with lighting candles. Next maybe add Kiddush, challah. Then try unplugging your computer on Saturday; take a family walk. Halakha means “the way, the path.” A series of small steps, one foot in front of the other. Sometimes people call this just-do-something approach “baby steps,” but there’s nothing “baby” about them. Each one can be life-changing.

(2) No one noticed. Seriously, no one noticed. Not even the people I live with. Not even my mother. We are all doing everything we can right now to stay afloat, which is not to say we don’t care about one another — we absolutely do! People are making phone calls to check in, dropping off care packages, listening to one another as we take turns unloading the burdens of our anxieties and fears. We “see” one another. But for once — one of the shining spots of beauty in this challenging moment — we only see what really matters. Even as we scan from face to face on our screens, we don’t care what anyone looks like. I can’t remember a single outfit I’ve seen anyone wearing. I couldn’t tell you if someone who normally wears contacts had dug out an old pair of glasses. And it has honestly never occurred to me to notice (gasp!) if someone’s roots are showing. No one is paying attention to these things. They’re doing what we ask parents, grandparents, and little ones to do every Tot Shabbat: To look into each others’ eyes and see their neshama, their soulEveryone is looking past your outer shell, and it’s OK if you do, too.

(3) How did you do the back???” everyone (once I pointed out to them what I did) has asked. Answer: I have no idea. “But you can’t see back there!” they exclaim. Exactly, so who cares? God sees all and knows all, it’s true. But unless you’re Samson, I have it on pretty good authority that The Divine couldn’t care less about your hair. And since no one on Zoom can see the back of your head, it’s pretty much like it doesn’t exist right now anyway.

(4) Sometimes it’s good enough to go into something knowing you’re just going to do good enough. (Kind of like the grammar in that sentence.) One of my favorite teachings in the Mishnah pertains to getting rid of chametz before Passover: You do as thorough of a sweep — literally, with a feather — as you can, removing as much chametz as it’s possible to find; and then you burn it. Done. But what if you then see a rodent? asks the Mishnah. And what if that rodent came from a house that hadn’t yet been cleared of chametz? (Yes, in the Mishnah, the chametz is of greater concern than the rodent. I know… but stick with me.) And what if the rodent brought chametz into your ready-to-go-for-Passover house? One would think you might have to start your whole cleaning process over, right? Wrong! The Mishnah, with as much wisdom as I wager you will find anywhere in Jewish tradition, says: It’s good enough. Essentially, dayeinu. You did your best. You can’t control the rest. And if you tried to, it would never end. How’s that for a lesson for all seasons?

(5) Finally, and perhaps most importantly: When push comes to shove and we need to be, we are, each of us, far more capable than we realize. So whatever challenges this moment presents you with, know that you’re up to it. You got this! And there’s light (and a salon) at the end of the tunnel.

The Jewish Way of Counting.

Parashat Bamidbar

This week’s Torah portion begins a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar. The Hebrew word Bamidbar literally means “in the wilderness,” the location of all of the action in this fourth book of the Torah. Yet we usually refer to Bamidbar by a different English name, “Numbers,” drawing the title from the main part of this week’s Torah portion:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:2-3)

So then we get a list of all of those groups, from the tribe of Reuben and Simeon, from Judah and Issachar, from Benjamin and Dan. Large numbers — 46,000… 59,300… 45,650… — until we reach the total census, the figure of roughly 600,000 with which we’re most familiar, the number of Israelites tradition says wandered the wilderness for 40 years.

Of course, that 600,000 is not all-inclusive. It doesn’t include women. It doesn’t include children and teenagers under the age of twenty. It doesn’t include the elderly or physically disabled. The purpose of the census was to count the number of eligible individuals who could fight for the Israelites in battle. Among this wandering mass of probably over 1 million people, some 600,000 were capable of taking up arms.

The truth is Jewish tradition actually shuns the practice of counting people. It prefers instead to count things. When a previous census was conducted in the book of Exodus, the Israelites each brought a half-shekel to be counted in their place. When King Saul assesses the enrollment of his army, each soldier is instructed to bring one shard of pottery; another time, a baby goat.

And the practice continues in traditional circles to this day. Instead of counting people for a minyan (“Let’s see who do we have here… one, two, three, four…”), it is customary to use a particular verse from the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 28:10, instead: “Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” You might recognize those words from the song we sometimes sing for our healing prayer, Cantor Leon Sher’s “Heal Us Now.” The words mean, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them, and raise them up forever.” But more important than their meaning is their number — the verse has ten words, so by reciting it carefully one can count a minyan by word rather than number.

If you are early enough to a service, in a place where a minyan is counted, you might also hear someone saying, “Not one, not two, not three…” — another acceptable way to count without officially counting.

Why is this important? Why do we avoid counting people one by one? When a practice sounds superstitious, odds are it is, and this is no exception. Some have suggested that singling out a person, one at a time, invites the evil eye. It might be construed as a sign of ego or inflated importance. It also isolates individuals from the community, and it is precisely the community that protects us when we are vulnerable, that gives us strength.

But I think there’s a deeper reason, too. Whenever we count people we risk reducing them to a number, a datapoint, a statistic. We have been counting people since January of this year, when the first cases of coronavirus were documented in the U.S. As of yesterday, there were 1.61 million confirmed cases of the virus in the United States. We have counted so high, that we are rounding to the nearest ten thousand; a margin of error of over 5,000 people. As of yesterday, there were 95,087 deaths from the novel coronavirus in our country; 95,087 souls who have been counted — but have they been mourned? By their families and loved ones, certainly. Though in ways and with practices far different than those that have traditionally comforted us in our moments of grief. But have we mourned them? There has been no collective memorial service, virtual or otherwise, of which I am aware. The Post and Courier doesn’t daily list the names of those who have died in our state — 9 deaths yesterday, 8 the day before, 8 more the day before that. We know every store that is opening, every beach with or without access — yet we fail to account for every life, every soul. Appeals to the economy urge the opening of more and more activity, yet remind us that those over 65, those with preexisting conditions, those with compromised immune systems should still isolate. So are we just leaving them aside in our calculus, a nod to the similarly exclusionary census that begins our biblical book?

Jewish tradition says it’s OK to speak of communal numbers — that’s why the census in this book of Numbers does record 46,500 in the tribe of Reuben; 59,300 in the tribe of Simeon; 45,650 in the tribe of Gad. But it’s because those totals don’t represent numbers; they represent people, people who are named in the text:

“Not one” — Elizur.

“Not two” — Shelumiel.

“Not three” — Nahshon.

“Not four” — Nethanel.

As difficult as it is, when we see the big numbers that define the severity of the circumstances of this moment, we too need to count in this way. Like Echad Mi Yodei in the Passover Seder, “Who knows one?” we ask, “Who knows 95,087?”

“Not one” — Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, former White House cleaner, butler, and elevator operator to 11 presidents.

“Not two” — Nita Pippins, a retired nurse who cared for her dying son during the AIDS epidemic, and then for countless others struck by the disease.

“Not three” — Marie Pino; “Not four” — her son, Marcus, who were teacher and basketball coach, respectively, at a rural school in hard-hit Navajo Nation.

“Not five” — Robert Sears, North Charleston resident and longtime volunteer at the South Carolina Aquarium.

“Not six” — Alfredo Pabatao; “Not seven” — Susan Pabatao, married 44 years, frontline health workers in New Jersey.

“Not eight” — Barry Webber, a general surgeon who volunteered to treat virus patients.

“Not nine” — JoAnn Stokes-Smith, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of South Carolina.

“Not ten” — Timothy Neal Bell, organist and minister of music for Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Starr, SC.

One minyan of souls, and so, so many more. This is the Jewish way of counting, at least where people are concerned. And that is my most fervent hope and prayer: That people will always be our first, last, and most enduring concern.

“Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” Save Your people, O God — all of your people. Bless us and tend us, and help us to lift one another’s spirits. May we count our days with purpose, our challenges with hope, and our blessings with joy, now and forever.


Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Nine.

As I bemoaned early on during this pandemic, though we have more time than ever at home, surrounded by books beckoning to be read, we also seem to have less energy and ability to focus on reading them. Which, if you ask me, is just patently unfair. So I thank Amanda Shapiro, whose article, “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book,” provided inspiration and a manageable project for this past week.

While I haven’t (yet) experienced a COVID-19-induced panic attack like the one Shapiro describes, I still found comfort in her strategy to calm down the ramped up anxiety I am most definitely feeling. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method: “Find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste.” And cookbooks, it turns out, are incredible at all five! “My eyes are focused on a page,” Shapiro writes, “my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.” It’s a “soft-focus activity,” as opposed to the effort required by a heavy read. Like puzzles, crafts, and closet-cleaning, it’s the kind of activity “a lot of us are craving right now.”

The visually stunning Jerusalem: A Cookbook (by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) I found on my shelf fit the bill perfectly!

Winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for International Cooking.

Things to see: Just look at this book — it’s gorgeous! Full page, color photos of nearly every recipe are guaranteed to make your mouth water. But it also includes wonderful shots of Jerusalem itself — aerial pictures of the city; artistic photos of ingredients and delicacies in Jerusalem markets; evocative portraits of the people of Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish alike.

Things to feel: Bibliophiles know, how a book feels is often just as important as how it reads. Jerusalem is a large book, with a puffy cover, whose opened glossy pages lie completely flat… satisfying and comforting, like a weighted blanket.

Things to hear: Ottolenghi owns a group of restaurants in London; Tamini is his partner and head chef. Both were born in Jerusalem — in the same year, in fact — but Ottolenghi, Jewish, grew up on the western side of the city, and Tamini grew up in Arab East Jerusalem. It wasn’t until they were both settled in London that the two men met, but in this book they provide a joint trip down memory lane. With each recipe the reader hears a bit of background that weaves together family stories, as well as those of the many cultures who have come to call Jerusalem home and left their culinary mark there.

Things to smell: Mint, sumac, za’atar, tahini, pomegranate molasses, date syrup, lemon zest… shall I go on?

Things to taste: This one is self-explanatory, but also reader-reliant — unfortunately, as wonderful as this book is, the recipes still don’t cook themselves.

Yet there is even more to the activity of reading a cookbook, which I had never appreciated before simply because I had never done it before. Sure, I’ve skimmed cookbooks, flagging the recipes that interested me or looking up something that will make use of a particular ingredient on hand. But reading one cover-to-cover is different. It means you continue to read a recipe, even if it calls for an ingredient you would usually avoid, engendering a deeper appreciation of the sheer variety of ingredients there are in the world. It means you pay attention to how ingredients come together, the many processes and techniques that bring a recipe to life. It means realizing what can be broken down into smaller components (i.e. what you can make yourself) and what actually does need to be purchased in a market or store.

And one more thing — in a time when movement is limited and we’re all going a bit stir crazy, reading this book was a wonderful means of travel. I truly do feel like I spent part of this past week in Jerusalem — in her markets and stores, her kitchens and restaurants, among her diners and chefs — all accomplished from the safety and comfort of my own home. So, if you’re inspired and pick up a cookbook yourself this week, let me wish you B’teyavon and N’siah Tovah, or Bon Appétit and Bon Voyage!

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Eight.

I’m sharing something a little bit different this week — still from my stacks, piles, and shelves, but this time the book I pulled is a Torah commentary. My hope is that a few words of Torah might offer some inspiration for our current moment and common experience. Click on the photo or link below, and you’ll let me know: If it works, how it works, and if it’s worth doing again.