The Care and Feeding of a Beard- Part II
by Zalman Velvel
There was no one event that caused it to happen, but at the age of 55, after almost ten years to the day of my caring for, and feeding, my beard, I shaved it off. I just woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and got tired of looking so Jewish and so out of place in Southwest Florida, where 2 out of a hundred people are Jewish. I was tired of standing out and grabbing attention with my long gray beard, and my black skullcap sitting on top of my full head of still brown hair.
I wanted out of the harness, and out of the yoke. I longed for the days when I didn’t have to pray, didn’t have to watch out for pork or shellfish sneaking into my food at restaurants, and didn’t have to sit still and rest on Shabbos. I wanted my freedom back – my good old American freedom. I was an American for more than half a century, way before I ever felt the need to be Jewish and have a beard and skullcap.
I stared into the mirror and shook my head. I looked old. Old.
Of course I looked old. It’s impossible to look young with a long gray beard, no matter how much you smile and try to make your eyes shine. I know. I tried. For almost a half hour I stood there, behind the locked bathroom door, smiling at myself in the mirror. The more I smiled, the more this old Jewish man stared back at me. Who wants to look old in America, a country that worships youth and beauty and wealth? Not me. Not anymore.
It was ironic that this traumatic event unfurled itself on a Saturday morning, when I should have been getting dressed and going to synagogue. Instead, I took out a scissor, something forbidden to use on Shabbos, and cut my beard down to about a half inch. Then I got out my wife’s Lady Bic Shaver, lathered up with soap, and started scraping like in the good ol’ days. I went through three Lady Bics, but a half hour later, I was clean shaven.
I left the moustache, to look dashing and mischievous and … young. Yes, that’s right. Young. Except the moustache looked ridiculous in gray. There was an easy remedy for that, so I finished dressing and sneaked out of the house before my wife woke up. I didn’t feel like going through the third degree as to why I suddenly shaved off my beard after ten years. I jumped into my trusty SUV – next stop, Walgreen’s. I bought a small bottle of hair coloring and a toothbrush, and in their bathroom I colored my moustache a deep, rich brown to match the hair on my head.
When I looked at myself in the Walgreen’s bathroom mirror, a smooth shaven, mustached, youthful-looking middle-aged guy stared back at me. This guy looked to be in his mid 40’s, at least ten years younger than I looked when I woke up that morning. As I walked out to the parking lot, smiling, oblivious to the world around me, a young man in his twenties driving a blue Mustang convertible with the top-down almost hit me. I jumped back on the sidewalk, as he slammed on his brakes and swerved. He was not kind with his description of my intelligence.
I looked up and smiled, interpreting this as a message from You-Know-Who about what was also missing from my life. The sales center was only minutes away, and there it was, with my name on it. I parked the trusty SUV, jumped out, and touched it. I ran my hands over the smooth lines and caressed it.
What is there about a brand new, shiny red Corvette that makes the male of the species become … well … you know what I mean. I started singing “Little Red Corvette” by Prince, even danced a little two-step while I read the sticker. It was dressed out beautifully with every option imaginable, and over 500 horses were waiting under the hood, panting to be let out on the range.
The salesman strode up wearing a white cowboy hat and alligator skin boots. He was tan and clean-shaven, in his early thirties with a waist size to match. I wondered, was I the oldest man up and about on this Saturday morning?
“Pretty, ain’t she?” he asked, nodding his head.
“Yeah, she sure is,” I heard myself answering.
“I’m Pete,” he said, extending his hand. There was a business card in it, with his smiling picture on it. I took the card, then we shook hands.
“What’s your handle, partner?” he asked.
“What kind of name is that?” he asked, puzzled.
Yes, I almost said it, but then I stopped myself. This was the dawn of a new day when I wasn’t so Jewish.
“It’s jjjjjj…. ust a good old American name, Pete.”
“How about we call you Z-man?”
He looked at me, I shrugged, so he continued.
“Ever had a Vette before, Z-man?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered back, insulted. That’s when it came back to me. I sold my previous Corvette, the one I bought from my brother, just about the same time I started growing my beard. Was there a connection? You bet there was. Old looking Jewish men with beards and skullcaps don’t drive Corvettes.
“What year was it?” Pete asked.
“That was a good year. Automatic or stick shift?”
The look on his face disrespected me. It said – automatics are for wimps.
“But now I want a stick, Pete. I want to feel the road and the speed. I want a serious ride.”
“Now you’re talking, partner,” Pete smiled. “You came to the place of the serious ride. This here 2012 has a six speed tranny. Wait until you step into it. It’s easier to saddle up, more luxurious to sit in, and faster than your ‘92. You won’t believe how fast. Zero to sixty in under six seconds.”
“Six seconds?” I asked for confirmation.
“You feel the acceleration right down to your you-know-what’s.”
If he said kishkas, it would have ruined the mood.
“Want to take her for a test ride?” Pete asked.
“Sure!” I said, trying to control my eagerness.
Pete stood back, tilted up his Stetson, and studied me.
“Z-man, are you here because you’re just looking …feeling nostalgic for a Vette … or are you seriously considering taking one of these pretty little babes home on a permanent basis?”
I stared right back into his clear blue eyes, sitting on a smooth shaven face without a trace of wrinkles. I wondered how he learned a word like nostalgia. Did General Motors teach it to him in their sales training classes?
“I’m serious as a heart attack,” I said, regretting the words as soon as they were out. I didn’t want to think any more about heart attacks. At my age, they’re too real.
Pete studied me a little longer, and then asked for my driver’s license. I handed it to him, and he said he would be right back. I climbed into the driver’s seat while I waited. Pete was right. It was easier to saddle up, and more comfortable and luxurious to sit in that my previous Vette. As I was studying the instruments and gadgets, Pete returned.
“Here,” he said, handing me back my license. He had a clipboard now, and there was a copy of my driver’s license was on it. “What’s your phone number?” he asked.
“Why?” I asked back.
“In case I need to get a hold of you before Monday morning.”
Then he threw me the keys.
I stared at the keys, nodding my head up and down, until it hit me. Could he mean … was he suggesting … no … but then, maybe … ?
“Are you letting me take her home for the weekend?” I asked, my voice cracking like a teenager’s.
“Sure, why not?”
“I’m serious because you said you’re serious, Z-man. So enjoy it! I put you down on my calendar for 9 AM on Monday morning. That’s when you and I going to fill out the papers so you can make this little Chiquita a permanent member of your family. You want that, don’t you … hombre?”
Rabbi Levi called me on my cell phone, Sunday morning. I looked at the time on the dashboard. The 9 AM prayer service must have just gotten out.
“What happened to you, Zalman?” he asked, his voice full of concern. “We missed you on shabbos.”
“I had something more important to take care of, Rabbi.”
“Oh,” he responded, sounding sad. I decided to give him the bad news right away.
“I don’t think I’m going to be coming around on shabbos anymore, Rabbi.”
I waited a long time for his response. When it came, he once again only said, “Oh.”
“Is that all you have to say, Rabbi?”
“Is that all you have to say, Zalman?”
There was another long pause.
“What are you doing right now, Zalman?”
“Riding around in my car.”
I wasn’t going to tell him about the new Vette. No way. He wouldn’t understand. He would never understand.
“Are you going any place special, Zalman?”
“No, just enjoying this beautiful spring morning, my car, and life in general.”
I wasn’t going to tell him about the new Vette if my life depended on it.
“Why don’t you come over to my house, Zalman.”
“If not now, when?” he answered, quoting Talmud to me.
“Rabbi, it is a beautiful morning and-”
“Zalman, I need your advice on something, and I don’t want to talk on the phone. It’s too important to discuss over the phone.”
“Advice about what?”
“Please, Zalman. I need to do this in person.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Rabbi Levi was standing in front of his house, looking forlorn, next to his beat up rusty old Dodge, when I pulled up in the new Vette, with the eight speaker custom stereo blasting 60’s rock n’roll.
The rabbi was wearing his black kaputa and a white shirt. His beard was getting more flecks of gray in it, but was still mostly dark brown. His eyes looked tired. When he saw it was me behind the wheel, he did a double take. I didn’t get out, waiting instead for him to come over to the car. He smiled as he looked the Vette over, touching it the same way I did when I first saw it. Then he opened the passenger door, and got in. He looked me up and down, and said:
“Do you mind if we drive while we talk, Zalman?”
“Not at all, Rabbi. In fact, I prefer it.”
I put the car in gear, hit the gas, and peeled a little rubber from the foot-wide racing tires. I didn’t make enough noise to be obnoxious, but there was just enough to sound a little rebellious. I lowered the radio volume to light background music.
“Zalman, my wife wants us to leave Sunshine.”
I almost swerved into a power pole when he said that. I swerved back again, straightened out, and when it was safe, I slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road.
“In God’s name, why, Rabbi?”
“Could you please keep on driving, Zalman? This may be my last look around Sunshine, and I want to see it all before we go.”
I put the Vette back into gear and took off slowly this time.
“Rebecca thinks we are wasting our time here, Zalman. She thinks no matter what we say or do, the people here just do not want to act Jewish.”
“What are you talking about, Rabbi. You have a Hebrew Day school with twenty-five children in it, and a minyon on Friday nights and Saturdays, and for any yartzite you request.”
“And how many families are really observant, now? Three, maybe four. After ten years, four observant families. That’s less than one every two years. No, I think my family wasn’t meant for this kind of town, or this kind of challenge.”
“Where will you go?”
“Back to Crown Heights. I can teach in my father’s school and Rebecca was offered a job in a girl’s seminary. Our children will have more friends. It is a better life for us.”
“But what about the Jews here?” I said, my voice breaking.
“They got along with out us for more than fifty years, and they will get along without us for another fifty years.”
There was a long pause. A very long pause. I looked at myself in the rear view mirror, and I didn’t recognize that guy anymore. Who was he? I looked like someone else … no it wasn’t someone else … it was me from ten years ago … the guy with the hollow space where his soul was supposed to be … the guy who was looking for more meaning in a life that was becoming increasingly materialistic and empty … the guy who was searching for long-term values to give over to his children … and grandchildren.
Then I heard myself saying, “But what about me, Rabbi? I don’t want you to go!’
And yes, there were tears in my eyes when I said that.
“You’ll be free, Zalman,” Rabbi Levi argued. “You’ll be let out of the straight jacket I put you in.”
I turned and looked at him, tears dripping down my clean shaven cheeks.
“But who am I going to argue with about being Jewish? Who am I going to fight with … get angry with … make fun of … when it comes to being more Jewish? Without you here, Rabbi, I’m not going to feel Jewish anymore.”
“And won’t that be a relief, Zalman?”
Once again, I looked in the rear view mirror at myself.
“No Rabbi, it won’t be a relief. Look at me. Look at the jerk I am now, riding around in this ridiculous car, with music that was playing when I was eigthteen, trying to look and act like once again like the dumb teenager I used to be. Look at me! I shaved my face and dyed my moustache and now I’m acting like an idiot and if you’re not here to remind of that, I’ll go back to being a full-time idiot. You can’t leave me! I need you here to remind me what being Jewish is about!”
Rabbi Levi was crying by this time, also.
“So you don’t want me and my family to leave?” he asked.
I pulled over to the side of the road, put the 6 speed racing “tranny” in neutral, and turned off the engine. Then I turned to him, pulled him over to me, and hugged him.
There we were, hugging each other by the side of the road, crying in each other’s arms like little girls, me with my beardless face and dyed mustache, and my Rabbi with his full beard that he never shaved. He never shaved once in his life because the Torah says you are not supposed to shave your beard, and when it comes to those things, he doesn’t care about looking young or old, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor. When God speaks, my Rabbi listens, and then I listen to my Rabbi.
Well, sometimes I listen to him, when I am not fighting with him because he wants me to walk a few steps more in the shoes of a Jew.
When we were finished hugging and wiping our eyes, Rabbi Levi said:
“I don’t think I was ever serious about leaving, Zalman. Every time I thought about it, I saw your face, with your beard, and I knew there was still so much good work to do here.”
I brought the Vette back on Monday morning, after I wrapped tfillin and prayed. I went out with a yarmulke on my head, and unshaven. Pete was in the office, filling out a stack of papers.
“Thanks, Pete,” I said, throwing him the keys, “but no thanks.”
Pete had an old man’s understanding of people. He looked at my gray stubble of a beard, saw my yarmulke, and nodded his head. He took the papers he was working on and threw them in the garbage can.
“Do you want me to give you a ride home, Z-man?”
“Please call me Zalman, Pete … and no thanks, I want to walk.”
“Yes, and I want to remind myself that sometimes a Jew in this country has to take two steps back, in order to take three steps forward.”
Even though he had an old man’s understanding of people, I don’t think Pete understood what I was saying. That’s when I remembered that bearded people are shrouded in many things, and one of them is mystery.
This Story was a special Gift for a Special Person
on the occasion of your _______________________ .
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Copyright 2012 by Zalman Velvel Inc.
You may print this story for yourself, but you may not copy it without permission from the author.