There is an ancient Jewish tradition, rarely observed in our time and place, of waiting to cut a boy’s hair until his third birthday. This tradition is known by the Yiddish name of the ritual haircut: upsherin (literally, “shearing off”). My search for the origins of this tradition yielded unsatisfying answers. The trail seems to disperse into the mists of Hasidism. But this is not a history lesson. This is the story of why I chose this tradition for you.
I feel compelled to tell this story because it was hardly a foregone conclusion that your secular father would insist on you toddling around the San Francisco Bay Area in 2018 with a mane of hair inspired by medieval mystics.
I say that I chose this tradition for you because your mother wouldn’t have made the same decision, even though she’s the true believer between the two of us. She capitulated to my enthusiasm and doesn’t regret it, but more than once I had to expend significant marriage points to defend your hair. Her concerns were twofold: she was self-conscious about the way your hair looked and she was frustrated by the maintenance it required. (Don’t get me wrong: your mother loves you unconditionally and thinks you’re the most beautiful boy in the universe; even a woman of valor falls prey to petty vanities from time to time.)
Her implorations made me question my choice. Why did I feel so strongly about this esoteric tradition? Since this is your third birthday, I offer you three explanations.
The first is that your long hair was an easy and adorable way to buck convention. I have tattoos and piercings and a smattering of unexpected biographical experiences but, overall, I’m painfully mainstream. I derived a small amount of pleasure each time I corrected someone who assumed that you were a girl.
“A-ha!” I would say to myself. “Another normative assumption challenged!”
But that’s no way to live. In the last few months before your haircut, when people pointed to you and asked, “how old is she?” more often than not I would casually reply, “she’s almost three.” You helped me understand a deeper truth about gender: it’s not that looks can be deceiving, it’s that gender just doesn’t matter.
The second reason I chose this tradition (and the reason that sold your mother on it) is that we only get to observe a handful of lifecycle events and not all of them are joyous. Why not opt-into another good one? I didn’t grow up among families who kept this tradition. I had never even attended an upsherin before yours. Truth be told, it’s not easy for me to identify with the ultra-Orthodox who normally keep this custom. However, as a student of the human condition, I believe in imbuing life with meaning whenever possible.
Your mother taught me that ritually observant Judaism is as much (if not more) about keeping Jews together as it is about believing in God, and lifecycle events are our most unifying moments. So, if nothing else, your upsherin is an excuse to gather once more under the Sukkah of Peace and make memories together.
The third reason I waited to cut your hair is perhaps the most profound. Judaism is more than a religion — we are a people. One’s belonging to the people is sometimes a fraught affair. In a few years your bar mitzvah will be another badge, another shared experience that inextricably links you to all of the Jews who have ever been and who ever will be.
Like your circumcision, which was a particularly acute way for us to contribute to your sense of belonging, your upsherin admittedly conflicts with our family value of your body, your choice. But by the time you’re old enough to choose it would have been too late. I had to choose for you. I tried to give you the fragile and precious gift of belonging.
It’s the gift of having done something. It’s a gift across time.
So there you have it. My choice to grow your hair was part protest against gender normativity, part joyous lifecycle event, and part down payment on your sense of Jewish belonging. You may have looked a little goofy at times, and you may have been frustrated by our constant efforts to keep it out of your eyes, but I tell you it went by too quickly.
Your upsherin marks the end of babyhood and the beginning of something new. You’re becoming a big kid like the ones you used to watch in the park. I couldn’t be more grateful, proud, or in love.
I hope you like your new haircut.
Happy birthday, bud.