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Not Jewish: Shaving

Why ‘smooth as a baby’s bottom’ rarely applies to Jewish men’s faces

Gary Shteyngart
December 17, 2018
Photo: Jack Delano/Library of Congresss
Photo: Jack Delano/Library of Congresss
Photo: Jack Delano/Library of Congresss
Photo: Jack Delano/Library of Congresss

I don’t shave most days. What’s the point? The morning after I sang my Haftorah I woke up covered in fur. There wasn’t just a drizzle around my upper lip. I went from looking like an angelic, thoughtful child to a particularly militant West Bank settler in one night. I also grew breasts, but that’s a story for another magazine.

Shaving. I don’t have time to shave. I wake up and I have a minor heart attack. I spend an hour in bed holding on to my hairy heart with an unshaven hand. Should I Uber over to my local Jewish hospital, Beth Israel on 1st Avenue, to hang out with the other broken-hearted furballs? The heart attack morphs into a hirsute form of anxiety. The world spins around me Jewishly. I want to go home to the national land of my people, but Brooklyn is far across the river. I eat a sable and try to calm down. For 5779 years, ever since this whole thing began, my people have experienced a combination of testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (known to aficionados simply as DHT) which have created a yarmulke-sized hair void at the very top of our being while the rest of the organism is covered in cascades of felt, soft to the touch and oddly pleasing after a shower, greasy and erect after a falafel-and-fries combo at Maoz or what non-Jews call “sports.”

Gentiles shave. WASPs really shave. They have to. It’s who they are. I don’t begrudge them the time or effort. They look really good shaved. Many of us know the Isaac Babel saying, “When a Jew gets on a horse, he stops being a Jew.” But fewer know of his corollary, “When a WASP stops shaving, he starts being a Jew.” This explains, in part, why so many of our Anglo leading men now have facial hair. But it won’t work for them in the end. I may have a jawline, I may not. We’re never really going to find out. But these guys do have jawlines and chins and all that other stuff I’ve only seen on TV, which I think is why I watched each episode of Mad Men so religiously. Not just once when it aired, but downloaded onto my laptop, where I could pause the action to examine the entire architecture of John Hamm’s lower face, all of it quivering with sweet, mayonnaisey Anglo repression. The way the Jew’s burning brown orbs betray his fear, lust, and anxiety, so does the WASP’s chin grant us access to his soul.

Last night I drank with a friend who was not just a gentile, but from Texas. There were several of us, but I wanted to sit next to him just so I could observe his shave. It was beautiful, y’all. My friend is in a position of power in what used to be a viable industry, publishing, so that he has to project a John Hammy strength at all times because his world is falling out from beneath him. He has a square, attractive face and he’s good at self-deprecatory humor–he lives in New York, obviously–but his chin does more work than the rest of him. His entire jaw apparatus, an otherworldly white in color, stubbled with, well, nothing, works so gorgeously to convey not just emotion and laughter, but self-worth. Strength. I wondered if the daily act of close shaving gave him a sense of boundaries that many of my favorite coreligionists lack. Could there be a clean-shaven gentile inside me, struggling to find a machete and break out of the undergrowth?

I don’t think so. My first college girlfriend was Armenian. There was no other way. I needed someone hairy, and she needed someone even more so. We talked about our fur a lot. She was from North Carolina, so it really affected her childhood. I guess my job was to guide her into our world, to make her see that it was OK, that in Brooklyn or Berkeley or wherever we would end up after Oberlin, a little clump at the pits or even one solitary sequoia growing out of an innocent nipple would not inspire a bushwhacking by marauding Cossacks. “Look at Chava,” I would say. “Look at Rebekkah and Boytrum and Hizikiel. There’s real pride somewhere underneath all that. A sense of continuity. We are from ancient cultures that saved their razors for more desperate needs. Hirsute were our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them.” Fine, I could never string along quite that many sentences in college. I was stoned out of my mind most of the time and at one point couldn’t find my own foot. But lying in bed with my hairy beloved, both of us sunk into a giant carpet that both extended from us and made us whole, I felt a sense of identity that shaven people must struggle to find each morning in the arid, reflective moonscapes of their strong and beautiful chins.


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Gary Shteyngart is the author of, most recently,Lake Success. He is also responsible for the memoir Little Failure and the novels Super Sad Love Story and Absurdistan.