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The Chosen Facial Hair

Beards are having their pop cultural moment, but Jews have always known the value of a furry face

Marjorie Ingall
March 28, 2013
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images clockwise from top-right:Wikimedia Commons, YIVO Encyclopedia, Where the Bears Are, Paramount Pictures, and Getty Images.)
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images clockwise from top-right:Wikimedia Commons, YIVO Encyclopedia, Where the Bears Are, Paramount Pictures, and Getty Images.)

Beards, as everyone knows, are back in fashion. But as usual, Jews are ahead of the curve: We’ve rocked the facial hair for millennia.

You want proof of trendiness? The New York Times recently ran a charmless story about beard-grooming products, illustrated with charming photos of hot bearded celebs like Affleck, Pitt, Clooney, and a smattering of younger stars with patchy, pubic face rugs. Then the Wall Street Journal ran a hilariously-late-on-the-trend piece about the new ubiquity of beards, which it proclaimed are “no longer the sole province of lumberjacks.” (You don’t say!) The Journal writer, Tina Gaudoin, hypothesized that beardedness took off right after the financial crisis because Ben Bernanke is bearded and Bernie Madoff is not. “In the space of a few short weeks, beards became symbols of empathy and humility, a rejection of the overt pursuit of the capitalist ideal,” Gaudoin wrote. (Oh, you know those Portland hipsters and their Bernanke worship!) Gaudoin went on to note that the last time beards were this popular was during the reign of Edward VII, who was supposedly trying to hide his weak chin.

No one ever thinks to mention that the chosen people are the original bearded wonders. (The guys, I mean. Sadly, sometimes the women, too, but that’s why electrolysis was invented.) The connection between Jews and beards seems to date from the line in Leviticus saying, “You shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” According to Maimonides, this go-beard-or-go-home ethos derived from the Israelites’ desire to create a visual distinction between themselves and their goyish neighbors; Maimonides said that shaving was an idol-worshiper’s custom.

Over time, depending on their level of acculturation and the customs of the land they were living in, Jews sometimes opted for the face fur and sometimes went beardless to look more like their neighbors. Seventeenth-century Italian Jews removed their facial hair with chemical depilatories and pumice stones (ouch) to get around the literal prohibition against shaving.

In Middle Eastern countries, on the other hand, Jews tended to go bearded. The 16th-century mystic of Safed Isaac Luria deliberately refrained from touching his luxurious beard, lest even one hair fall out. In the kabbalistic book of the Zohar, there are images of God’s beard, in which “the hairs are divided into numerous classes with something peculiar to each, and every hair is a separate channel of divine grace.” (The 19th-century philosopher Salomon Maimon later wrote, “I could find no rational meaning in these representations.”)

In the Pale of Settlement, too, beards held sway. The Yivo Encyclopedia has a marvelous old photo of a teacher in Poland in the 1920s known as “Binyomin Hersh the Beard.” The photographer noted that Hersh had “the longest beard in Biala, which students have more than once nailed to the table while he dozes off. That’s why he has such wonderful, sad eyes.”

As time passed, assimilated European Jews often got rid of their beards, while religious European Jews kept theirs. (We’ve all seen the horrid pictures of Nazis and their sympathizers cutting off rabbis’ beards and laughing.)

In America, the clean-shaven faction has held sway. According to the Yivo Encyclopedia, a memoirist named Rose Gallup Cohen wrote in her 1918 book Out of the Shadow about her emigration from Russia to New York that “the first thing men do in America is cut off their beards and the first thing women do is to leave off their wigs.” Gallup Cohen was speaking, of course, of eager-to-fit-in greenhorns. Today, beards are a marker of religiosity, a deliberate signifier of otherness for the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidim. Modern Orthodox Jews who wish to blend in more have found a workaround—Leviticus’ anti-beard-cutting edict uses the word gelech, which the sages have translated to mean shaving with a blade close to the skin. This means you can trim your beard with scissors or with specific kinds of electric razors deemed scissors-like by rabbis. Non-modern Orthodox, however, are likely to go the full lumberjack. The rest of the Jewish world, on the other hand, are unlikely even to ponder what the lack of beardedness signifies—even though being clean-shaven is still a statement of sorts for Jews: a rejection of super-strict observance, an effort to mold fashion to the secular culture around us rather than to the dictates of rabbis.

As for why the goyim are chomping our look (chomp: term I just remembered from my time in the ’90s at Sassy magazine—the invoking of which is another marker of hipster cred—meaning “bite,” co-opt, or steal): I don’t know. I doubt it has much to do with Ben Bernanke. I do think the popularity of beards has something to do with a yearning for old-school masculinity at a time in which gender roles can be confusing, a desire for authenticity after a trend toward excess manscaping, and a rejection of fashion-obsessed shallowness in favor of a perceived rootsy frontier realness. Maybe Amish is the new black. Or maybe the groovy young urbanites just can’t afford shaving cream. Regardless, it’s nice to see the ascent of the Jew-friendly hairy aesthetic—which feels both relaxed and ethnic to me—over the WASPy, buttoned-down old-school look. (I am perhaps an outlier among the ladies, though. A Harris interactive poll found that 65 percent of women prefer men to be clean-shaven—although there are some women who are drawn almost fetishistically to beards and their Jew-y roots.) Whatever the reason, it’s nice when standards of beauty shift to embrace a wider range of looks. At least for guys. For better or worse, it’s not as if I’m expecting bikini waxing and Epiladys to go out of style anytime soon.

The fact that Brooklyn is full of both bearded Jews and bearded hipsters can be confusing, leading to a rise in websites like Hasid or Hipster. Throw in the gay phenomenon known as bears (barrel-chested, oft-bearded, hairy, checkered-shirt-wearers), which now come in traditional and gipster (gay hipster) varieties, and things get even more hard to sort out. And I’m not even getting into anti-Semites who just want to ape our people’s fantastic style. Maybe the source of all this beard-love points to jealousy of our people’s braininess, sense of historicism, and tendency to win Nobel Prizes.

Regardless, I for one embrace our follicularly enhanced brethren. As the gedolim once said, “Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair. Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it.” One day, we can only aspire to win the Garden State Beard and Mustache Society’s Beard and ’Stache Competition, perhaps with a fabulous tribute to Sammy Spider.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.