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They Grow Up Fast

I’ll never forget the day my son, not yet three, said to me, ‘I want a haircut’

Sara Ivry
April 30, 2015
The author's son gets his first haircut. (Photo courtesy of the author)
The author’s son gets his first haircut. (Photo courtesy of the author)

A little more than a month ago I took my son for a haircut. It was his first. Isaiah’s just shy of two-and-a-half, and his light brown hair reached halfway down his back. To keep it out of his face, I had taken to putting it in a barrette, or, as we called it, a “clip.” Sometimes other children called him “she,” and, in spite of signs suggesting he’s a boy, adults who don’t know us asked me more than once about “her.” When his clip failed (which it invariably did), he’d push the hair from his face with fingers dirty from fruit juice or hummus or whatever he was eating at the time.

For months my parents had made comments that it was time for him to get a trim. My father even suggested, unscientifically and preposterously, I thought, that hair in Isaiah’s eyes could impair his vision long-term. One afternoon last summer, I got a text message on my phone with a photo: Angelica, the adoring grandmother type who runs his daycare, had groomed him, and he now wore a low ponytail at the back of his head. Given the plaid button-down shirt on his back and the sandals already on his little feet, he looked like he was masquerading as a paunchy Hudson Valley hippie. When my younger sister visited, she put Isaiah’s hair in a top-knot bun and I marveled at how much he reminded me of the vision-questing, buffoonish Erlich from HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Still, I wouldn’t cut it.

He was my baby, and I had gotten it in my head to wait until Isaiah turned three before letting a scissors get near his crown. In Orthodox circles, three is the age at which a boy traditionally gets his first haircut, marking the transition from baby to child, and the first time he wears peyot. It’s when boys start to wear a kippah and tzitzit. It’s when they start attending school, and learning the Hebrew alphabet. Three years old is when Jewish boys traditionally embark on a formal educational path that’ll result, 10 years hence, in a bar mitzvah that marks their entry into adulthood. It’s cause for celebration. Sometimes, children write letters out in honey to symbolize the sweetness in learning, and members of the community take turns making ceremonial snips of the boy’s locks to welcome him into their fellowship. The celebration is called an “upsherin.”

My brother had held an upsherin for my nephew, who’s now 13, though they are not Orthodox. I’m not Orthodox either. I was raised Conservative, egalitarian. I went to the same day school as my brother, read from the Torah for my bat mitzvah, and when I go to services, it’s generally in congregations where women count in the minyan and sit wherever they want. My child won’t wear tzitzit or a kippah in his day-to-day doings unless, at some later date, he chooses to on his own. Yet, the upsherin appealed to me. Isaiah had a bris, after all. Why not an upsherin? I would defer a haircut until next November, when Isaiah would turn three.

Isaiah’s hair was long and wavy and sometimes seemed streaked with flaxen. Cutting it would age him. Why rush that inevitability? At two, he still seemed small and vulnerable and unready to be foisted into the rollicking world of boyhood. Sure, he was running and talking and singing and objecting adamantly when he sensed my arm hovering nearby as he scaled the jungle gym. But he was (and is, regrettably) still in diapers. He sucks his thumb. He has favorite stuffed animals he cuddles when he’s sleepy. I wasn’t ready to put babyhood behind.

Susan Goldberg, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and a consultant for Jewish matters on the Amazon series Transparent, told me she held upsherins for one of her sons and her daughter to mark the life-cycle moment, even while she objected to the idea that it “signifies that the boy moves away from the mom and more into the men’s community.” More than that, she took issue with “the sexist implication–that you’re weaned and now you’re in the boy’s world.” But those reservations didn’t stop her from going forward with the ceremony. That’s religion, I guess: take the good with the bad.

Until Goldberg mentioned it, though, I hadn’t considered so concretely the notion that the upsherin celebrates re-orientation from the world of nurturing mother into that of learned father. Marking the start of education is one thing. Conflating education with maleness is another.

My son’s world is that of the single parent (shout-out here to children’s book writer Todd Parr for stating so simply in The Family Book that families come in all forms and colors). Ours is a new world, with exciting, new ways. I, for instance, am educated and while Isaiah has male role models around him, many of whom in fact also have their share of book smarts, he’s not moving away from his mother at three. Or even at the ripe old age of four. The world we inhabit doesn’t contain stark gender-based dichotomies. Like any parent, I can teach my child the value of education–Jewish and otherwise.

And he was weaned some time ago.

Then, about two months ago, I was pushing Isaiah in a stroller down a busy street in our neighborhood. We passed a barbershop. “I want a haircut,” he declared. I registered his request, and ignored it, hoping he might soon forget it.

The next day, we passed the same shop. He declared a second time, and I started to rethink my commitment to upsherin. What it symbolizes—the movement into a new stage of life—is already well underway. We are always aging, and a baby is always learning. Isaiah knows his ABCs. He flips pages of a book and “reads” to his babies, the bunny and the lamb. He can identify shapes and animals and numbers, and can discuss at length how a dinosaur stomps, the sounds a ghost makes, and how, as he says, to “disappear myself” with a trashcan on his head. His third birthday will be a magical day, but not because that’s when he’ll suddenly be classroom ready.

Besides, I realized that though at two he did still seem a baby, not quite a half-year later, he had become a willful, articulate boy. I no longer found myself unwilling to embrace that inevitable transformation, or to sacrifice his desire for a custom he couldn’t understand and anyway wouldn’t remember.

And so, Isaiah got himself a first haircut. He was unfazed.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.