November is a strange time for me. Suddenly, many well-built men are sporting mustaches and beards—hockey players, Broncos, college athletes of all stripes, and even minor celebrities (this year’s crop includes James Wolk of Mad Men, Sinqua Boyd of Once Upon a Time, and Jason O’Mara of Complications). They are participating in Movember, a fundraiser for men’s health issues: prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health issues, and sedentary lifestyles. Throughout the month of November, Movemberists ask people to pledge to support them as they grow mustaches and raise awareness of the medical problems afflicting the testosterone-laden. “Grow a mo’, save a bro,” the slogan succinctly puts it.
Movember began over a decade ago as a fundraiser for a prostate cancer charity in Australia. Today, it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Participating countries include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA. In 2014, the campaign raised $89.2 million, with $20.2 million of that coming from the USA alone (where funds go to The Prostate Cancer Foundation, the LIVESTRONG Foundation, and the Prevention Institute.
Obviously it’s a noble endeavor. It is, however, confusing for me, as someone whose formative years were spent in a Jewish Day School. Presumably, like a wee duckling, I imprinted upon nerdy bearded men as exemplars of attractiveness. When I attended a secular high school and college, surrounded by men without facial hair, my early inculcation into furry standards of masculinity became sublimated. Or so I suspect. I do not know. I am not a psychiatrist or evolutionary biologist. What I do know is that every November I experience a weird time-travel-like jolt as I am surrounded once again by men of facial pelt. A look I associate with brains is now associated with brawn. It’s unnerving, yet arousing.
Each year I am particularly compelled by the luxuriant growth on the gorgeous punim of Green Bay Packers quarterback and Movember stalwart Aaron Rodgers. Early in the month he stops shaving and quickly attains an insouciant, scruffy beard-stache combo. It approximates the patchy hair of my earliest teachers, and clearly triggers in me some kind of Pavlovian response. Toward the middle or end of the month, he generally shaves off the beard and is left with a Ron-Swanson-like luxuriant swath of pelage. It should be pornily disgusting, but it is not. Rodgers clearly respects the formal rules of Movember, which state that the true mo cannot be joined to sideburns or chin. Would Tom Brady follow the official Movember strictures this way? I doubt it.
In all honestly, I must admit I prefer the beard-mustache combo to the strict mo ‘stache. I tend to perk up at World Series beards, streak beards, playoff beards. And let’s be real here: they’re fueled by the same arcane and variously interpreted rules and superstitions that govern Jewish facial hair.
The sports beard is an attempt to ward off evil, to control an unruly universe, to make history go your way and defeat those who would dare to defeat you. The Jewish beard is also fueled by firmly believed but inconsistently practiced faith. The Torah (Leviticus 19:27) says not to “mar the corners of thy beard,” but this minimalist verse means different things to different people. Maimonides felt that the prohibition was intended to visually separate Jewish men from idolatrous heathen priest types. Other scholars have felt that it was part of the Bible’s obsession with distinguishing male from female. As for what it means practically, that too differs: Some Jews interpret the law to mean that you can use scissors or an electric razor (but not a straight- or single-blade razor). Others believe in the full Grizzly Adams, along with fetching side curls. Some go Iron Man goatee; some go the full smoothness.
Just as most Jewish men today are clean-shaven, so too may Movember have passed its peak. Last year’s $89 million haul was significantly less than 2013’s $116 million tally. UK Movember raised almost £3m less in 2014 than it did the previous year, and as The Guardian sagely pointed out, “the lack of proto-taches on social media suggests it will be even less than that this time around.”
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand I worry about health-care fundraising relying on stunts; in a democracy, basic medical prevention and education shouldn’t have to depend on individuals pitching in with gimmicks. On the other, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect the government to pony up for mental health care or time and access to fitness facilities for all. And without Movember, I’ll miss the disquieting, invigorating commingling of dork, hipster, brainiac, and Orthodox hirsuteness.
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.