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According to Jewish law, it’s an age-old custom to allow a boy’s hair to grow untouched until he’s 3-years-old. Lev is not yet 17 months, but his hair has become an issue. He looks like Justin Bieber or Joey Ramone with a dense tangle of bangs gangling down to his chin like a security gate. And while it’s cute to see him wake up and try to swipe away at the long curly locks obscuring his vision, I began to feel like the lack of grooming was cruel.
We Hebrews believe that during the first 3 years of life, a child should just be allowed to sit back and vibe out. Basically, it’s a 3-year-long acid trip. God allows you to just absorb the sights and sounds and bask in the love of your parents, with no requirement to reciprocate. According to this tradition, until the age of 3, the child is purely a receiver, and not yet ready, or required, to give anything back.
However, at 3, your tiny Red Sea pedestrian is finally considered ripe to share his gifts with the world. For a Jewish boy, this transition is marked with a trip to the barber shop. On his third birthday, friends are invited to a haircutting ceremony — called an upsherin in Yiddish. A snip here, and snip there, maybe a shampoo and blow dry — but the child’s biblically mandated side-locks (peyot) are left intact.
An upsherin is traditionally a modest event, usually held at home or in a local synagogue. Light refreshments and hors d’oeuvres are the standard fare. Maybe some gefilte fish. In our case, what happened was Michelle and I drove out to New Jersey to visit my parents and before we knew it all hell broke loose.
Michelle had been secretly planning to take Lev to some fancy salon for his first haircut, and give him a $200 asymmetrical super fashion forward Flock of Seagulls look. But out of mercy and without much fanfare, we just took him out in the driveway of my parents’ house with a pair of scissors and Michelle began to shear him like a sheep.
The thing about cutting your baby’s hair for the first time is that it gives you the first unbearable glimpse of him as a non-baby, as boy, or even a dude.
All was going fairly well and nobody was crying. Lev was standing there like a startled lamb. Michelle cautiously trimmed a centimeter here and there from his bangs and was feeling ok, until at the very last minute my mother somehow commandeered the scissors and slashed a bizarre hunk of hair from his melon. Suddenly he looked like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. He looked like the child photos of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. He looked like a medieval Trappist monk with a mullet. Michelle looked at my mother like she was about to strangle her.
I had come down with a case of laryngitis so was unable to scream. There’s always a weird tension between your girlfriend and your mother, but this was a moment that lasted about 20 minutes during which I was a little scared there might be some actual ground fighting. My mother is 85, and once used a bag full of crochet needles to fight off a gang of assailants in Harlem when she was about 8, so she’s got the killer instinct of a rabid raccoon, and sharp teeth. Michelle can also punch pretty hard and likes to head-butt like a drunken Glaswegian, so it was unclear what would happen. Eventually they seemed to arrive at some sort of détente over biscotti and tea, and soon Michelle and our little mullet-having angel drove back into Manhattan in silence.
My silence has been enforced by the doctor for 72 hours due to the onset of laryngitis, and it’s been a blessing in the sense that Michelle has really enjoyed me being unable to speak. To be fair, I am a bit of a Chatty Kathy, and so it’s only fair that she would enjoy lording it over me when I am unable to respond.
The upside of losing my voice is it’s given me empathy for how Lev must feel in these few waning months before he becomes fully verbal. He can make a lot of noises but it all sounds like a Portugese guy who was injected with novocaine in his tongue. So we are sort of on the same incapacitated communication level. I can whisper and frantically write notes and he gurgles and blathers, but for a while, Michelle is the only one who can actually express herself in complete sentences. After the shearing, however, she chose silence.
I began to feel like the lack of grooming was cruel.
Lev’s first haircut brought up a PTSD from when I was 7 years old and my mother used to cut my hair by literally putting a bowl over my head. She had been doing that with some success, which in my family was defined as lack of tragedy, for a few years, when she accidentally snipped my actual f—ing earlobe in half. After that, I never let her cut my hair again. I’m not sure how she wrangled the scissors out of Michelle’s hands so nonchalantly that none of us were able to say anything before she had Lev looking like Hilary Swank, but my mother is sneaky and has fast hands.
It took a few days before Michelle and I were able to look at Lev and not sort of cry, but today after she put some coconut oil in his hair, it began to look not only normal but strangely glorious.
The thing about cutting your baby’s hair for the first time is that it gives you the first unbearable glimpse of him as a non-baby, as boy, or even a dude. He just doesn’t look like that little helpless primordial blob anymore. He has been shorn.
To non-parents, this will seem like nothing. But after the slow blissful-agonizing 17 months we have just been through, it wasn’t just a haircut. It was a revelation.
You can see more of his forehead and his jumpy expressive eyebrows, but it’s not only that. There’s a huge difference between a primordial forest and an English garden.
A baby is like wilderness. It’s just God or mother nature doing her thing. After that first haircut, it’s like the Garden of Eden on the morning after the incident with the apple and the snake. It’s hard to make eye contact. There’s been a rupture. Lev is still cute, but he’s been tweaked, affected, modified. The lily has been gilded. And then you realize with heart-stabbing clarity that nothing humans do — no poem, no song, no work of art — can ever be as great as the untrammeled perfect chaos of nature.
Even when it gets in your eyes
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.