Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Haircuts by Rudolf

It’s been a long time since a Jewish barber coiffed my hair. That’s because where I come from there aren’t any. I mean, that in Israel there is a plethora of Jewish barbers but here there is a dearth of them. I know this may not be politically correct to say but we’re not supposed to entrust our Jewish locks to the likes of a gentile barber. That’s because there is an old Jewish law still on the books that says so.

The reason for this archaic but possibly still sensible halacha is that a long time ago, when anti-Semitism was the norm our wise rabbis were afraid that bodily harm could befall an innocent Jew doing nothing more than getting a haircut. That Jewish law is a throwback to the middle ages when barbers performed “blood lettings”, a procedure by which the barber opened the veins in your arm in order to bleed out all the pollutants and bad ethers that were causing you sickness (hence the barber pole of streaming red and white, to advertise blood letting, and the oversized barber chairs with wide arm rests which appear to be designed for surgical procedures). The plague which killed off nearly three quarters of Europe was blamed on the Jews. Naturally, our rabbis said that it was a matter of “sacanot nefashot” to use a non Jewish barber for fear that he would use the razor to cut your throat instead of opening your veins.

When I was a yeshiva student there used to be a holocaust survivor, Rudolf who would zoom over to the Yeshiva on his motorcycles on Thursday nights and barber us after Maariv. Actually he couldn’t cut hair but it was considered more of a “mercy cut”. He needed the money. It was no big deal. We’d stand in a line in the dingy basement, and under a low watt naked light bulb Rudolf would give us buzz cuts. It was sort of spooky, , he spoke very little English, he looked strange giving new meaning to the idea of “techiyat hameitim”. I shouldn’t be irreverent because of everything he went through but that’s how I remember it. If he liked you he’d give you a ride on his motorcycle. I wonder what ever happened to him? But he was the last Jewish barber that ever coiffed me. Since then it’s been a stream of your typical American barbers. I’ve never really been concerned with their ethnic or religious affiliation because living in America and with a few years between me and the bubonic plague I haven’t been concerned with them slitting my throat because I am a Jew – all except perhaps one.

My barber is a wonderful guy. He is passionate about his trade, loves to talk about politics and current events, is very gay and has a flare for knowing what haircut really works for you. Besides, he is so gentle I don’t think he is capable of swatting a fly buzzing in his ear on a hot humid summer day. Recently while he was cutting my hair he introduced me to a new barber cutting hair in the next chair; Alonzo a recent immigrant from Barcelona, Spain. Trying to be friendly I informed him that I had been to the Andalusia and that I was headed to Barcelona this coming late summer / early fall. We exchanged pleasantries about Spain and Europe for a while and for some reason the tone of the conversation slipped from a friendly tone to one with an edge and slightly menacing.

He cautioned me about the hot humid summers because there isn’t a lot of air conditioning. Asking him why, he said that unlike the Americans, the Europeans are very concerned about global warming. As he said this he took on the air of superiority; the moral high ground, almost as though America was singularly guilty for the sin of global warming. A red light went off in my head. I asked him why he thought Europe was so concerned and Alonzo began to tell me how Europeans have always been on the vanguard. According to Alonzo, Europe and certainly Spain had an advantage over America because they were an old and sophisticated culture with a global perspective much more comprehensive than America.

Having gotten my gander up I responded that the Europeans weren’t all that sophisticated because oftentimes they had treated their dogs better than people, whereas Americans, while not always sensitive to global issues were deeply committed to human rights and dignity - more so than Europeans. Challenging me on that I simply remarked that Europeans were guilty of being rabid anti-Semites and responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews, the Spanish included. In addition I asked him if he was proud of the Spanish Inquisition.

And so the conversation continued for a while. He tried to weasel out of it all by saying that I was throwing up old, very old history, that while mistakes were made, Spain has good relations with Israel today. In my anger I thrust at him the Hebrew paper, which I had happen to have with me and which had on the front page an article about the Spanish government bringing war crimes against Israeli generals for taking out a high value terrorist in Europe. I noted that it was only the Spanish, not the French, not the Germans, not the English or the Scandinavians, who opted to wage a second Inquisition on us.

At that point Alonzo got up close and personal waiving a scissors in his animated hand going off on a tirade on how we were persecuting the Palestinians in Gaza like Nazis. At that moment I realized the wisdom our rabbis possessed in cautioning us not to be barbered by gentiles. As bad as Rudolf’s haircuts were I was all of a sudden missing him.