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The Care and Feeding of a Beard

The Care and Feeding of a Beard

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There was no one event that caused it to happen, but at the age of 55, after almost ten years to the day of my caring for, and feeding, my beard, I shaved it off. I just woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and got tired of looking so Jewish and so out of place in Southwest Florida. I was tired of standing out and grabbing attention with my long gray beard, and black skullcap sitting on my full head of still brown hair.

The more I smiled, the more an old Jewish man stared back at meI wanted out of the harness, and out of the yoke. I longed for the days when I didn't have to pray, didn't have to watch out for pork or shellfish, and didn't have to sit still and rest on Shabbat. I wanted my freedom back – my good old American freedom. I was an American for more than half a century, way before I ever felt the need to be Jewish and have a beard and skullcap.

I stared into the mirror and shook my head. I looked old. Old.

Of course I looked old. It's impossible to look young with a long gray beard, no matter how much you smile and try to make your eyes shine. I know. I tried. For almost a half hour I stood there, behind the locked bathroom door, smiling at myself in the mirror. The more I smiled, the more an old Jewish man stared back at me. Who wants to look old in America, a country that worships youth and beauty and wealth? Not me. Not anymore.

It was ironic that this traumatic event unfurled itself on a Saturday morning, when I should have been getting dressed and going to synagogue. Instead, I took out a scissor and cut my beard down to about a half inch. Then I got out my wife's Lady Bic shaver, lathered up with soap, and started scraping like in the good ol' days. I went through three Lady Bics, but a half hour later, I was clean-shaven.

I left the moustache, to look dashing and mischievous and… young. Yes, that's right. Young. Except the moustache looked ridiculous in gray. There was an easy remedy for that, so I finished dressing and sneaked out of the house before my wife woke up. I didn't feel like going through the third degree as to why I suddenly shaved off my beard after ten years. I jumped into my trusty SUV – next stop, Walgreen's. I bought a small bottle of hair coloring and a toothbrush, and in the pharmacy bathroom I colored my moustache a deep, rich brown to match the hair on my head.

When I looked at myself in the Walgreen's bathroom mirror, a smooth shaven, mustached, youthful-looking, middle-aged guy stared back at me. This guy looked to be in his mid 40's, at least ten years younger than I looked when I woke up that morning. As I walked to the parking lot, smiling, oblivious to the world around me, a young man driving a blue Mustang convertible almost hit me. I jumped back on the sidewalk, as he slammed on his brakes and swerved. He was not kind with his description of my intelligence.

This was the dawn of a new day when I wasn't so JewishI looked up and smiled, interpreting this as a message from You-Know-Who about what else was missing from my life. The sales center was only minutes away, and there it was, with my name on it. I parked the trusty SUV, jumped out, and touched it. I ran my hands over the smooth lines and caressed it. I started singing "Little Red Corvette" by Prince, and even danced a little two-step while I read the sticker. It was dressed out beautifully with every option imaginable, and over 500 horses were waiting under the hood, panting to be let out on the range.

The salesman strode up wearing a white cowboy hat and alligator skin boots. He was in his early thirties with a waist size to match, tan, and clean -shaven. I wondered, was I the oldest man up and about on this Saturday morning?

"Pretty, ain't she?" he asked, nodding his head.

"Yeah, she sure is," I heard myself answering.

"I'm Pete," he said, extending his hand. There was a business card in it, with his smiling picture on it. I took the card and we shook hands.

"What's your handle, partner?" he asked.

"Zalman."

"What kind of name is that?" he asked, puzzled.

"J……"

Yes, I almost said it, but then I stopped myself. This was the dawn of a new day when I wasn't so Jewish.

"It's jjjjjj…. ust a good old American name, Pete."

"How about we call you Z-man?"

He looked at me, I shrugged, so he continued.

"Ever had a Vette before, Z-man?" he asked.

"Sure," I answered back, insulted. That's when it came back to me. I sold my previous Corvette, the one I bought from my brother, just about the same time I started growing my beard. Was there a connection? You bet there was. Old looking Jewish men with beards and skullcaps don't drive Corvettes.

"What year was it?" Pete asked.

"1992."

"That was a good year. Automatic or stick shift?"

"Automatic."

The look on his face disrespected me. It said – automatics are for wimps.

"But now I want a stick, Pete. I want to feel the road and the speed. I want a serious ride."

Pete stood back, tilted up his Stetson, and studied me"Now you're talking, partner," Pete smiled. "You came to the place of the serious ride. This here 2010 has a six-speed tranny. Wait until you step into it. It's easier to saddle up, more luxurious to sit in, and faster than your '92. You won't believe how fast. Zero to sixty in under six seconds."

"Six seconds?" I asked for confirmation.

"You feel the acceleration right through your skin."

If he had said kishkas, it would have ruined the mood.

"Want to take her for a test ride?" Pete asked.

"Sure!" I said, trying to control my eagerness.

Pete stood back, tilted up his Stetson, and studied me.

"Z-man, are you here because you're just looking… feeling nostalgic for a Vette… or are you seriously considering taking one of these pretty little babes home on a permanent basis?"

I stared right back into clear blue eyes on his smooth-shaven face without a trace of wrinkles. I wondered how he learned a word like nostalgia. Did General Motors teach it to him in their sales training classes?

"I'm serious as a heart attack," I said, regretting the words as soon as they were out. I didn't want to think any more about heart attacks. At my age, they're too real.

Pete studied me a little longer, and then asked for my driver's license. I handed it to him, and he said he would be right back. I climbed into the driver's seat while I waited. Pete was right. It was easier to saddle up, and more comfortable and luxurious to sit in that my previous Vette. As I was studying the instruments and gadgets, Pete returned.

"Here," he said, handing me back my license. He had a clipboard now, and there was a copy of my driver's license on it. "What's your phone number?" he asked.

"Why?" I asked back.

"In case I need to get a hold of you before Monday morning."

Then he threw me the keys.

I stared at the keys, nodding my head up and down, until it hit me. Could he mean … was he suggesting… no… but then, maybe?

"Are you letting me take her home for the weekend?" I asked, my voice cracking like a teenager's.

"Sure, why not?"

"You're serious?"

"I don't think I'm going to be coming around on Shabbat anymore, Rabbi.""I'm serious because you said you're serious, Z-man. So enjoy it! I put you down on my calendar for 9am on Monday morning. That's when you and I are going to fill out the papers so you can make this little Chiquita a permanent member of your family. You want that, don't you … hombre?"


Rabbi Levi called me on my cell phone, Sunday morning. I looked at the time on the dashboard. The 9am prayer service must have just gotten out.

"What happened to you, Zalman?" he asked, his voice full of concern. "We missed you on Shabbat."

"I had something more important to take care of, Rabbi."

"Oh," he responded, sounding sad.

I decided to give him the bad news right away.

"I don't think I'm going to be coming around on Shabbat anymore, Rabbi."

I waited a long time for his response. When it came, he once again only said, "Oh."

"Is that all you have to say, Rabbi?"

"Is that all you have to say, Zalman?"

"Yes."

There was another long pause.

"What are you doing right now, Zalman?"

"Riding around in my car."

I wasn't going to tell him about the new Vette. No way. He wouldn't understand. He would never understand.

"Are you going anywhere special, Zalman?"

"No, just enjoying this beautiful spring morning, my car, and life in general."

I wasn't going to tell him about the new Vette if my life depended on it.

"Why don't you come over to my house, Zalman?"

"Now?"

"If not now, when?" he answered, quoting the Talmud.

"Rabbi, it is a beautiful morning and –"

"Zalman, I need your advice on something, and I don't want to talk on the phone. It's too important to discuss over the phone."

"Advice about what?"

"Please, Zalman. I need to do this in person."

"Okay. I'll be there in fifteen minutes."


I put the car in gear, hit the gas, and peeled a little rubber from the foot-wide racing tiresRabbi Levi was standing in front of his house, looking forlorn, next to his beat-up rusty old Dodge, when I pulled up in the new Vette, with the eight speaker custom stereo blasting 60's rock n' roll. The rabbi was wearing his black jacket and a white shirt. His beard was getting more flecks of gray in it, but was still mostly dark brown. His eyes looked tired. When he saw it was me behind the wheel, he did a double take. I didn't get out, waiting instead for him to come over to the car. He smiled as he looked the Vette over, opened the passenger door, and got in. He looked me up and down, and said:

"Do you mind if we drive while we talk, Zalman?"

"Not at all, Rabbi. In fact, I prefer it."

I put the car in gear, hit the gas, and peeled a little rubber from the foot-wide racing tires. I didn't make enough noise to be obnoxious, but there was just enough to sound a little rebellious. I lowered the radio volume to light background music.

"Zalman, my wife wants us to leave Sunshine."

I almost swerved into a power pole when he said that. I swerved back again, straightened out, and when it was safe, I slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road.

"In G‑d's name, why, Rabbi?"

"Could you please keep on driving, Zalman? This may be one of my last drives around Sunshine, and I want to see it all before we go."

I put the Vette back into gear and took off slowly this time.

"Rebecca thinks we are wasting our time here, Zalman. She thinks no matter what we say or do, the people here just do not want to act Jewish."

"What are you talking about, Rabbi? You have a Hebrew Day school with twenty-five children, and a minyan on Friday nights and Saturday's."

"And how many families are really observant, now? Three, maybe four. After ten years, four observant families. That's less than one every two years. No, I think my family wasn't meant for this kind of town, or this kind of challenge."

"Where will you go?"

"Back to Brooklyn. I can teach in my father's school and Rebecca was offered a job in a girl's seminary. Our children will have more friends. It'll be a better life for us."

"But what about the Jews here?" I said, my voice breaking.

"They got along with out us for more than fifty years, and they will get along without us for another fifty years."

I looked like someone else … no, it wasn't someone else … it was me ten years agoThere was a long pause. A very long pause. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror, and I didn't recognize that guy anymore. Who was he? I looked like someone else … no, it wasn't someone else … it was me ten years ago … the guy with the hollow space where his soul was supposed to be... the guy who was looking for more meaning in a life that was becoming increasingly materialistic and empty… the guy who was searching for long-term values to give over to his children and grandchildren.

Then I heard myself saying, "But what about me, Rabbi? I don't want you to go!"

And yes, there were tears in my eyes when I said that.

"You'll be free, Zalman," Rabbi Levi argued. "You'll be let out of the strait jacket I put you in."

I turned and looked at him, tears dripping down my clean-shaven cheeks.

"But who am I going to argue with about being Jewish? Without you here, Rabbi, I'm not going to feel Jewish anymore."

"And won't that be a relief, Zalman?"

Once again, I looked in the rearview mirror at myself.

"No, Rabbi, it won't be a relief. Look at me. Look at the jerk I am now, riding around in this ridiculous car, with music that was playing when I was eighteen, trying to look and act like once again like the dumb teenager I used to be. Look at me! I shaved my face and dyed my moustache and now I'm acting like an idiot and if you're not here to remind of that, I'll go back to being a full-time idiot. You can't leave me! I need you here to remind me what being Jewish is about!"

Rabbi Levi was also crying by this time.

"So you don't want me and my family to leave?" he asked.

I pulled over to the side of the road, put the 6 speed racing tranny in neutral, and turned off the engine. Then I pulled him to me, and hugged him.

There we were, hugging each other by the side of the road, crying in each other's arms, me with a beardless face and dyed mustache, and my rabbi with a full beard that he never shaved. He never shaved once in his life because the Torah says you are not supposed to shave your beard, and when it comes to those things, he doesn't care about looking young or old, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor. When G‑d speaks, my rabbi listens, and then I listen to my rabbi. Well, sometimes I listen, when I am not fighting with him because he wants me to walk a few more steps in the shoes of a Jew.

When we finished wiping our eyes, Rabbi Levi said:

"I don't think I was ever serious about leaving, Zalman. Every time I thought about it, I saw your face – with your beard – and I knew there was still so much good work to do here."


He looked at my gray stubble of a beard, saw my skullcap, and nodded his headI brought the Vette back on Monday morning, after I wrapped tefillin and prayed. I went out with a skullcap on my head, and unshaven. Pete was in the office, filling out a stack of papers.

"Thanks, Pete," I said, throwing him the keys, "but no thanks."

Pete had an old man's understanding of people. He looked at my gray stubble of a beard, saw my skullcap, and nodded his head. He took the papers he was working on and threw them in the garbage can.

"Do you want me to give you a ride home, Z-man?"

"Please call me Zalman, Pete… and no thanks, I want to walk."

"Walk?"

"Yes, and I want to remind myself that sometimes a Jew in this country has to take two steps back in order to take three steps forward."

Even though he had an old man's understanding of people, I don't think Pete understood what I was saying. That's when I remembered that bearded people are sometimes shrouded in many things, and one of them is mystery.

Zalman Velvel loves all Jews, even the ones that are difficult to love. He has three best selling books published, and has over 100 stories, 10 plays, and 3 novels that are awaiting publication. You can read his newest book, "King of Shabbos" and contact him at his website.
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Keil Denmark July 20, 2017

Great article. It is fifty years since I grown an adult man’s beard. I have never shaved it off. At that time my furry face was dark brown today it is white. I have always considered growing beards have something to do with rites of transfer. And my transfer was somehow a reversion to Judaism displayed in Jerusalem in 1967. Add a comment... Reply

Matthew Rand Austin September 15, 2016

Great story. I enjoyed this story very much, and I am relieved to know that I am not the only one who has though among those similar lines. I have also grown out the beard, and gotten tired of it, this time using an electric razor, vaguely thinking it was "halachically" okay.
So I was looking to see how in fact one is supposed to maintain a beard, and came across this story. I guess I will have to let the beard grow out again. Reply

CM December 29, 2015

good stuff

thanks Reply

Angus hardie July 29, 2015

Beard Oil That was so difficult to face when you looked old with your grey beard. It's impossible to look young with a long gray beard, no matter how much you smile and try to make your eyes shine. Reply

Harry Hamburger Miami, Fl. May 13, 2010

Zalman Call me, and I will keep sending my songs and poetry to you.

Every morning wake up and do not ask G-d, "what He can do for you today, but what you can do for Him."

Then say good morning to your evil impulse and say, "Sorry, I can't have fun with you today because I will be very busy doing the bidding of the King" Reply

izzy ny May 13, 2010

awesome story! a beauty! Reply

Jocelyn Ruth Krieger Boca Raton, Fl May 12, 2010

ZALMAN SPEAKS THE TRUTH Your words were deeply heartfelt. It could not have been easy to make this revelation, even in print. Unfortunately there are many Zalmans in Florida. They shake their uncovered heads and remenisce about their yeshiva years. Often they married a non-religious woman, giving them an excuse for their non-religous life-style. It was once said that a red car was a symbol of a "mid-life crisis". For that reason, when my husband, seventeen years my senior, reached seventy, I came home with a bright red car. "Now everyone will think you are going through a mid-life crisis!" I quipped. Currently I've chosen baby blue to match my husband's eyes. Reply

Chaver Tov Mifort Myers FL Ft. Myers, FL May 11, 2010

A Ball Shem Tov Jew living in 2010 What a special soul, I am so fortunate to know you.

"A real Jewish soul on fire, the soul keeps burning"

What an inspiration. Reply

Zalman Velvel Maale Levona & Ft Myers, Israel & Gullus May 11, 2010

Harry We have to get together soon ...
Zalman Velvel Reply

Miriam Adahan Jerusalem, Israel May 11, 2010

CHOICES THANK YOU! THIS WAS TERRIFIC! It's also about the two sides of ourselves, pulling in two different directions. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel May 11, 2010

Feeding the Beard? What with? I drop food on mine, but all it does is to provide me with a second breakfast! How does a beard enjoy food that the body doesn't use first? Reply

Dr. Harry Hamburger Miami, Fl May 10, 2010

Home run story Another ball over the fence at Fenway Park Zalman! When I read the stuff you write, and the stuff I write, I feel humble....which by the way is a very good thing.

Now I have to make a list:
1. Convert goatee to beard
2. Torment wife to kosher up the house better
3. Walk 3 miles to Shul instead of studying at home on Shabbat
4. And don't forget to put on the yamuka

Thanks Reply

Gayle Gruenberg Park Ridge, NJ/USA via valleychabad.org May 9, 2010

Care and Feeding of a Beard Thank you for that beautiful story! I love the metaphor of the car to show which road we choose to travel. It's important periodically to remind ourselves why we make the choices we do, and this story is a gentle nudge to keep us going in the right direction. Reply

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