Pink equals punk. A mohawk means you’re a rebel. Long beards indicate wisdom. Flowing hair on a woman is attractive, but it makes a man into a hippie. There are “good hair days” and “bad hair days.” Why is hair so important? Is it just an accessory to our face, or does it define us?

I started to ponder this question when attending my first haircutting party. There’s a Jewish custom whereby a boy receives his first haircut on his third birthday. The haircutting celebration is called an upsherin, and its purpose is to mark the beginning of the child’s Jewish education.

It started out like any other child’s birthday celebrationIt started out like any other child’s birthday celebration. The smoke from the grill filled the backyard with the hot smell of summer. Adults roamed around the buffet table, piling potato salad, barbecued chicken and coleslaw onto their plates. Tons of children jumped up and down on the moon bounce like bunnies. Others ran around holding hands and giggling. Little girls stood mesmerized by the cotton candy machine, as they twirled the pink fluff onto paper cones.

“May I have your attention, please?” said the father of the birthday boy. His black hat gave him a look of authority. He was standing in front of the house and speaking over a microphone.

The birthday boy stood on a chair as everyone gathered around him. Jacob was dressed in his finest gray suit, complete with a vest and a maroon yarmulke. Long white tzitzit strings hung from his waist. With his perfectly golden locks falling just below his ears, he reminded me of a poster baby from the nineteenth century.

The father stood behind his child. He asked that before a person cut the hair they put some money in the purple plush Torah-shaped charity box. The money would go to charity.

Jacob gazed up at his mother. She smiled at him as she held the scissors in her hand and passed them to the child’s grandfather.

“I want to do it!” Jacob protested, motioning to the scissors in his mother’s hand. The crowd giggled at the unexpected chutzpah of the child.

The father proceeded to call the names of the people who would clip off a curl. The grandparents had the first honors, then the parents, the aunts and uncles, cousins, and finally the friends of the family.

Nothing fazed Jacob. He stood patiently eating a hot dog and drinking a Coke as each guest snipped off a lock. His mom came by every once in a while, fixing his velvet headcovering and making sure to pin up his sideburns, the part of the hair a Jew is not supposed to cut, so they wouldn’t accidentally be removed by one of the guests.

When I got my haircut, it was an experience. But for Jacob, it was an eventSuddenly, I heard my name called.

I felt my feet heavily thump as I took three to five steps to approach the child. I reached deep into my purse, pulling out a few coins to put in the charity box. The father handed me the scissors. I held them in my hand for a second as I stared at the back of this kid’s head.

“Where should I cut?” I asked the mother. I was so afraid to do it wrong. Being a self-titled fashionista, I wouldn’t want to give a bad haircut to anyone.

The mother pointed to a place where a few curls remained. In all honesty, I’d never given anyone a haircut before, but I felt that this was not a good time to mention that piece of information.

Imitating the calmness of my own hairdresser, I took an inch of yellow strands between my fingers and proceeded to trim. I was being careful not to pull. He stood as still as a statue as I tried to keep my hand steady. Cutting hair was a lot more difficult than cutting paper. Time slowed as I rushed to finish. As I trimmed, the curls fell, and I grabbed them in my hand and placed them in the plastic bag.

I don’t remember my first haircut. I have no idea what the person who cut my hair even looked like. Was it a man or a woman? Were they nice to me? Did my mom or dad hold my hand and tell me that it was going to be okay? Did I know my hair would grow back? Did I feel trapped under that gigantic cape they put on me? Did I feel that I couldn’t escape because the chair was so high? I don’t remember if I cried as I saw my precious brown curls fall to the ground. Was I traumatized that something that was attached to me a few minutes ago was now trash? Was I happy when I looked in the mirror afterwards?

I don’t remember mine, but I have a feeling Jacob will remember his. When I got my haircut, it was an experience. But for Jacob, it was an event. I had a professional cut my hair. He had his family and friends contribute. I was one of many clients in a crowded salon. His experience happened in his own backyard.

Standing there, cutting Jacob’s hair, I thought about what was so different about this event. Why have a public haircutting party?

The first thing I noticed was how beautiful it is to value a first. An event is goal-oriented. It marks the act being performed as significant enough to mark on a calendar, take pictures of, and remember. The more work invested in something, the more it is valued. It also, in some way, legitimizes what you are doing as meaningful. The support of family and friends as you embark upon a new experience makes it more exciting, and thus, more worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed was how beautiful it is to value a firstFurthermore, I realized what hair symbolizes. Both men and women worry and spend a great deal of money and time styling or coloring their hair. In fact, hair is the easiest thing on your body to change. It’s so fragile: it can be removed by the smallest cut. Most of the time, the person whose hair is being cut doesn’t feel a thing. However, if someone pulls your hair, it really hurts.

Hair, like a person’s experiences throughout life, partially defines a person. Sometimes it’s an outward expression of the way we feel inside. Other times, it portrays an image to the outside world. Throughout our life, people will make impressions on us. Every person we meet will mold us in some way. We might not even notice this happening until we look back into the mirror of what our lives have become, and even then, we may see only a reflection of what we truly are.

If we aren’t careful, we could let the outside world define us. Hopefully, the only ones who make a cut into our souls are friends and family who care about us. But most important of all, we must remember our roots. If we always hark back to where we come from, then we can never stray too far from who we really are. But if we just let others mold us, we become a product of our society and not a true individual. At the same time, we should open ourselves up to learn from everyone, for that is the mark of a wise person.

Jacob, at three years old, is just beginning his life. Jacob’s haircut was a rite of passage from babyhood to boyhood. He is now at the point where he can stand on his own, eat on his own, talk on his own and become his own person. For the first time, he is going outside his home, maybe even for the first time without his family, to encounter the outside world. Along the way, both positive and negative events will shape who he becomes. But, in the end, it is remembering where he comes from that will form him into the ultimate person he is destined to be.