Making Ties, Cutting Hair

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Yesterday, I convinced my beneficent editor to let me out early in order to go to a friend’s son’s upsheren — the ritual ceremony of cutting a child’s hair for the first time at the age of 3. As far as Jewish rituals go, it’s not one of the big guys, certainly not comparable to a naming or a wedding or one of those surprise last-minute engagement parties where, at 9 p.m., a couple isn’t engaged, and by 10:30, several hundred of their closest friends are pouring into their house.

We moved into our new neighborhood, Crown Heights, almost a year ago. Because of our baby, we don’t go out much at night; because there isn’t an eruv, we can’t go out on Shabbos. Between the two, it’s been pretty hard to make friends.

Neither of us was too jazzed about the idea of a midday upsheren. But (a) it was at a pizza place, and (b) the couple are both pretty cool folks — an artist and a musician — and when you’re Hasidic and inclined toward cool art and music, the world can feel pretty empty at times.

I snuck on the subway at 3:30. By 4:00 (score!), I was climbing off the express line. One present later, we were entering the pizza shop, I was shmoozing with Rabbi Simon Jacobson about this amazing Chabad house he’s building in the East Village, and Itta was getting down with all of these people whose names she didn’t know ten minutes ago. She let Jewish Geography work its magic, and before long, she really had known all these people — their first cousins or ex-roommates, at least — for half her life.

By the time we left, stuffed with pizza and trying to remember everyone’s cool stories, we felt like, for the first time in a while, we were part of a community. I know these are the glory days of the Internet, and de-localizing is cool and there are handy-shmandy websites to allow you to have the power of the Torah, the Talmud, and ever Jewish thinker from Rambam to Adam Sandler at your fingertips. Basically, it’s not that hard to learn Hebrew on your own, or to be a well-educated Jew in the middle of a place where there might not be any. But, at its heart, Judaism is, and has always been, a communal religion. Sure, it’s possible to keep Shabbat, kosher, or any and all commandments on your own.

But we weren’t made to live in a vacuum. And that’s why there are things like upsherens — to sometimes force us to congregate for the most random of reasons…and to give our bosses what might otherwise sound like flimsy excuses to leave work early.

Posted on August 20, 2008

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