My Daughter Asked for an Upsherin

“Imma I want an upsherin!” My daughter revealed this mid-way through her first year at a Chabad preschool, where she had attended several of her classmate’s upsherins. A party and a first haircut (upsherin literally translates to shearing) was what she saw for those little boys, whose families were upholding a centuries-old chasidic custom that grew out of the biblical injunction to leave a tree’s fruits unharvested for its first three years.

I loved that in her mind there was nothing gendered about this celebration and the Jewish milestone of turning three (despite the traditional conferral of a kippah and tzizit at a boy’s upsherin, and the transformation a very short haircut has on the looks of a little boy). We had not yet cut Zoe’s hair. It had been slow to grow, and her father had dreamed of leaving her hair uncut until three (but had not shared this with Zoe). Both of us were amused and pleased with the request — happy to see Zoe empowered to make her own Jewish choices at a young age. Plus her request was certainly in line with the partnership minyan community in which we’ve been raising her in Cambridge. She sees her Imma (mother) lead prayer services, and her Abba (father) still wears her in a carrier when she lets him.

The upsherin planning, spearheaded by Zoe, began months ahead of her summertime birthday. Zoe mulled over every detail of the upsherin — where would the celebration be held (her favorite indoor play space), what the theme would be (rainbows), what we would eat (cake, obviously, and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables) and who would attend. While snow was still on the ground, Zoe was talking about her upsherin with anyone who would listen. And I got to work on a creative ceremony that would weave together traditions from upsherins for boys (which link a boy’s first haircut to entering school age and being ready to participate in Jewish life and learning), traditions from upsherins for girls (several families from our community had upsherins for their daughters, and they provided us with ceremonial inspiration) and traditions from her school and our family.

One day at preschool pickup, Zoe declared that she wanted to invite her principal to the upsherin. Zoe shares a sweet relationship with this revered woman, a true Chabad matriarch, who has run the school for six decades. I had no idea how this would go over, but I didn’t want Zoe to think there was anything wrong with what we were planning, so I encouraged her to go ahead and ask. We walked into the principal’s office and Zoe innocently extended the invitation. Zoe’s principal looked at me and said, “She’s having an upsherin?” Pause, a nod from me…“Well, why not,” declared the principal, “Upsherins are about trees, not about little boys or little girls.” I was so touched by her response because it embraced Zoe and responded to her Jewish experience with a wider and non-gendered lens. It reminded me of why we had chosen this nurturing school for Zoe.

Fast forward to August when the record-setting winter snow had melted and we were ready to celebrate Zoe becoming three. We welcomed our guests, the kids played and the adults schmoozed, the stylist arrived, and it was time to start the ceremony. Despite having run through the script with Zoe many times in advance, when I asked her if she wanted to sing a song from school to get us started, she demurred. But I was prepared for our mostly extroverted kid to have some stage fright so I continued with the three things I wanted to share about Zoe: She loves learning about the whole world, she loves helping people and doing mitzvot, and she loves being part of the Jewish community. Before I could get through all three, Zoe tugged my arm and said “Imma I want to tell them.” After that she was in command — she talked about rainbows, and trees, growing up and trying to make the world a better place.

She was proud while singing the alef bet (Hebrew alphabet), delighted to eat the honey her uncle gave her, and thoughtful while giving out coins to her friends and collecting them in her rainbow tzedakah box as we sang a niggun (melody). She perched calmly on a stool, caped for a haircut, as her grandparents, parents, a friend, a teacher and yes — her principal(!) each took snips of her hair, with the guidance of the stylist (did I mention Zoe didn’t have much hair to spare?). The stylist gave her a new look with bangs, and my aunt adorned her head with a silk floral wreath from my childhood. She looked so grown up to me, and I was deeply proud of the way she owned the experience.

As Zoe started us on a verse of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to conclude the ceremony, we all joined in. I secretly wished the rest of us hadn’t joined in, so we would have heard just her sweet, confident voice sing the words that the songwriter intended to inspire the next generation to work towards a better tomorrow. However, I know that when communities come together as we did on this day, we facilitate that ideal. I know that with Zoe’s input, combined with the work of her amazing friends and family, we can continue building meaningful, pluralistic communities where people can express their Judaism, be it at milestone events or in day to day life. And that, to me, is one way we can make the world a little bit better not just for, but with our children.

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