These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 21: Head of the Month

Posted on January 27, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

Despite popular belief, the Creation narrative in the Bible does not depict creatio ex nihilo, a creation of something out of nothing, or יש מאין (yeish mayain), as we say in Hebrew. In fact, as even the most cursory glance at Genesis 1 will tell you, before Creation there was “tohu v’vohu”, תהו ובהו, usually translated as chaos, hovering over the deep. According to some opinions, this tohu v’vohu did not go away after Creation, but has remained in the world as the source of chaos, evil, and other unGodly disorder. I don’t mean to brag, but a substantial amount of this tohu v’vohu, this dark, unformed, primordial chaos, can actually be found growing out of my head when I wait too long before getting a haircut. When my hair gets long, it ceases to be hair as you know it, but instead becomes a black, amorphous, vertically-growing tangle of curls, waves, cowlicks and other follicle formations that have yet to be named, like a kudzu vine Chia Head having a bad hair day. It’s so annoying to walk around wearing, or perhaps more like hosting in the parasitic sense, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have to constantly look at. I have strongly considered sending flowers to everyone who was still willing to chevrute with me over the past month to show my humble gratitude.

I had been meaning to get a haircut since Chanukah, but for various reasons, I just never did. The biggest reason, I’ll admit, was fear—I do not know nearly enough Hebrew to feel comfortable directing a stranger what to do with sharp instruments around my head. My other fear was price, not only of how much the haircut would cost, but of how much tip to leave. Talking to people who have gotten haircuts here has only confirmed my fears—more than one friend with Hebrew far better than mine has told me that the two qualifications for becoming a barber in Israel must be inability to take directions in any language and charging a ridiculous amount. I had heard you can get a cheap buzz-cut in the Shuk, but I would rather continue looking like Jermaine Jackson got electrocuted.

But my haircut luck all changed this week. As it happens, Laura, one of our new students for this semester, is a licensed cosmetologist. I was hesitant at first to go up to someone I hardly know and ask her if she would be willing to cut my hair, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and she cheerfully accepted when I asked her. I know not warning her about what she was getting herself into first may have been cruel, but I really needed a haircut, and not only was she willing to do it, she was willing to do it for cheap. Desperate times…

When we got to her apartment, I told her I just wanted it short all-over, like maybe 4 or 5 clippers all-around. She said she could take it that short, but insisted on using scissors to start with since she worried my hair might break her brand-new clippers (seriously). It ended up being the most enjoyable haircut I’ve ever had—besides the usual barber small-talk I’ve come to expect (“You have the thickest hair I’ve ever seen!” “Do your parents have hair like this?” [they don’t and neither does my sister] “I just can’t believe how thick your hair is!”) we and her roommate, whom I have been friends with since last semester, made great conversation together, something I’ve never done with a barber before. It also ended up being the longest haircut I’ve ever had—it took her almost two-hours to finish. After she finished and threw all my hair out the window, it looked like a large black cat had exploded outside her apartment (which, in Israel, wouldn’t be that unusual). Her fingers must still be aching from all that scissoring, but I never heard her complain. All her hard work paid-off because it’s one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had, see for yourself:

Before                                                    After

But my awesome new ‘do isn’t even the best part of the story: Once she originally agreed to cut my hair, the question remaining was where. She understandably said her roommates didn’t want her constantly bringing people into their apartment for haircuts, and my apartment wouldn’t work for a large number of reasons. When I suggested asking permission to do it at Pardes, she loved the idea, then came up with an even better one: What if she got permission to cut people’s hair at Pardes after class, then used some of the profit to buy supplies for the women’s shelter where she volunteers? Since no one was around to ask when she first had the idea, we couldn’t do my haircut at Pardes, but she has since gotten permission and is already booked solid. I’m proud to say that I’m at least part of the reason why, since nearly every time someone compliments me on my new haircut (and nearly everybody has—I haven’t gotten this many compliments on my appearance since I took care of that other hairy abomination, my Movemberstache) I tell them about Laura’s idea, then they all immediately ask where to sign-up. This is how Pardes does haircuts.


With my new haircut, new Pardes sweatshirt, new Eilat Gap jeans, and the confidence they breed, plus the new Jewish month, I don’t just feel like I’m beginning a new semester, I feel like I’ve become a new man.


As with every beginning, however, this one too came with endings. Wednesday marked the last of four lectures at Pardes by Professor James Kugel on “Has Modern Critical Scholarship Killed the Bible?” When you’re as nerdy as I am, seeing an author you like live is like going to a rock concert—you get to see your heroes in real-life, hear them actually speak in person their words you’ve only perviously seen in writing, and, if you’re lucky, maybe even interact with them. While I’m not Prof. Kugel’s biggest groupie, he was a huge influence on my Israel in the Biblical Age professor at Pitt and I read a large chunk of How to Read the Bible last summer and really enjoyed it. Much as I enjoyed it, however, the large chunk I read of it did not include the last chapter, where he discusses how he reconciles his religious faith with what he knows about the origins of the Bible. While I was disappointed at the time about not getting to the punch-line, and while he never explicitly said during the talk that what he was saying came from that chapter, the words in it could not be more beautiful and inspiring than the ones he shared with us Wednesday about the same subject. I won’t risk repeating or even summing-up what he said because it was a complicated idea (it took him 4 hours to develop, after all) and I don’t want to misquote him, but will say that I and many others left empowered and inspired to live a thoroughly (post-)modern, thoroughly Jewish life in the truest nature of our Tradition. He is a man who just radiates brilliance, and that he so recently survived cancer and wrote a book (that I really want to read!) about it makes him all the more incredible. All four lectures will be available on YouTube soon, if you have time, they will all be well worth checking out, but if you only have time for one, watch the fourth one.

Quote of the Week (by request): “Halakha [Jewish law] is the interaction between real-life and Torah.” – Rahel Berkowitz in Women and Mitzvot

Hebrew Word of the Week: תספרת (“teesporet”) – haircut