A beard that a mother could love, at last
In the fall of '64, I started graduate work in mathematics, turned 20, and grew a beard. Of these, the one that caused trouble was the beard.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It was, of course, a big, hairy, '60s type beard, not the sort that would please anyone's mother. It was the kind that made me look like a hippie to the many people who didn't like hippies, and like Fidel Castro to the many more who didn't like Castro. I'm sure there were elements of protest, and of "I can control my own body" (as my daughter said when she got a tattoo a generation later).
Perhaps I had too many reasons to be able to know which were the important ones. I told my skeptical parents that I had sensitive skin, often irritated by shaving. I was planning a four-month trip to Europe, to work on my French and German, and didn't want to carry shaving gear.
And, to my parents' distress, there was the matter of religion.
I had changed in college from my parents' Jewish agnosticism to being a believing Jew. While in a small Ohio college a Jew could be simply a Jew, the situation was different near New York City. Some of us outside New York and Jerusalem forget that Jews have had a thousand years longer than Christians to grow denominations and sects, and have in fact done so. It's just that in most cities there aren't enough Jews to build as many different buildings as Christians do, so Jews have learned to coexist with many different beliefs and practices in each building.
I went on several visits to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and became a fan of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. The "Lubavitchers," a religious group that started in the 19th century in Lubavitch, Lithuania, were a branch of the Hasidim, and I had great respect for them. (When Rebbe Schneerson died in 1994, some of his followers declared him the Messiah. Some still expect his resurrection.)
I can illustrate his appeal to me in the '60s by retelling a story he told that had a big impact on me.
He told about a Jewish teacher, Zuzya, of a few centuries ago. When Zuzya was on his deathbed, his disciples gathered around. They asked, "Are you prepared to face the Heavenly Tribunal?" Zuzya replied "Yes. After all, they won't ask why I was not Moses. They will only ask if I did a good job of being Zuzya." That, Zuzya felt, he could reply to.
And, of course, Rebbe Schneerson had an even bigger beard than Fidel Castro.
My mother's agnosticism was shared by her own mother, and my grandmother was the first to voice what the beard meant. "I want you at my birthday party in Boston," she said, "but I do not want my friends to see you looking like a rabbi. Looking like a communist would be OK, but not like a rabbi."
My mother summoned me to Washington, and took me to what she thought was a politically sophisticated barber before the party. "Can you make him look like a communist, instead of a rabbi?" The barber wasn't quite sure how to convey precisely that message. "But everyone knows what Garibaldi looks like," said the Italian barber. "I'll make him look like Garibaldi." The result satisfied my grandmother, but I soon let the beard grow shaggy again.
A bigger problem loomed: my brother's high school graduation. When I had won a fellowship to graduate school, the new principal, Pat Moran, asked my mother, "Why doesn't the newspaper article say Edward is a graduate of my high school?" My mother explained that I had entered graduate school at 19 because I was very good at mathematics. One shortcut along the way had been going to college after 11th grade. On the high school books, I was carried as a dropout.
Dr. Moran set out to transfer credits back from my college to let me graduate from high school. I was unenthusiastic. He came up with bait: If I'd come back and march at commencement so he could brag about the success of the graduates of the high school, I could march across the stage in alphabetical order behind my younger brother.
I showed up two days before commencement to meet Dr. Moran. At the sight of my beard, he reacted in shocked horror. Not only was there great controversy at the time about a rule against high school students wearing beards, but a very conservative school-board member would be at the commencement. She would be appalled by the beard. Dr. Moran didn't think he could go through with it.
That evening, my family held a long and difficult conference. In the end they convinced me that having us two boys together at graduation was worth my sacrificing the beard. I shaved it off.
But if I could make a concession, so could they. My mother looked me over after the graduation ceremony. "You know," she said, "now that I've seen you both ways, I think I do like the beard. How long will it take you to grow it back?"