Beard is a slang term describing a person who is used, knowingly or unknowingly, as a date, romantic partner (boyfriend or girlfriend), or spouse… to conceal one’s sexual orientation… especially used within LGBT culture…

I’ve been feeling conceited about my beard lately. This post will only serve to bring my shallowness to light, but vanity has long defeated me.

Ah, vanity. In this universe of the written word, it is a favorite of mine. For those who followed along as I made my way across the undulating lowlands, through the muggy fens, and over the treacherous ridges of kaddish, they may recall a quote, which I was fortunate enough to chance upon (‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #30, Feb. 11, 2019):

I grieve yet know the vanity of grief.

Robert Hayden (1913-80)

As I noted in that same blog post, vanity can mean:

  1. Pride;
  2. Futility

* * *

Anyway, back to my personal vanity.

I’d been sporting facial hair since 2010, not long after I moved to Israel, but it wasn’t until Papa died that my beard grew particularly bushy, per the Jewish tradition of men not shaving or getting haircuts during the first month after the death of a close relative. I had already been due for a haircut when I first learned of Papa’s death, and even when I finally went for that first haircut one month after burying him, I was unready to wear my beard short (‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #1, Aug. 9, 2018)

Tomorrow, I am getting a haircut, but I am not emotionally ready to cut my beard short – I’ve decided to trim it but keep it long. My thirty days are over, but my beard makes me think of my father, and I am not ready to get rid of it.

Eventually, I did have it shortened but kept it longer than before. My beard made me look and feel older; Papa’s departure from this world had made me, undeniably, the oldest Bogomolny, as the death of my grandfather had once made Papa (‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #6, Sept. 14, 2018):

My father and I were at the hospice in Maryland together when my grandfather passed away… On the car ride back to New Jersey, my father mused, “Now I am the oldest generation of Bogomolny.” Yes, I thought, that’s the way it works. My father didn’t say anything else to me then or afterwards about his father’s death.

To be honest, and this is something that I didn’t want to admit publicly at first, I took pleasure in the look of having a full beard (since my earliest college days, I’ve gravitated towards outwardly Jewish expression); and while I didn’t quite know how to maintain it myself, my barber would trim it for me every month or so, making it presentable. Then, more than a year and half after Papa’s death, the Coronavirus crisis hit Israel just when I was due for a haircut, and the salons were temporarily shuttered.

After nearly three months of not having a haircut, and not knowing when my barber would be available again, I caved and pulled out my clippers and scissors. My mustache had literally grown into my mouth, and my patience was swiftly depleting. How is it that some men can stand to never trim their facial hair?! ‘Uncomfortable’ doesn’t come close to describing it.

Gingerly, I snipped and clipped over the bathroom sink.

The results were encouraging. I could see my upper lip again, and my beard looked… even.

* * *

I don’t know what my father would have looked like with a beard because he deliberately never grew one for two reasons that he shared with me.

Firstly, Papa told me that his facial hair did not grow in evenly; he had some hairless patches. This was the less evident reason. I could never quite imagine what he meant by it until my own beard began growing out. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons why I have to come prefer a longer beard – it looks more uniform.

Secondly, Papa was a minimalist when it came to maintaining his appearance. He would shave daily with a razor, apply his Old Spice aftershave, dab the nicks on his neck with torn bits of toilet paper, and that would be it. Trimming his nose hair, ear hair, or eyebrows was an anathema to him; and since he was mostly bald, he didn’t have much need of combing his hair either.

Several years ago, we went together to my salon in Jerusalem. The woman who cut Papa’s hair that afternoon offered to trim his eyebrows, a standard service they offer, and he, of course, categorically refused. He had absolutely no patience for vanity and simply preferred to keep his appearance – simple.

My Papa would have considered the very idea of writing an entire blog post on the subject of facial hair to be nothing more than sheer and shallow verbal masturbation, and he surely would have let me know it.

* * *

So I have finally figured out how to keep my beard and mustache presentable, despite my hairless patches, and I am self-consciously vain about my Jewish, male, not-so-young aesthetic.

Every single day that I trim my facial hair, I think of Papa, and I understand why he never, ever would have bothered.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 30

Last week, I laminated a copy of my parents’ wedding invitation, which I found in my Babushka’s apartment (my mother’s mother) after she passed away in late September. She was gathered unto her ancestors less than three months after my Papa (Blog #8). A day or so later, it happened that my aunt gave me my Dedushka’s (my mother’s father) scarf, which he used to wear. She wanted somebody in the family to have it.

I wonder at myself and at all of us. All this seems futile; what do we actually achieve by any of it? It reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s (1907-1972) description of the human condition from The Insecurity of Freedom (p. 257):

We are all very poor, very naked, and rather absurd in our misery and in our success. We are constantly dying alive. From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

Given this, Rabbi Heschel comes immediately to his point:

There is only one bridge over the abyss of despair: prayer.

Really? I wonder at this also. The orphan’s kaddish has brought me back to the synagogue, and I have indeed been working at prayer, but my ‘bridges’ are, at best, under construction. My most lucid prayer moments inevitably find me teetering on rickety, jutting platforms over Heschel’s ‘abyss’, scrambling to return unto myself.

* * *

I’ve been reciting kaddish for seven months (7 / 11 ≈ 64%) and blogging about it for six, but my mind continues turning to the most fundamental of questions.

A friend asked why I am saying kaddish. A good question. These were my answers. Because it is my duty to my father. Because it is my duty to my religion. (These are the strong reasons; the nonutilitarian, nontherapeutic reasons.) Because it would be harder for me not to say kaddish. (I would despise myself.) Because the fulfillment of my duty leaves my thoughts about my father unimpeded by regret and undistorted by guilt. On the subject of fathers and sons, my chore may keep me clear.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 25-26

Yes, Mr. Wieseltier. I relate to your answers, but there are at least two more components to my own experience, which I find even truer when it comes to my kaddish blog series. Indeed, I wonder if you felt similarly when you were conducting research for your tremendous opus. Rabbi Martin Lockshin, whom I believe you know, captures the first of these:

Reciting Kaddish allows mourners to feel that they are doing something difficult, making a sacrifice, in order to honor a parent’s memory.

– Lockshin, Kaddish, p. 345

Writing these blog posts is challenging: intellectually… emotionally… spiritually; this project is hard on me. Waking up early every morning for kaddish is truly a challenge, but nothing like plumbing my soul and memories, nothing like my public quest for meaning. I am striving to create something special that my father would have been proud of; something that I can be proud of.

This brings me to a second motivation, which poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980) tenderly breathed into graceful language in his poem ‘Words in the Mourning Time,’ found in his Collected Poems (p. 90):

I grieve yet know the vanity of grief.

This quote should be the epigraph for The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist. Simply put, I wouldn’t be writing if no one was reading; and that is okay. I write for myself, for my father, for my mother, for my brother, for my daughter, for all of our family, for all who loved my father, for all whom he loved, and for anybody else who may be moved or changed by these words. I do believe I have something to share with you.

Vanity can mean:

    1. Pride;

* * *

    1. Futility

Heschel battled the futility of the human condition with his own mighty faith and prayers, but he also recognized the modern Jew’s detachment from tradition. He writes (Insecurity, pp. 214-215):

The daily observances of countless rituals [have] ceased to convey any meaning; they [have] ceased to hold any answer to the countless problems of the individual soul, just as the ancient teachings seemed to be totally unrelated to the modern situation… We cannot come to the Jews and merely say, ‘Continue!’ The wells that our fathers had digged have been stopped. We have to bore new wells.

This encapsulates my kaddish project this year: I am boring a well of meaning for myself herein, the drill of cutting language. I am, as Heschel writes so eloquently, trying to take responsibility for [my] Judaism (Insecurity, p. 191):

Every individual is a pillar on which the future of Judaism rests. There is no vicarious Judaism: no institution can discharge the responsibilities of the individual. Tradition is not the monopoly of an elite. Each Jew is obliged to say: ‘Into my hands has been given the future of the entire people.’

And in Heschel’s own words, I find my answer to his challenge. I know how to construct a ‘bridge over the abyss of despair’. We, each of us, are its pillars.

True, as Heschel writes, “From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment,” but this is only from the perspective of the individual. The Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter) has lived through many moments and will live through many more.

* * *

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there’s not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts

I recently had an insight.
Another way of thinking
about death
if you will.

We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation (or humanity for that matter), and every single cell will come to be replaced. Together,

we are Judaism.