Photo: Mark Nazh/Shutterstock

On the Geography of Beards and Other Dogma

Religion Narrative
by Robert Hirschfield Jun 20, 2013

On a day last week I boarded the Number 3 train at Chambers Street and got off in Jerusalem. That’s what it felt like.

Rising up into the sunlight in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was like falling down a rabbit hole, at the bottom of which moved gusts of black-bearded, white-shirted Hasidic men and their chubby, child-laden women. I could have been back in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria and Geula districts, which some people say is like being back in Brooklyn. I like the idea of places that get mind-tossed across oceans like Frisbees.

“Which way to Café Chocolatte?” I asked a Hasidic man who could tell immediately that my beard was from elsewhere. He pointed south. I walked slowly, as if I were walking on rice paper. It all seemed somehow unreal. Everyone looked like everyone else, dressed like everyone else. I half-suspected that were I to yank a single thread from one of the black jackets, every other black jacket would simultaneously unravel.

I had come here not for immersion or curiosity, but to interview a visiting poet from Ohio (he was in Crown Heights for a wedding) whose book I reviewed. Chocolatte, our meeting place, a café where Hasidim go when in need of a sugar hit not provided by Leviticus, was all but empty at 10am. I decided to wait outside. I was beginning to understand the attraction of anthropologists to places like this. What looks so one dimensional on the surface must be wildly layered.

Beneath black and white, a million unknown, untamed corners. One of the untamed corners belonged to my cousin Malkah. In middle age, she divorced her psychologist husband in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and took the plunge. A tsunami of prohibitions and parables in a red wig, she perfected a lifetime of eccentricities with an overlay of local customs like putting on your right shoe before your left shoe. Still, I envy anyone, Malkah included, who can immerse oneself in a belief system that works for them. Absolute faith in exchange for an irreducible center. A transaction that would never work for me and my hyper-questioning core, but in dark moments I see where it could be mistaken for light.

I saw David Caplan, in a skull cap, but with nothing black and white on his body, ambling towards me. I greeted him with unnatural enthusiasm. I had wandered too far from my home base, and for a moment believed that only he, a stranger from my fractured world, could keep me from falling off the edge of my grandfather’s planet.

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