12/24/08

TEN/Miketz/SHAVE

“Sometimes, a very ordinary act becomes a grand gesture, and sometimes, grand gestures end up looking like ordinary acts – our fragile lives are composed of both.”  Or something like that – I quickly scribbled the quote on a piece of paper that I dug out of my jacket. The words were spoken, slowly and solemnly, by a young rabbi, addressing the hushed mourners who filled the pews of the Upper West Side funeral home. The deceased –late husband of my friend R., died in bed, at the age of 87, in what R. tearfully called “a quiet, beautiful death”. I didn’t even pack a good suit with me for this NY trip – but somehow managed to dress appropriately and blend among the hundred or so relatives and friends who gathered to comfort the family; men in black suits and dark ties, women in black dresses and full length fur coats. (I counted at least 20, and overheard one woman say to another – ‘see if for the last time, Doris, the furs are the first to go.’)

I left the funeral home and walked down Broadway, snow still piled up high, thinking about ordinary acts and grand gestures – how at different times in our lives simple actions become loaded with meaning – like saying someone’s name for the first time after that person’s death, or like lighting a candle, or like shaving.
Shaving? For many of us it’s a daily routine, for others not so daily – but I think it’s fair to assume that most of us discard hairs from our bodies in a variety of ways at various times. Often an intimate, private and hopefully painless process, shaving is not often a ‘grand gesture’ except that it too can become an extra-ordinary experience, layered and metaphorical – an external demonstration of an internal commitment – the human ability to constantly change.  It is both a physical and a non-physical act, complete with its own rituals, implications and consequences.

Shaving is on my mind this week. I’ve had a beard for a few years now, and though I trim it regularly, I have not exposed my chin to society in many months, since last Purim, in fact. But this week I will have to shave and bare it all.  Tonight is  the fourth night of Chanukah  – also Christmas Eve, and I will perform as Rebetzzin Hadassah Gross, my venerable alter-ego-maniac, whose chin is prominent, mouth is big, and full length fur coat has survived many a crisis and worse.
Transforming from Amichai into Hadassah is a lengthy and complex process, which is one of the reasons that Hadassah doesn’t emerge too often into the limelight. It clearly involves full facial shaving – usually twice– my least favorite part of the proceedings.

This time, before I submit to the razor and step into heels, I want to take a few steps in the shoes of another shaver – a man whose shave was so prominent that it had to be included in the Bible.  The man is Joseph – the dreamer, turned dream interpreter, turned inmate in Egypt’s prison system, serving time for a crime he did not commit.  In this week’s re-run he will also become the King’s Second in Command – a spectacular  transformation of mythic proportions. This week’s installment of Genesis is ‘Miketz’ – and it’s packed with the drama that would one day inspire Andrew Lloyd Weber and many other artists to recreate the Joseph Saga.  At this point in the saga, Joseph has been in prison for many years, forgotten by most and mourned for as dead by his family. When the King of Egypt needs a dream interpreter to analyze his nightmares, a recently pardoned and released from prison minister recalls his former fellow inmate – a Hebrew boy who was skilled at interpreting the subconscious. The King is desperate for meaning and Joseph, great ancestor of Freud, is rushed out of his cell to minister to the Great Pharoh. But first – he has to clean up:
“Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon. And he shaved himself, and changed his dress, and came in unto Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)
I want to be a fly on the wall of this shaving moment in which Joseph is losing his past and entering a bright new future. How long has it been? How wild his beard? Does his hand tremble? Is he confident, terrified, confused, elated, all of the above? I can’t recall any other shaving moments in the Torah other than some priestly instructions way later in Leviticus, so this is a rare peek into a regular human act that suddenly becomes mythic: the moment of transformation when the past is shed, hair by hair.

This is the season of gestures and rituals: candles are lit, presents carefully wrapped and hastily opened, oily foods consumed and new years’s resolutions planned. It is a season that promises transformation, the magic of miracles, a new page and a clean slate. How many of us will renew our gym memberships this coming January? How many of us will shave away layers of accumulated ‘stuff’ and trim and cut and make room for less and new and improved?

I will shave today, grey beard hairs (more of them!) making room, briefly, to foundation and powder and a temporary identity that celebrates light in side darkness and levity as a way to embrace the sacred. Hadassah Gross, like Joseph, spent time in prison – hers was a camp.