First Person – My Upfsherin

The upfsherin (hair cutting ceremony) took place on the last day of Shevat — an auspicious time for a healing ritual. The day before Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month) is observed, in the medieval mystical practice of Yom Kippur katan (little Yom Kippur) — a day for cleansing, purification, and preparation — just what shaving my head represented, as I began my fifth week of chemotherapy.

The upfsherin fell on the cusp of the months of Shevat and Adar — also propitious. The landscape of Shevat, in which we celebrate the rebirth of the trees, is a vegetative mirror of a bald head. Yet inside those leafless trees the sap is rising, life-giving elixirs watering it back to life. While we know that spring will come, the trees of Shevat often look like brittle sticks. Healing seems unlikely. This same feeling is hard to escape amidst chemotherapy’s limitations.

But Adar comes, with its joy and celebration. Lifting the weight of winter and of the fluids that run through the trees, swelling the buds and propelling green shoots in preparation for spring, Adar is the month of reversals. In Megillat Esther, stories of gloom and doom surprise us with happy endings. Destruction that seemed determined is overturned. The Jewish people survive and flourish. I embrace these metaphors for my healing journey, linking my bodily resurrection to that of the sycamore tree in my garden.

This is not the first time I have turned to that tree for guidance. In 1995, for the year after my father died, I retreated to the company of the tree. I sat for long periods, looking at the tree, thinking about my father. Looking through the skylight in my office, the seasons’ changes in color and texture against the California sky reflected my internal changes. The tree’s efforts to hold onto its leaves, as the autumn winds pulled, became my own resistance to letting go of my father and facing the starkness of winter without his protection. The hole in the trunk, where a branch had been cut away many years before, became my early wounds, reopened with this new loss. The burst of green, that appeared overnight to propel my tree into springtime, expressed my own rebirth of energy. By the summer, I was ready to leave my tree companion to teach and to study.

Once again my tree teaches me of the paradox of constancy and change that is the grace of the seasons. Embracing my tree as a companion weds me to life — and to the life-affirming progression of the seasons. It carries me forward, on the wings of time, beckoning me to use time as a healer.

For the upfsherin, I decorated a chair with ribbons in purple, green and gold — Mardi Gras colors — to mark the mutual healing for my beloved hometown and my own body as we confront the floods of toxic chemicals. I put a sheet on the floor to catch the falling hair. I explained the ritual’s intention and plan and introduced a prayer, affirming my vision for healing, encouraging others to join in:

Dear God:
Gimme a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair,
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair

Then the cutting began. People held a lock, made a snip and gave a blessing. I received my blessing and asked each person to cut a length of ribbon for themselves, requesting that each sight of the ribbon move them to pray for my healing, the healing of New Orleans, the planet and all those who suffer.

The blessings ran from heart-rending pleas for my safety to humor. One friend told me, that he had just purchased a tree and was going to mulch it with my cut hair. My ex-husband reminded me of my mother’s dictum, “There’s nothing more temporary than a haircut.” Between blessings, my guests chanted the short healing prayer of Moses when his sister was stricken with disease: “El na rafana la (God please heal her).” I responded — to the blessings and to each crunch of the scissors — with tears and laughter. When the blessings were finished and my hair lay in piles on the floor, Peter, my hairdresser for 25 years, swooped down with electric clippers and completed the job.

Newly a woman with a buzz cut, I spoke about being a walking testimony for the disease of the planet. I prayed for the courage to not cover the truth in order to protect those uncomfortable with the anomaly of a bald woman and perhaps in denial about the state of the earth. I spoke of the link of my healing to the healing of my city of New Orleans and to all those who suffer.

Then we took the sheet out to the garden. And while we sang the “Misheberach,” we sprinkled the hair among the roots of my tree — to nourish it as it nourishes me. I hope a bird chooses some of my hair for a nest.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

First Haircut Brings Shear Delight

“Come to New Jersey,” my grandaughter said, “we’re having a simcha!”

A wedding? A lottery win? She doesn’t explain. Then I think, airfare $240, motel $220 and then there’s expenses for my lovely wife — hair, nails, Louie XVth gown. This will run me $962!

I ask a dozen probing questions about the nature of this simcha. Did she have another kid? Is the Mosiach coming for dinner? Is she getting a new husband? Has the bank decided to forgo her mortgage?

“No,” she said.

So, why must I pawn my future to United Airlines, the Hilton Hotel Corporation and Macy’s?

“What’s going on that’s worth deducting four digits from my three-digit bank balance?” I asked.

Well, this paragon of a granddaughter, who is as observant as the Gaon of Vilna before his arguments with the Baal Shem Tov, explained that her 3-year-old son is having his hair cut for the first time in his brief life. (So why can he miss three years and I’m in trouble with the wife after three weeks?)

“Big deal,” I said, “I’m gonna shave tomorrow morning, but I don’t expect you to disrupt your life so you can watch me lather up.”

“No, no! It’s his upfsherin,” she said, “his first haircut.”

It is an important event, my granddaughter said. “We don’t cut his curly locks, just as we don’t harvest the fruit trees until they are 3 years old.”

An upfsherin, she said, is all about the unity of nature — the kinship of man and the other creatures that thrive in God’s world. Humanity and the sycamore tree both have their feet in the earth and their head in the sky. The tree produces fruit or seed while man produces deeds.

Even at the age of 3, the toddler begins his path to responsibility that culminates at bar mitzvah. This rosy, dimpled child, with curls that would revive Michelangelo to paint just one more cherub, is due for an upfsherin.

Next thing you know I’m sitting with a living room full of relatives in Passaic, N.J. In the middle of the room on a stool sits the honoree, Shimon Leib. (He’d look just like me if he was wrinkled around the eyes and mouth and the skin around his little neck was droopy and his hair was gray and absent on top and back of his head.) With the spotlight focused on his gilded face, this Jewish Tom Cruise of the 2020s behaves angelically.

Each relative steps up and cuts a lock. He chirps as I clip. It’s not long before I realize not one of us is a professional barber. He was prettier before. But as my granddaughter would say, only on the outside; inside he’s a 10.

As the dozen or so amateur barbers hack at his hair, my granddaughter — proud but nervous — watches from the corner. Those scissors are sharp, she thinks, and if he’s going to enjoy a fruitful life, he’ll need both ears to hear his teachers.

The floor is carpeted with blond ringlets and Shimon soon has a trendy, spiky look.

He’s on his way, Sh’or Yoshuv Institute’s Rabbi Aron Rothman told me. You might think of it as a pre-bar mitzvah warm-up. He’s not exactly responsible for his ethical behavior, but you can no longer hope he’ll turn off the bedroom light switch that someone left on Friday night.

Then the rabbi, who wisely only observed phase one, swung into action. He and the ex-cherub sat at the dining room table like Rabbi Akiva and one of his prize scholars. A large sheet of Hebrew letters sat before them. The rabbi coated the letter gimmel with honey and pointed.

“Say gimmel,” he said.

“Gimmel,” said Shimon as he touched the letter.

“Now lick your finger, Shimon,” the rabbi said.

Shimon, who never needs a second invitation for a snack, obeyed and smiled. Many letters were learned, and much honey was smeared on his little face. May all his learning and his life be as sweet.

Ted Roberts is a humorist based in Huntsville, Ala.