The true test of a little boy’s character must be how he reacts when a roomful of adults come at him with scissors and start cutting his virgin locks. If this sounds like some sort of primitive tribal ritual, well, it is a ritual of our tribe — it’s called an upsherin (or upshernin, uphsernish, or even upshearing, though the last one sounds like an Anglicized version to me), and it’s a fancy title for a boy’s first hair cut, traditionally given at the age of three.
Like a bar mitzvah for a 13 year old celebrates the young man’s ascent from childhood into adulthood and the responsibilities of Torah observance, the upsherin celebrates a 3-year-old boy’s ascent from babyhood into childhood, the Hebrew education and the wearing of kippah and tzizit that traditionally begin at that age. These days the upsherin tradition (and it is tradition, not law) is usually practiced by Hasidim, and back in the day the boy’s entry into cheder would usually follow the auspicious haircut (no scissors to the peyos, thank you very much).
But I’ve now been to two Jewish hair-cutting parties thrown by modern Orthodox couples who had no previous familial upsherin tradition. In both cases the initial interest in the upsherin stemmed at least partly from the fact that their boys had cute curls that went uncut for a while and they thought, why not wait a little longer and make a to-do out of it?
In only one case, however — at my nephew’s upsherin this past weekend — did the refreshments include a wheat-free, gluten-free cake in the shape of tzitzit.
Cake aside, here’s how it generally works. The boy sits in the middle of the room. The parents say a few words about what the event means to them, a rabbi may say a few words of Torah, and then the father cuts the first lock of hair from the front of the boy’s head, about where his tefillin will go at the bar mitzvah. Then all are invited to come and cut a lock.
Now comes the character test: Does the boy cry? Does he throw an all-out tantrum and refuse to let anyone wielding sharp objects touch him? Or does he, as my nephew did, sit happily sucking on something sweet while the blond curls fall all around him?
Crying would have been reasonable. Goodness knows I nearly did watching that beautiful hair get cut off, and I don’t think I was alone in that. Violence would also have been a not-unreasonable response, a smart response, even, to fight against strangers approaching you with sharp objects. But acceptance, I think, showed a sense of security and bravery that I hope will continue to guide my nephew’s behavior well beyond his childhood years.
To be sure, his parents deserve a lot of the credit for preparing him and explaining exactly what would be taking place and why, including the fact his beautiful blond locks would be donated to Zichron Menachem, an Israeli charity that makes wigs for young cancer patients. They also deserve credit for generally providing a supportive and loving environment so that, sitting on their laps, their child felt no real harm could become him.
But all the rational knowing in the world won’t necessarily prevent the visceral fear a 3-year-old can be expected to feel in such a situation, and for that bravery the credit goes to the little man himself.
And candy. Laffy Taffys surely deserve some of the credit as well. Because where for adults bravery sometimes comes in liquid form, for kids, I learned, it’s sugar all the way.
After the sugar rush died down, my sister-in-law told me, her newly shorn son did show some regret for his missing hair. But when reminded that it was going to help another child, he felt better about it — and even offered to share some with older members of his own family who could maybe use a bit more hair on top.