װוּ פֿײַער, האַק און אײזען האָבן נעכטען
אױף דער בלוט־חתונה אַ װילדען טאַנץ געשפּילט
אָבער ערגעץ טיף אין דער ערד ברענט אַ שטענדיק פֿײַער. דאָרטן שטראָפֿט מען די זינדיקע לאַפּיטוטן מיט לאַנגע עקן לױפֿן אַרום מיט אָנגעברענטע אײַזערנע ריטער. מע שלאָגט, מע שמײַסט, אַלע די װאָס זײַנען אױף דער װעלט ניט געװען פֿרום. און דאָס ייִנגל באַשטימט בײַ זיך: נײן, ער װעט ניט לאָזן דעם טאַטן אָפּקומען אױף יענער װעלט. ער װעט אים ראַטעװען פֿון גיהנום.
"The son of the Ghetto might have worn his badge with pride, for in truth it was a medal of distinction awarded by the papal Church to the Jews, for dauntlessness and courage. The awkward, puny Jew in his way was stronger and braver than a German knight armed cap-a-pie, for he was penetrated by the faith that "moves mountains." And when the worst came to the worst, he demonstrated his courage. When his peaceful home was stormed by the bestialized hordes of Armleder, or the drunken bands of the Flagellants, or the furious avengers of the "Black Death," he did not yield, did not purchase lifeby disgraceful treason. With invincible courage he put his head under the executioner's axe, and breathed forth his heroic spirit with the enthusiastic cry: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.'" - Simon Dubnow
I wear peyos. I have been wearing peyos since last May, but more officially since last September (when I mastered the twisting technique). When I started twisting them in a way that made them unmistakable, I felt a sense of pride. I was distinguishing myself, in a Jewish way, from the society at large. Peyos were always something that I have had an interested. I always thought it was strange that such a unique, and in my opinion, cool looking hairstyle was restricted to such a minute section of world Jewry.
Having not been raised ultra-religious (whatever that means), I was afforded the right to make a lot of decisions regarding my Jewishness on my own. That fact that I wasn't raised in a particularly Jewish community also contributed to my freedom to make these decisions.
Despite this freedom, when I arrived at college last Fall I was at a loss. The reputation and respect I had accumulated in High School was worthless in this new place and I desperately needed to establish myself. Soon enough came the High Holidays, where for the first time I began to grasp the complexities of Jewishness. I realized (partly due to my horrendous Hebrew school education) that I didn't understand a lot of the traditions of Yom Kippur in particularly. I was on the verge of either losing faith in the religious system or completely devoting myself to understanding it. Instead I resolved to read Talmud and understand the traditions. But my confusion remained.
I was unable to establish myself like I had in High School. I had no means to. I reverted to my Jewish identity as a way for me to define myself in this new environment. But already involving myself in Talmud, Yiddish, et al I turned to identification. I finally figured out a method to twist my peyos so they would look good, and I gave up shaving. (Since the time I realized that shaving is not permitted under Jewish law, I felt a little guilty ever time I shaved. More so on Saturdays.)
Having had long hair for a number of years, I felt more comfortable with peyos than suddenly wearing a yarmulke (something I never did outside of religious ceremonies). However from October through December my peyos were about the same length (give or take an inch or two) as the rest of my hair. They stood out enough whereas they were noticeable, but not like a yellow Lamborghini. I got ridiculed only once during this period. An older fellow at synagogue after finding out that I was not Khassidic, made the comment “So those are fake peyos”. This, obviously anti-intellectual, statement had only a minor effect on me. I found, however, when I was around an older group that there perceptions of my were often confused because of my seemingly contradictory appearance. I was even asked by a Conservative Rabbi if I was Yemenite.
I knew I was sending bizarre messages to this section of Jewry, but back at school my fellow Jews did not see much of a problem with my peyos wearing.
Lack of community, in a sense, drove me to this expression of self. I recall a conversation I had with my non-Jewish Aunt about my peyos being a reaction against the society I have been placed in. Having not been raised with a premier Jewish education, or close Jewish community, I found myself drowning in a vast ocean of American culture. Unwilling /“too aware” to completely associate myself with American culture I forced myself to grab at any shard of my non-American culture (Jewish) that I thought could keep me afloat. This had included a kosher diet, the Yiddish language, and recreational Talmud/Torah study. If I grew up in the pre-wat Poland of my grandparents, I told my Aunt, I wouldn't be caught dead with peyos. It simply wouldn't be something that I would have felt the need to have, nor would have been able to “get away with” having. In its place, I would have a way of life, a vibrant culture, and a language of my own. To this my Aunt respond, ‘well isn’t great that here you can decide you like peyos one day, and wear them the next without too much trouble?’ I answered that I did not know. This seemingly artificial being I have forced myself to create is free, but is it better off than those who had community (but less freedom)? I can choose to do whatever I want, but to the same extent I cannot comfortably be just yet (...another essay).
During the winter break, this inner struggle was taken to another level. I got a haircut, making my peyos a good 4 inches longer than the rest of my hair. This resulted in strange reactions from my friends who were not completely aware of my inner-conflict back at college. At first I felt uncomfortable with such distinctive peyos, especially on Saturdays. I kind of felt like a fish out of water back in an environment where I had a history. It was almost as if my signs were void or superfluous.
In the new college environment far from home, I was around people who would never have that same understanding of my past that those who grew up with me had. In retrospect it is almost as if my peyos (and beard too a lesser extent) were to pose a reminders to these others that I have a history. It was as if my peyos were yelling, “I am a member of a historic people! Although you might not know my personal history, I am a Jew and this makes me more than a face and a name!” Such declarations would over course be strange and unnecessary back in New York where these facts went without saying.
My struggles through “freedom” of expression were amplified again last weekend at a Yiddish Culture Club of Los Angeles lecture. After arriving I took a seat next to an older fellow whom I would later find out was named Eliazar. When I sat down he asked me a number of questions in Yiddish: do you understand Yiddish? What country are you from? What country are your parents from? What country are your grandparents from? What is your mother tongue? Do you go to Yeshiva? Do you know Hebrew? Do you pray daily? Then came the big one, why do you have payos? I told him that they make me happy. Then the lecture started.
Following the lecture and poetry reading it was coffee, tea and snack time. I spoke with a couple of people at my table. But I was drawn back to Eliazar (partly because I think I am sick of being praised and told, “youll do great things”, I need the criticism sometimes, even if it hurts). He asked me again how it came about that I have peyos. I told him that when I was little I always admired peyos and every couple of years I would ask my mom if I could have them. Eliazar was amused with my back and forth story telling. But after I finished he told me a story. I didn’t understand it completely, but what I got was this: He told me how the Germans killed all his family, running through the list of family members. Then he went on about how after the war he went to university and then became an engineer (I think he was talking about himself) without peyos. He couldn’t understand why a “handsome young man” is going around with peyos. He kept repeating “ס'איז ניט קלוג” its not smart (to have peyos) and tapping his head. He said, ‘I can understand if you are in Yeshiva, or a Khassid, or a Rabbi, but not just a student at college’ . I told him that I want peyos so that people should know I was Jewish, I repeated the Yiddish/Hebrew word for signs, which is what the Yemenite Jews call peyos. He replied, that Jewishness is in one’s heart, not his peyos. He then told me that he has two children, a son and a daughter. He said if his son ever came home with peyos he would put him over his knee and hit him on the tukhus. After he was finished talking to me, he got up to go, finally introducing himself. I asked him for his phone number, to which he replied in Yiddish “Why should I give you my phone number?” I told him that I wanted to talk with him more in Yiddish. Mumbling something about when I cut my peyos and shave my beard he said “Be heathly” and left.
Back in the spring/summer/winter my mom had given me a similar set of arguments, but to hear it in Yiddish from someone that lived in Poland, went through the Holocaust, and lived through the Soviet Union (he came to the US in 1992) was different.
Following that conversation I had a lot of thinking to do. I seemingly violated two aspects of identification in this man’s mind (and thus in the minds of many others). First of all I am not a member of any of the groups that traditionally wears peyos. To him I was looking like something I wasn't. Secondly, I was showing off my Jewishness to the world at large; something that, for a survivor of the Holocaust and Soviet Union, isn't the smartest (or most desirable) thing to do. Interestingly Eliazar himself wore his baseball hat the entire duration of the lecture, and long sideburns but no beard.
The reason I took Eliazar’s critique to heart was because of my respect for his generation. He has lived a life a lot “realer” than the shielded semi-communitiless life I have led to this point. In addition, he was a Yiddish speaker and critiqued me in Yiddish.
I have long been an opponent of the way in which American culture takes “foreign” cultures and dilutes it into it’s melting pot sludge. As an American (self-loathing, but American nonetheless) was I unwittingly taking part in the very practice of diluting my own culture (which I had seen as my escape from American sludge)?
.איך װײס נישט
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