Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Peyos are the extra long ringlet sideburns that Hassidic Jews wear. It is not very "tolerant" of me, but I have to confess they both fascinate and creep me out. In the same way that transsexuals fascinate and creep me out.

BMG and I were in New York City this weekend, biking through Brooklyn as part of the Five Boro Bike Tour. One of the reasons I love biking is because it gives one the opportunity to really observe large swaths of community. On the tour we biked through Harlem, Astoria (Queens), Soho and Tribeca, along the Upper East Side by way of Central Park, and through crowded Hassidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn. In between waving to the hordes of adorable children waving at the 30,000 cyclists, I had the opportunity to observe many Hassidic males in their black uniforms of trench coat, wide brimmed hat, and long beard. And their peyos, swinging from the sides of their heads like freakish extra limbs.

Embarrassed by my emotional reaction to the mass of dead skin cells hanging off these obviously religious people, I decided to do a little research to educate myself on the symbolic function of peyos in the Hassidic community. What I found was that the Talmud tells men they cannot cut their sideburns (referred to as the "corners of their heads" in some English translations) - in a gesture of humility and an act against vanity. There is some argument among Talmudic scholars and spiritual advisers as to the interpretation of the Talmud - with some believing the written passages simply mean one cannot use a particular type of cutting implement to cut the sideburns, with others believing it forbids cutting entirely.) What is clear it is that the Talmud does NOT tell men to grow pigtails that hang in front of their ears. Hassidim do this in order to go above and beyond the Talmud, to show they are extra pious or extra devoted to God or the Talmud, or their Jewish identity, or something.

Aha! This is why they creep me out. They are an indicator of zealotry and identity (like gang colors), which is a condition I have a hard time understanding. I find myself unable to live in a state of black or white commitment to an ideal, issue or belief - I find myself more comfortable residing emotionally and intellectually in the folds of gray that lie between the poles of any issue or emotional state. In my adulthood I have tended to be more comfortable living as Zelig, bouncing between the various identities that make me, well me: hippie vegetarian, intellectual, foodie, former welfare kid, government bureaucrat, philanthropist, athlete, spiritual seeker, cynic, devoted sister and aunt - the list goes on. I don't identify with the desire to firmly plant oneself in one identity - I couldn't be "all aunt" or "all hippie." Or, "all Jew" if this were part of who I am.

Phew! I'm not an intolerant and anti-Semitic jerk. I'm just comfortable with being somewhere in the undefined middle of life.

No comments: