The Blessed Wigmaker: Peyos and the Power of Identity

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Ultra orthodox jewish boys walking on the street in Mea shearim Jewish Orthodox quarter, Israel Jerusalem.

A Chasid boarded a plane and took his seat next to a woman who, as it happened, was also Jewish. After squirming in her seat quietly for several minutes, she turned to him with a scowl. “Jews like you,” she said, “you give the rest of us a bad name.” She then felt comfortable to go on and on about how shameful it was that Chasidim dress the way they do in a modern world.

The Chasid waited her to finally end her tirade. “But ma’am,” he said softly. “I’m Amish.”

A look of horror crossed her face. She apologized profusely, tripping over her own words as she professed respect for the Amish and their ability to maintain their traditions through the years.

For the remainder of the flight, they did not speak. As they were getting off the plane, the man turned to her and said softly in Yiddish, “You should live and be well!”

There is much to comment on here, not least of which is the woman’s outrage only when she thought her seat companion was a traditional Jew. Our clothes can either mask who we are or announce our true selves to the world. The Midrash says that when we were slaves in Egypt, among a very few cultural expressions, the only thing keeping us from assimilating into Egyptian society to the point of vanishing was our dress.

It is also worth noting that, in the woman’s diatribe about the Chasid’s “refusal” to engage in the modern world, she failed to recognize her seatmate was the world-renowned Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a man who has written tens of books dealing with modern psychology and personal growth from a Jewish perspective.

Clearly, in his case, his clothes had less to do with being “behind the times” than being a direct expression of who he sincerely and truly is.

“You shall not round off the peyos of your head.” (Vayikra 19:27) The Rambam clarifies this commandment, “…one is permitted to shave off the whole peyos with scissors and, so we do always. That is, we shave the corners of the head with scissors since it is only forbidden to destroy with a razor…. one does not need to grow them. One is only forbidden to destroy them.”

That is, the halacha is clear that it is asur (forbidden) to raze, or destroy peyos. It is also clear that there is no mitzvah to grow them.

Few things speak to how powerfully appearance and spirituality express themselves in some religious Jews than peyos. To those who grow them, they are singular in their expression of piety and devotion.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that their peyos define them.

When the Muslims were conquering Eretz Yisrael and slaughtering local idolaters, a Muslim leader once came across a large group of idolaters with a Jew in their midst. Desperate to save his life, the Jew raced towards the General, grasping his peyos in his hands. “Shuf ya sidi! Ana Yehudi vehadula Sahudi!” he screamed in Arabic. “I am a Jew! These are my witnesses!”

Therefore, the Ben Ish Chai writes, “…how careful we should be of these two faithful witnesses that stand at the right and left and crown you with the diadem of Judaism. I will not burden you to have thick, long peyos like our brothers, the Ashkenazim. I only ask that you keep them a size that is noticeable to everyone; not like tiny, newly sprouted wisps of grass that are barely visible.”

Peyos. They are signs. They are witnesses. Simanim. They are signs that clearly identify who and what the boy or man with them is. They proclaim, I am a Jew. I am not of this world, even if I am in this world. I am a Jew.

And the longer the peyos, the longer the time devoted to that holy distinction.

I am a Jew.

What then of the Jew who, because of illness, loses his peyos?

To the non-Jew, such a loss might be dismissed as insignificant. Even to other, less observant Jews, the loss might not strike at the heart of Jewish identity. But to the observant Jew who has moved through life with those two signs, with those two witnesses… it is an essential loss. It strikes deep to observance and identity. More than something physical is threatened and lost. There is a sense of loss of something essential to his identity.

For such a Jew, losing his peyos has not only a personal, spiritual dimension but also an external, communal aspect. As Rabbi Ron Wittenstein notes, “…different communities have ways of identifying as Jewish, which is very community-centric. If a person from that community would deviate from the local custom, even if what they are doing is halachically permitted, it may point to a decrease in their religiosity. The people in question are trying very hard to avoid anybody thinking that they are changing from their tradition….”

Peyos, or a long beard, speak of a lifelong commitment. One cannot decide to grow a long beard or peyos and have them tomorrow. To lose them is to lose all that time and devotion….

Mrs. Yitty Fisch is the Service Coordinator for the Boro Park Division of Kapayim Organization, a “network of over 500 volunteers and coordinators that provide daily support for the entire family when coping with a child’s illness.”

Mrs. Fisch sees the children afflicted by serious illness and their parents all the time. As if it is not devastating enough to have a child with a serious, perhaps life-threatening, illness she sees face to face the hurt in parents’ eyes, and of loss in her young patients’ eyes, when they confront the loss of their peyos.

The parents pray for healing first and foremost. They do not want to lose their precious child. Likewise, they do not want to lose their child’s identity. Once the immediacy of the medical care is over, it is so important for the patient and his family to get back to “normal.” And, for them “normal” means to have their “witnesses,” their identifying simanim.

Peyos speak to who you are and where you belong. Patients are desperate not to lose their sense of belonging, of being a part of all of us. Especially when so much else has been taken from them due to illness.

Their peyos are a statement that they are still part of klal Yisroel.

How then to “give back” to these patients that which has been taken from them? As we have we noted, they cannot be regrown “overnight.” Likewise, because of disease or treatment, they might not be able to be regrown at all.

They must be created to be given back.

It takes a very special artist, a very special soul to accomplish this humane, this divine act of giving back. I have been blessed to be able to observe just such an artist at work. My wife, Clary, is one of the finest wig designers and manufacturers in the Orthodox community. Gorgeous shaitels are one thing. The greatest challenge she faces, the one she finds most demanding and most sacred, one that weighs on her so that she feels “drained” when she is done, is the need to create peyos for these desperate families and patients.

Dr. Cheryl Book, Director of Clinical Services at Chai Lifeline, internationally renowned chesed organization meeting the needs of the sick and their families, understands well the challenge – and reward – of working with these heartrending cases. Whenever Chai Lifeline is confronted with cases of illness of children in the Chassidic community who have or inevitably will lose their peyos, they contact Clary’s to urgently get the peyos. In many cases, Clary’s son, Chaim Ben Zion, who serves as manager for Clary’s business, will go to the hospital as soon as he can to accurately assess the specific need, measure the head with a yarmulke and make sure every appropriate preparation is in place to allow the peyos to be as perfect as possible.

Dr. Book is clear about why she reaches out to Clary’s in these situations. “… because of their care and sensitivity, because of how they treat not only the child but the families and because of the consistent positive feedback we get.”

Chaim Ben Zion too shares Clary’s sense of purpose. “… that I can do something so huge for the family and the patient… seeing someone helpless, not knowing what to do next… and then I come and am able to ‘make him happy.’ It takes so little to make someone happy. Not always do I get to see their happy faces after they get their new peyos but at least I know I did my very best.

“The hardest and the most sensitive part is when you get to the patient who is down-trodden and dejected. In those situations, you need to try to make them happy and hide your own feelings of sadness and introspection.”

That she and those she works closest with always rise to the challenge speaks to more than her artistry. It speaks to her neshama and how that neshama influences everyone around her.

Clary conceives, designs, creates and “builds” each pair of peyos with loving attention and devoted care. With each, she contemplates and envisions the precise peyos twist, curl, movement and shade of hair color.

Creating these peyos is, to her, a sacred task. The consummate creative and acknowledged professional with every shaitel she makes, creating peyos goes beyond. It requires a full identification with the recipient. She will often shed tears for the little, five-year year old “sheifale” in a small hospital bed. She pictures the sweet, angelic face, peyos-less. She sees the loss in his eyes when he can’t recognize himself. She hears his voice, asking his mommy, “What happened to me?”

She has such unbelievable mitgefiel for the yingale! At the end of the day, when she comes up for dinner, she sighs, “I’m drained!”

“Making a pair of peyos is always a challenge… [but] seeing their smile return when their peyos are back ‘on’ is an indescribable satisfaction. Not always do I get to see that inevitable smile. No matter what, we will always give priority to making the peyos before anything or anyone else. They need to look like always… they need to look like themselves… Can you think of a greater priority?

“Is there something greater to accomplish than to return a smile to a pure, innocent face?”

Is there anything greater than to return to a Jew his identity and his sense of worth and belonging as a Jew?

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.