By Michael Orbach
Except for a pat on the back and a muffled thank you, the haircuts my brother-in-law gave me were free. The only cost was the small velvet yarmulke I kept in my car’s glove compartment.
I knocked twice on the apartment door and my brother-in-law appeared, sheepish and apologetic as if he were knocking on my door at midnight. He wore a pair of dress pants and a button-down white shirt. His beard was black, bushy and unkempt, filled with bits of whatever he had been eating. My brother-in-law put a finger to his lips and bade me follow him through the kitchen, where a pot of tomato soup groaned on the burner, then past the dining room where photographs of rabbis hung in gilded frames. In the apartment's barred windows, I saw the moon hold up its bright head like an unrepentant child.
It wasn’t that haircuts were expensive. Five dollars at most in the Armenian barbershop on Rockaway Turnpike. The Jewish barbers on West Broadway charged seven and you had to put an obligatory dollar in the Lubavitch pushka. Both shops employed the same rotating group of barbers: hirsute Bukharian Jews who had migrated from Russia when the Iron Curtain fell. Each man was almost identical with black greasy hair, mail-away hairdresser diplomas, and pictures of their fat elderly red-haired mothers.
Money wasn’t a factor in why I came to the eleventh floor of my sister’s apartment building. I never went there in the summer when I could buy watermelon from the black kids by JFK or when the air smelled of green cicadas. It was the dismal times of year, the winter or the late fall, when I liked the feeling of a familiar hand on my shoulders and when the yarmulke and everything it stood for weighed less heavily on my mind. Except for the haircuts, I never wore the yarmulke—according to Jewish custom, it was to remind us of something above us. If that were the case, I thought to myself, we should wear something on our shoes to remind us of the nameless dead below.
“So, how you been?” my brother-in-law asked as soon as we were in the bathroom. He unbuttoned his white shirt and hung it on the doorknob. The armpits of his undershirt were stained yellow with lily pads of sweat and his belly hung low over his belt.
“I been alright,” I said. A noisy wind rattled the window above the toilet. It was the coldest winter in a while.
“That good?” my brother-in-law teased.
“You know. How it is. I’m a wild one.” I shrugged off my ski coat and placed it on the wooden countertop.
“A real wild one, a real wild one,” my brother-in-law intoned from some obscure song that only he remembered. He took out a black garbage bag from under the sink, ripped it and placed it over the tile floor. Any hair left on the tiles would engender the rage of Shira, my short and short-tempered sister.
“So what we looking at today?” he asked.
“A three or four.”
“Always.” I said.
“Don’t see why.” My brother-in-law rubbed his own head. Aside from his peyot, my brother-in-law shaved his head completely. His thick brown peyot hung like thick cigars from his ears. My sister was also bald; she shaved her head and covered her white scalp with a wig.
I stepped out while he went to get a folding chair from the kitchen. Through the thin plywood walls I heard the bass of reggaeton music and the catcalls of my sister’s Hispanic neighbors. My mother had set up my sister with my brother-in-law. She heard about him through her rabbi who said he was a good-hearted, struggling ba’al teshuva, a term that meant returnee to the faith. They were engaged after three weeks. When you know, you know, my sister told me.
The sages in the picture frames grimaced at me; their white beards hung like icicles off their chin. Their pale skin made me doubt they had ever seen the sun. “We didn't need the sun in Vilna, why do you?” The long dead sages demanded. “Where is your reverence for our revelations?” they complained. “Why do you not care?” they cried. I turned back to the bathroom mirror where my face contained all the disappointment I needed.
My brother-in-law came back in with a chair and I stripped to my boxers. We both had the irrational fear that any hair on clothing irreversibly destroyed it. The chair was cold to my naked back and I shivered. The buzzer came alive.
“You hear?” my brother-in-law asked. “Your cousin Leah got engaged today.”
“You think I’d lie about this sort of thing? It's a big simcha, a girl her age. Her parents were terrified about her.”
“Or heaven forbid, hit twenty-five and not have eight kids.”
“Twenty-three is pretty old in our circles.”
“Mazel tov,” I said in a voice I thought passed as sincere.
The prongs on the buzzer grazed my scalp and I felt the hair fall in waves on to my shoulder and scatter on the black garbage bag. The hair that missed the tarp looked like clusters of black worms.
“Your friend Daniel Levine got engaged to Shani Lowinger,” my brother-in-law informed me. Whenever I saw my brother-in-law I would hear updates about people I vaguely knew who lived in the neighborhood: who got married, who had kids. Every so often someone had managed to beat the odds and die.
“So you seeing anyone?” my brother-in-law asked.
“Not that I know of,” I said. “Too busy. Aside from the occasional times I get lucky.”
I supervised construction sites for a man named Tony D. Tony, the father of a friend of mine, felt it was his Jewish obligation to hire out-of-work ex-convicts. Most of them were blacks or Hispanics from the same building that my brother-in-law lived in. Tony kept everyone in line. He was a pretty friendly guy who had the largest neck I had ever seen, as big as my waist.
“You’ve got a new shul on the corner of Sage and Beach 9th that I’m doing some planning for.”
“Barukh Hashem,” my brother-in-law laughed a little.
“What is it with Jews and shuls? A Jew gets stuck on a deserted island. He needs two shuls, one to go to and one to say he wouldn’t get caught dead in.”
“You seem happy.”
“You know that’s funny. You in construction.”
“Why's that funny?”
“You’ve got a good kop. Shirah always said you were at the top of your high school class.”
“She’s exaggerating.” Most of my high school was spent smoking pot in the playground of a nearby elementary school. I has been a third-rate student at a third-rate yeshiva and barely managed to pass any of my Jewish classes. The lone “A” from the nearsighted Rabbi Mermelstein, whose tests I had gotten from a senior, were the exception that proved the rule. My sister designated me a lost promised child with Mermelstein’s crooked scarlet A stitched to my chest. It was simpler that way for her, I supposed, than just facing up to my being average and unremarkable.
“And humble too, a talmid chochum the bricklayer.”
“I could be the Vilna Gaon. It’s a dirty job, someone’s gotta do it.”
The Vilna Gaon was a legendary sage revered for his wisdom and his uncompromising stance on everything. In his last years he had excommunicated all the Chasidim. His brief blistering commentary on the Talmud was still studied and puzzled over by advanced yeshiva students everywhere. I had recognized him in my brother-in-law’s collection of the saintly dead: a pencil drawing with a long white beard and sad eyes that feared God.
The tufts of hair fell, first blonde, brown before my eyes and then black on the linoleum tiles. Afterwards they would be swept up and thrown into the overflowing garbage bin. I asked my brother-in-law how the Giants were doing. He was a life-long fan; I heard from my mother how he’d sneak late into my parents’ house without telling my sister, to catch the final minutes of Monday Night Football.
“What does a poshut yid know about goyish things like football?” he asked.
I arched my back and laughed.
“No doing so well, then?”
“Shmos think you almost win a Superbowl, you can clown around for the next two seasons. Beaten by the Vikings. The Vikings! When was the last time the Vikings actually completed a pass? But with the Giants, forty-nine points! Brett Favre—what is he, like 120?”
I laughed again. My brother-in-law spent his days trying to erase the traces of who he was, from his old friends to the healed piercing marks in his ears and face. He was a born-again Jew from Brighton Beach who had found peace in an old religion. He had even gone to Juvie for beating a man so bad he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. One Shabbat, after a few too many l'chaims of J & B, I asked him what the man had done. “Enough,” my brother-in-law told me. My brother-in-law towered over my sister, as large as his simple faith.
“You know Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz was a lifelong Mets fans. He threw a kiddush when they won the World Series because for the first time, he didn’t care.”
“To care about these things is okay. We’re not like the tzadikim who could fast from Sunday to Friday, who could absolve themselves of the world so easily,” my brother-in-law mulled, trying like he always did to impart some sort of moral lesson to me. “We’re human, but it’s better not to care about these mundane things. It's better to live for higher things.”
“Besides, God surely does love the Patriots,” I quipped.
My brother-in-law ignored me as he dipped into esoteric philosophy and the Talmudic disputes he spent his days embroiled in—the texts I could no longer understand and the meaningless battles that he fought against himself. His life was a spiritual war between the yetzer hora and the yetzer tov, the evil inclination and the good one. The more he erased of himself, the better he became. I was too smart for all that, and dumb enough to be almost pleased with myself—my life was the simple, bristly physical here-and-now. While he spoke, I glanced at the rim of the sink and saw the signs of a messy hurried life: children’s toothbrushes with teardrop green globs on their bristles, a plastic washing cup for my nephews to wash negel vaser, and a faded Dora the Explorer sticker, a trace of the forbidden outside that had squirreled itself in.
“Peyot?” my brother-in-law asked.
“At the bone,” I answered.
Sideburns at the bone was a requirement of Jewish law. My brother-in-law’s peyot swayed as he swayed in prayer, swaying like his forefathers did in the wilds of Galitzia, while they chopped wood with their ears twitching for the sound of hooves signaling the Cossacks’ imminent arrival. I too, in my sister's apartment, was a slave to the all-encompassing laws.
The phone rang in the hallway and my brother-in-law went to get it.
“It was my shvig,” he said moments later, using the Yiddish term for mother-in-law.
“What she want?”
“Wants to know if we need anything from Costco tomorrow. She’s going. I said junk food, orange juice, and milk for the kids. Costco carries Cholov Yisroel now. She sends regards.”
“Send them back.”
I shut up. My mother had become religious after she and my father divorced. Last I heard she was dating a Lubavitch rabbi with a long white beard who ran a counseling center for Jewish drug addicts. The few times I spent the weekend at my mother's house, he would be there, his black eyes boring into me. The wind howled and I heard the trees scrape against the lower floors. Next to my sister's apartment was a broken playground where groups of mangy teenagers sold pot. The window shuddered and the tissue box bounced off the toilet, falling a foot away from us. My brother-in-law stooped to pick it up.
“These walls are thin,” I said.
“Slumlords.” My brother-in-law shrugged. “That’s what you get for $700 a month.”
My brother-in-law learned all day in a kollel, while my sister worked as a receptionist in a nearby yeshiva. I always thought she could have done better, she was smart and quick, but she was too religious to go to college. Most of the floors in their building were filled with single moms and recovering addicts. The female guard in the bullet-proof security booth in the entrance waved me in with a look that said, “You don’t even want to know the shit I’ve seen.”
“What do you want for the front?” he asked.
“Long as always, cover my big forehead.”
“It’s a sign of a good head.”
My brother-in-law leveled his head to mine. His face was all angles, crags and edges. It would have fit perfectly on a recruiting poster for the marines, had his brown eyes not appeared almost bashful. He snipped the longer hair that trailed pass my eyebrows and I held back the urge to blow away the hair that landed on my nose.
“You see this great video on YouTube about a rabbi getting rid of a dybbuk?” my brother-in-law asked.
“You watch YouTube?”
“God forbid. Well, sometimes. I'm a modern man.”
“I won't hold it against you.”
“I saw it on your mom’s computer and some guys in yeshiva were talking about it,” he went on. My brother-in-law was in the Anshei Yashar Kollel; it was a large brick building on Peninsula Boulevard with a huge skylight. The name of a man who went to jail for money laundering was engraved on the front of the building. “The woman was cursing and screaming all things, the ancient names of angels that are in the Yom Kippur slichot, names I can't say.”
“And this rabbi came in and he put a piece of parchment on her head and began repeating parts of the Kabbalah and she calmed down. She was possessed by a dybbuk.”
Kabbalah was the ancient book of mysticism. According to the Talmud only men over forty were allowed to learn it. I had known about the video before my brother-in-law mentioned it. It had been posted weeks ago and was shot in a grainy black and white as if the video were from the fifties. I figured it was some sort of promotion for a new movie.
“A spirit caught between worlds, this one and the next one.”
“Like The Exorcist?”
“Yes,” my brother-in-law said. “Only real.”
“In the age of YouTube, I can’t believe you believe in dybbuks and Kabbalah,” I said.
My brother-in-law was silent, no doubt wondering how, in the age of Kabbalah and dybbuks, I could believe in YouTube. That morning, after getting out of the shower, I had listened to “Tangled Up in Blue.” We all feel the same, we just see it from a different point of view.
The haircut was almost finished and I didn't want to end on a bad note.
“So, this world and the next one. . . .” I said, letting it linger.
Olam Ha’zeh and Olam Haba, this world and the world to come,” my brother-in-law explained patiently, like I was a student in the occasional classes he taught. He was beloved as a gentle rebbe whose students took advantage of him. He was far from the rabbis who had taught me: bitter, unfulfilled men angry at where the world had left them.
“The Mesilas Yisharim says this world is a pruzdor, a corridor, to the next world.”
“So dybbuks come back if they can’t get in?”
I saw my brother-in-law’s head nodding in the mirror.
“And if they make it to heaven?”
“They sit at the feet of the Kisa Hakoved, Hashem's throne.”
“And they learn with Hashem, the greatest pleasure that a soul can have. Like it says in 'Yedid Nefesh,' 'My soul yearns for you, Father of Mercy.'”
“Pretty bizarre. I find that hard to believe.”
“So, what happens in your mind?” my brother-in-law murmured.
“Who knows? At the end? Beats me. Nothing, nada. Just blackness and emptiness.”
I heard the rattle and the scissors snip, the hair falling like a breeze. My brother-in-law's finger made a line as he cut the hair around my ear.
“Sometimes,” my brother-in-law began, “I wake up, only I don’t wake up. I am wide awake but I’m stuck in my body. I can’t move, I can’t even open up my eyes. I don’t know how long it lasts; it could be seconds, it could be minutes, it could be hours. I’m just paralyzed in the dark. Shira doesn’t notice. It scares me. Is that what you think the afterlife is?”
“Well,” I said after a moment, “not as bleak. Maybe just quiet.”
We were both quiet. I brushed the hair off my shoulder. That was what we were: God's discarded debris, flicked off His omnipresent shoulder.
We both turned. My nephew, Tuvia, stood in the doorway, wearing a pair of green pajama bottoms, one hand scratching his bare chest.
“Do you need to make?” my brother-in-law asked. My nephew nodded his big ponderous head and his moist eyes shimmered. Tuvia was my sister’s middle child. He was a small kid, not as smart as his older brother or as cute as his younger; he made up for it by throwing fits and having accidents. My mother helped pay for him to see a child therapist. My brother-in-law brushed the black bag to the side of the bathroom with a white-socked foot. I sat on the side of the bathtub that was half-filled with water. A pair of shit-stained underwear floated in the murky liquid like a drowned explorer.
“You remembered to make, that’s so good, Tuvia,” my brother-in-law said. He placed his hands on my nephew’s shoulder and guided him to the toilet, before pulling down his pants.
“Uncle Jake, will you be here tomorrow?” my nephew asked sleepily.
“Nah, maybe Uncle Jake will come some other time,” I said.
“Oh, okay.” My nephew turned his head to me and blinked slowly as if to make sure it was a promise, before his father turned him back to the toilet. “Uncle Jake, when’s a hundred o’clock?”
My brother-in-law shushed him, but I answered anyway, distracted by my reflection in the mirror. “I don’t know. I don’t think there is a one hundred o’clock.”
“It’s when the Moshiach will come,” I heard my nephew say as drops of urine splashed on the toilet seat. “How will we get to Eretz Yisroel when Moshiach comes, Uncle Jake?”
“On the wings of eagles.” I repeated the legend that I had always been told.
My brother-in-law pulled up my nephew’s pants and took him to wash his hands. My nephew’s hands were engulfed in purple foam. “Do we have to go by ourselves on the eagle?” my nephew asked.
My brother-in-law looked at me.
“No,” I said. “We can go with whoever we want.”
On their way back, my nephew lightly touched my knee as if to say he wanted to ride the eagle with me whenever the Messiah did arrive.
“It looks good,” my brother-in-law said as he came back into the bathroom.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yosef, you do a good job.”
He brushed off the clippers in the sink and separated the different sizes of clippers into a box.
“I do. I should have become a barber. Einstein once said that nuclear power changed everything except the way we think. He said: ‘Had I known that, I would have become a watchmaker.’”
My brother-in-law placed a hand on my shoulder and then removed it, blowing away the stray hairs that attached to his hand. I put on my sweatpants and sweatshirt.
“Send my regards to Shira,” I told him.
My brother-in-law held my chin in one hand and looked from side to side.
“Looks even,” he pronounced. “Make sure you say goodnight to the boys on your
way out, and lock up. You should call her.”
I walked to my nephews’ room and opened the door a crack. There, crowded in the small room, were my three beautiful nephews, their eyes closed with the sleep of the righteous, their faces only illuminated by an outside streetlight. Soon they would grow old and sin. I blew them each a kiss from my tainted lips and closed the door, careful not to wake them.
“Don’t forget this,” Yosef called out softly to me as I walked out. In his hand was the small black yarmulke. I shoved it in my pocket.
I lingered for a moment and watched as Yosef walked back to the dining room and sat by the table under the steady gaze of the sages. I left the apartment, a dybbuk who took the elevator down to vanish into the paralyzing darkness from which I emerged.
Copyright © Michael Orbach 2013
Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Jewish Star newspaper and his work has appeared in The Jewish Week, Forward, Tablet Magazine, and a host of other Jewish periodicals. “Free Haircuts” is part of a series of short stories in his unpublished collection, The Last Jews of Long Island.