Gender-Bending and an Ancient Jewish Custom

Upsherin, a traditional haircutting ceremony for ultra-religious little boys, provokes feminist questions. Hair and ritual.

If you called my son a “she” or a “cute little girl,” I wouldn’t correct you. He’s mistaken for a girl with such regularity that I’ve long since exchanged my explanations for a smile and silence. Let me explain: There’s a custom among observant Jews to let a male child’s hair grow uncut until age three.

On his third birthday, a huge celebration and “haircutting ceremony” called an “upsherin” takes place. At our son’s upsherin, close to 200 friends and family attended. Tables of homemade cakes and brownies encircled a large sheet cake on which was written all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Outside, we had a petting zoo; inside, pizza. My wife and I had spent hours preparing.

We poured champagne for a I’chaim toast, and the big moment arrived. I said a few words of blessing to Yehuda (expressing his family’s hopes that he grow to bring nachas to himself and his people), and I thanked the community for the roles we each play in bringing up one another’s children. Yehuda was presented with his first kippah and tzitzis, the four-cornered undergarment he would now be encouraged to wear daily. Yehuda’s community—which would continue to support and nurture him through childhood—understood this moment as the beginning of its formal responsibility to educate him in the performance of mitzvos [positive commandments], which Yehuda would take his place in assuming.

While we all sang, the head of the Rabbinic Academy cut the first lock of hair, followed by grandparents, cousins and friends. Back home after the party (and a stop at a professional barber), Yehuda marveled at his “big boy” image and watched the video of his party again and again. I had a sense, for the first time, of how my parents had felt at my upsherin.

Upsherin (which means ‘first cutting’) dates back to ancient times, though the etiology of the custom remains obscure. It seems to be connected to the Jewish law which prohibits the harvesting of a fruit tree before the tree reaches a maturity of three years. By analogy, “pruning” the child’s hair (‘hair’ and ‘foliage’ are the same word in Greek and Latin) at age three represents the placing of limits on nature—culture is introduced. The child’s mind is, as it were, first “harvested;” formal education begins. That’s why there’s a Hebrew alphabet on Yehuda’s cake. Jewish mysticism also likens toddlers’ innocence and inherent holiness to that of biblical Nazirites who do not cut their hair or drink wine, and who dedicate themselves to holiness.

I found myself thinking about Nazirites one night while I watched my son running down the sandy Miami beach at dusk, his dirty blond hair halfway down his back flying in the wind. That small figure framed against the waves and sunset really did look mystical, angelic, free of all societal restraints. Like a Nazirite—he seemed almost untouched by civilization.

I thought about the implications of Yehuda’s long lustrous hair, and about the role that his long hair has played in his short life. Though my wife and I try to be aware of gender bias in our child rearing, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I do, unconsciously, treat my son differently from my daughter.

I expect more from my son. Because he is male, I believe that society generally gives Yehuda the message that he should be more adult, that he can absorb a little more criticism than a female of the same age. I get irritated at his small tantrums or pouts, while the same behavior from my daughter makes me smile and shake my head.

I feel an urgent need to teach Yehuda his Hebrew letters, to have him attempt the Passover questions. I expect him to shake my father’s hand in shul and to speak respectfully. In short, I find it more difficult to allow my son to act his age; easier to allow my daughter to act her age.

Too often, if I’m in a cranky mood, I won’t allow Yehuda the small defiances and normal outbursts that children display. I’ll be too prepared to criticize and correct. But then it hits me: that hair. The long golden strands covering his neck, back and often his eyes jostle my memory—he’s not even three. Just a baby who deserves the right to act like one. He needs my love and acceptance now and forever. I think his long hair often helps me attain a gentler parenting style; hopefully a style that will stick with me in the future.

I do feel that a special bond between my son and myself formed specifically during the year when he was two, and I wonder if this would have been a little different without his long hair and girlish look. It’s no coincidence, I am sure, that the “terrible twos” coincide with a boy’s hair at its longest.

At Yehuda’s upsherin, my throat tightened and I felt wistful. For me, a great part of my son’s innocence (and maybe mine) is connected to his long, untouched hair. I saved the golden locks, of course, and will show them to anyone who laughs at old family customs.

M. Gary Neuman is a psychotherapist in private practice in Miami Beach, and the author of several articles and books. His most recent therapeutic program for children of divorce, called Sandcastles, was featured on CBS and NBC Nightly News.