Even a haircut &mdash especially my great-grandsons &mdash can be a simcha

People with small imaginations have a limited definition of simchas. Only weddings, britol and b’nai mitzvah qualify. 

But I’ve got a cousin whose definition includes a letter from his daughter in Arizona. “She wrote — it’s a simcha!” he exults.  

Simcha. A word much misunderstood — literally, a happiness. A wedding? Sure, it’s a simcha. The new bride doesn’t burn the fried chicken? Maybe. A lottery winner? Absolutely. 

I even have a nephew — we call him Simi — and only last week I found out his full formal name is Simcha. He’s a simcha, too! So, let us not tightly define this big, joyful Hebrew word. 

Recently, my granddaughter called on this topic. She’s a young lady whose simcha concept includes that unburned fried chicken I mentioned above, as well as a sunny day. 

“Come to New Jersey,” she says breathlessly, “we’re having a simcha.” Wedding? Lottery win? Her mother-in-law’s birthday?

She doesn’t explain. 

And I’m thinking: airfare, $240; motel, $220; plus the expenses for my lovely wife — hair, nails, Louis XV gown … Total: $962.

Due to the expense, I ask a dozen probing questions about the nature of this simcha. Did she have another kid? Is the Mosiach coming for supper? Is she getting a new husband? Has the bank decided to forgo her 300K mortgage?

“No,” answers all questions.

So, why must I mortgage my future to United Airlines, Hilton Hotel Corp., and Dillards? 

“What’s going on,” I ask, “that’s worth deducting four digits from my three-digit bank balance?”

Well, this paragon of a granddaughter, who is as observant as the Gaon, of Vilna before his arguments with the Ba’al Shem Tov, explains that her 3-year-old son is having his hair cut for the first time in his brief life. (Why can he miss three years and I’m in trouble with the wife after three weeks?) 

“Big deal,” I reply, “I’m gonna shave tomorrow morning, but I don’t expect you to disrupt your life with a three-day trip to Alabama so you can watch me lather up.”

“No, no. It’s his upsherin — his first haircut.” It is an important event, she explains to her ignorant grandfather. “We don’t cut his curly locks, just as we don’t harvest the fruit trees until they are 3 years old. That’s what it says in Leviticus, you know.” (She’s lecturing me — a Levite — about Leviticus.)

“Oh, sure,” I reply.

An upsherin, she explains, is all about the unity of nature — the kinship of man and the other creatures that thrive in God’s world. Humanity and the sycamore tree both have their feet in the earth and their head in the sky. The tree produces fruit or seed; man produces deeds. Our Chumash [the five books of Moses] loved and preached this kinship three millennia ago — well before the Sierra Club signed up its first member. Don’t we call our Torah “Etz Chayim, a tree of life”? My jewel of a granddaughter explains all this slowly and with very short, distinct words instead of her usual New Jersey machine-gun delivery, so the Alabama grandfather, the patriarch, understands. 

Even at the age of 3, the toddler begins his path to responsibility that culminates at bar mitzvah. This rosy, dimpled child, with curls that would revive Michelangelo to paint just one more cherub, is due for an upsherin.   

And that’s why I’m sitting in a Passaic, N.J., living room full of relatives. In the middle of the room on a stool sits the honoree, Shimon Leib — ex-curly-haired cherub. (He’d look just like me if he was wrinkled around the eyes and mouth and the skin around his little neck was droopy and his hair was gray and absent on top and back of his head.) He chirps as I clip. With the spotlight focused on his gilded face, this Jewish Tom Cruise of the 2020s behaves angelically. (Did they drug him with Manischewitz, like at the brit?)

Now, each relative steps up and cuts a lock until finally, the deed is done. And I’m thinking, hey, not one of his clippers is a professional barber. He was prettier before. 

Only on the outside, my granddaughter would say. Inside he’s a 10. 

Now he gets to wear tzitzit to decorate his soul. He’s on his way, Rabbi Rothman from Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv, explains to me. You might think of it as a pre-bar mitzvah warm-up: He’s not exactly responsible for his ethical behavior, but you can no longer hope he’ll turn off the bedroom light switch that someone left on Friday night. Like I say, he’s on his way. 

So, the dozen or so family barbers hack at his hair while Mama, proud but nervous, watches from the corner. Those scissors are sharp, she’s thinking, and if he’s going to enjoy a fruitful life, he’ll need both ears to hear his teachers. As the floor is carpeted with blond ringlets, the kid has a spiky, trendy look like a “Saturday Night Live” host with a head full of mousse. But Mama, who sees the yeshiva, not “Saturday Night Live,” as the training ground for Shimon, smooths off the rough cut head of hair. 

Then the rabbi — who has never been to barber school, and wisely only observed Phase I — swings into action. He and the ex-cherub sit at the dining room table like Rabbi Akiva and one of his prize scholars.

A large sheet of Hebrew letters — the alef-bet — sits before them. The rabbi coats the gimel with honey. He points. “Say gimel.” 

Shimon says “gimel” and touches the letter. 

“Now lick your finger, Shimon Leib.” 

The ex-cherub, who never needs a second invitation for a snack, obeys and smiles. Many letters are learned. Much honey is smeared on the little face. 

May all his learning be as sweet. May all his life be as sweet.

Ted Roberts is a humorist based in Huntsville, Ala.