Mendel Matusof got his first haircut Sunday. He is 3 years old.
Connie Christiansen, 12, a seventh-grade student at Perrysburg Jr. High School, is getting ready for a St. Baldrick’s buzz cut — her fourth. Connie’s friend Anna Putnam, 26, supported Connie by getting her head shaved (again) when Connie first cut off all her hair. And today marks five years since my last haircut.
We four have two things in common regarding our hair: religion and cancer. We’re all healthy; I’m the only cancer survivor in this group. Mendel, Connie, and Ms. Putnam have helped to fight children’s cancer by losing their locks and either donating ponytails to make wigs for children whose disease or treatment took their hair, or raising monetary donations for children’s cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s organization. Though I avoided chemotherapy and didn’t lose my hair, I haven’t cut it since I got out of the hospital so, in a sense, you see five years of good health.
Chai Lifeline will get Mendel’s ponytail; Connie is about an inch of hair growth away from having a ponytail that Locks of Love will accept, and she has raised more than $2,000 for St. Baldrick’s from her earlier haircuts. My hair is too gray to be donated.
Mendel didn’t have a haircut until he turned 3 because of his family’s observance of religious tradition. The family is Hasidic, active in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism. His father, Rabbi Shmouel Matusof, is on staff at the Bais Menachem Mendel—Chabad House of Toledo. His mother, Mushka, is the daughter of Rabbi Yossi Shemtov, Chabad’s director in Toledo. When a boy turns 3, he has an upshernish, the Yiddish term for a ceremony celebrating the first haircut.
Those who observe the tradition wait until age 3 for a few reasons. “He’s excited” about it,” his mother said. “There’s more to it than just the actual hair cutting. It has a lot of symbolism.”
“Awareness comes at 3, so this is what you want him to do now,” his father said. This is a time when Mendel can start to observe traditions; besides the haircut, which leaves the sidelocks or peyot uncut as mandated by scripture, the boy starts to wear a kipah or yarmulke skullcap and the tzitzitz fringed, four-cornered vest that are physical reminders of religious connections; girls start to light Shabbat candles at age 3. It’s the time to start teaching aspects of Judaism, Rabbi Matusof said. “He’s going to want to do it, like, to put a tzedaka — to put a coin into charity — every day, or say more of the prayers every day, and having the yarmulke everywhere he goes and having the tzitzitz.”
On the invitations to Mendel’s upshernish, a poem said, “The Torah compares a little boy to a tree / Whose fruit may not be cut until it turns three.” And some say that it takes three years to instill all the parents’ love. There are also ties to the Kabbalah of Jewish mystical guidance.
Mendel’s upshernish, at Congregation Etz Chayim, was on May 18, or Iyar 18, 5774, according to the Jewish calendar. The family waited until the Lag B’Omer holiday commemorating the Kabbalah and a time of peace for followers of the sage Rabbi Akiva to have the upshernish. Mendel said he was waiting for one other thing: “Cake!”
St. Baldrick was not a real person. The organization’s website says the name came from combining “bald” and “St. Patrick’s” because its first head-shaving event was on St. Patrick’s Day 2000. St. Baldrick’s is secular but it draws some religious people, like Connie and Anna. “I felt that I should give back to the community that kind of raised me,” Connie, who goes to First Unitarian Church of Toledo (where I serve as an affiliated minister), said. “Some people in the church have said that I really changed for the better” with her St. Baldrick’s involvement.
Ms. Putnam, Connie’s church friend who had mohawks in her school days, joined Connie for her first St. Baldrick’s buzz cut about three years ago. “She had longer hair,” Ms. Putnam said. “I think she was kind of nervous about it in some ways, and I felt like an old pro. … I shaved my head when I was in high school and that was pretty daring; I can’t imagine being in elementary school or middle school and doing something that adventurous.”
The next area head-shaving event supporting St. Baldrick’s is June 14 at Bloomfield’s Hair Cut Co., 224 Clinton St., Defiance. “We want to be part of the community, not just part of the community that takes money from people,” said co-owner Steven Bartel. People can sign up and get donation materials at stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/8338/2014.
And then there’s me. Some of you know that I have a pretty long ponytail. It’s about time for a trim—not a shaved head. I expect I’ll continue to have hair long enough to tie back — I joke and say that avoids more bad-hair days. But marking five years with no evidence of disease, I don’t need to see exactly how long that’s been.