by Van “Zev” Wallach (Stamford, CT)
Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m that hairy Jewish guy, built more like Esau than Jacob, who comics and cartoonists love to lampoon. While I’m bald on top, genetics compensated me with swirls of fur everywhere else: arms, legs, shoulders and back. I’d be a terrible criminal because I leave curly DNA evidence everywhere I go.
The look has pleased me since a line of hair first ran down my chest starting in the seventh grade. An early bloomer, I was. I still delight to see the hair poke up at the top of my shirts, like a wash of black foam on a beach of skin. At real beaches, I shuck my shirt to stroll about in my barrel-chested Russian-Jewish glory. At my health club, sleeveless t-shirts display my shoulders and their halo of hair, what I see as a living tattoo of shapes, shadows and textures.
I grew up with positive media hair images, like Sean Connery in his 007 days and Burt Reynolds with his April 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold. The hippies of the 1960s, who let their freak flag fly, gave me confidence with my own evolving body. That’s just who I am, man. Impending baldness rankled me, since I knew, as the latest in a long line of bald Wallachs, I’d lose hair on top in my 20s. But that happened so gradually that I barely noticed and hardly cared.
Then over the past 20 years or so a new look emerged, favoring shrunken-chested Euromen with less body hair than a Chihuahua. Media images taunted my curl-enclosed physique. Ads in the Village Voice celebrate hair removal via laser and other technologies. The pages of GQ and Esquire glisten with images of young men of marbleized features, with nothing on their hard but hairless abs and chests. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker by Roz Chast, about an updated version of the 10 plagues of the Exodus, showed a girl on a beach recoiling from a man with a hairy back, under the title, “Unwanted Body Hair!”
And I’ll never forget the derision heaped on the poor “40 Year Old Virgin” for his hairy chest, which drove him to a salon for a wax-and-rip treatment. Actor Steve Carell, who really did undergo this painful procedure on screen, got big laughs with his outbursts of yowls and curses, but the obvious message made me wince. The message:
Male body hair = social handicap.
The negativity corroded my confident body image like battery acid on ice cream. When I turned 50, I suddenly noticed that I’m afflicted with “Hobbit ears,” with their feathery outcroppings. Gazing into a mirror, I saw not a jolly bald Jewish guy with glasses and a goatee, but – a Hebraic Quasimodo, scorned by the elegantly cruel Esmeraldas of the shtetl called JDate. I finally bought a Conair ear/nose/eyebrow trimmer to keep my ears in check. Even after that, the ads in the Village Voice took on new urgency. Dare I revise 40 years of acceptance for a buttery post-millennial look?
I thought, “Surely other men deal with these issues.” Online, however, I found little serious discussion of male body issues. The articles sounded vague and forced, ruminations on Brad Pitt envy, men with eating disorders, steroid use to get that ripped look; I read nothing compelling or even particularly relevant.
I did discover The Men’s Seder, a project of the Men of Reform Judaism that nods toward the unexplored land of Jewish men and their bodies. Topics for the seder include “What enslaves us as men?”, “How do we evaluate success?” and “What are the plagues of being a man?” According to one review, the new plagues include “prostate cancer, weight gain, hair loss and impotence.” I can imagine the discussion: “On this night we are all like unleavened bread, because we cannot rise. Farewell, my shankbone.”
In my research, nothing I read about men and body image even approached the agony found in the books, articles, seminars and conferences on women and body image. While I’m content to muse fondly on my hirsuteness, I learned that women strategize, rage, fret and commiserate over their bodies at great length.
And the intensity spirals upward when Jewish women raise the issue. A commentator on the Jewish Women’s Archive site wrote,
I’ve watched incredibly talented, beautiful, intelligent, and critically-thinking girls and women locked into an eternal struggle with their bodies to conform to an arbitrary and unreachable standards. For Jewish women especially, the tension between a rich food culture, contradictory ideals of the zaftig and the rail-thin, and the constant confusion of being accepted into mainstream (read: white) culture while trying to maintain a unique ethno-cultural identity is one that leads far too many people to unhealthy and dangerous relationships with food and the mirror.
Blogger Rachel Lucas struck a less academic note when she wrote, after flipping through an issue of Maxim magazine,
Are women not feeling shitty enough about ourselves? Are we not as hyper-critical of our looks as we should be? Do you desire that we have it kicked into our heads as much as possible that we can never ever FUCKING EVER live up to your expectations of what women should look like? Do you wish to ensure that once we reach a certain age or pass that threshold of 115 pounds, we accept that we are ‘unsexy’? Thank you sir, can I have another? And guys wonder why we don’t like having sex in bright light, why we’re afraid to prance around in lingerie, why we take an hour to put on makeup and do our hair.
As painfully relevant as such reflections are when I think about the Jewish women I’ve known and cared for, they don’t do give me much to chew over on male issues. Since men don’t dare talk about these matters outside the Men’s Seder (“Hey, how’s your prostate hangin’ these days?” or “Still hitting the Viagra for Shabbat afternoon?” are not questions that come naturally to our lips), I’m on my own to decide how I relate to the “mainstream (read: white) culture” and its standards for men. Would I shrivel in the white-hot presence of Brad Pitt? Would the Chihuahuas of GQ hammer me into a state of depression over my height, my baldness, my pathetic lack of Matthew McConaughey-ness?
I am pleased to report: no on all counts. Other than my indulgence in an ear-hair trimmer, I decided to keep accepting myself as I am. Certainly the women in my life have never complained, at least not to my face. I successfully fought the urge to call one of those Village Voice advertisers for a wax-and-rip. My hairy Jewish body is – my physical self. I’ll never deny that. I get positive reinforcement of this attitude by watching lots of Israeli movies. They’re enjoyable because they show bald hairy Jewish guys doing cool things (e.g., driving tanks, shtupping) without a dollop of irony or self-loathing.
And lately, hairy guys are winning more respect. My self-confidence has bounced further back, Hobbit ears be damned. A friend on Facebook posted a link to a blog about actor Hugh Jackman’s fuzzed-up chest. I commented, “Fausta – you can rest even easier after looking at some of my profile photos. Hugh Jackman is a Euro-girlie man compared to, well, me.” Men’s fashion magazines show more natural, fuzzy models.
A British newspaper ran pro-and-con essays with the title “Hairy Chests or Polished Pecs?”, complete with photos. Arguing the “Yes, oh my God, YES!” (my paraphrase) position was Tanya Gold, who winsomely explained, “I am a Jewish woman and making passionate love to textiles is in my genes. But the real reason that I love a hairy chest is this – when you see hair nestling like a headless squirrel on your beloved’s chest you know you have a man in your bed. Not a metrosexual, but Man. Grrr.”
Often, I revel in the presence of men with the same look. At my gym, I’ve checked out other guys and vice versa, in a silent but friendly male competition to see who’s got the baddest, hairiest – whatever.
This spring, I’ve felt deep kinship with a Chasidic man who exercises at the same time I do. Off come the black hat and suit, on go the gym clothes. Once we stood in line for a shower and I marveled at the tribal similarity. While he was much heavier than me and older, our backs and shoulders looked identical. We never spoke but in that silent fraternity of the shower line I knew we were landsmen. We both come from the same Eastern European stock, two guys whose families crawled out of the mud of Ukrainian shtetls to eventually deposit their hirsute offspring in the United States, where we unashamedly maintain our burly physiques. Here are two Yids who’ll never get a back waxing. Roz Chast may find us horrifying, but that’s her problem, not ours.
And I can acknowledge that a hairy Jewish body offers loads of amusement. The look intersects with my daily routine in odd ways. Take medical procedures like EKGs. When I turned 50 and revised a life insurance policy, an insurance company operative came to my apartment to administer an EKG. Her first try failed because the electrical leads wouldn’t stay connected to my chest. They floated atop a follicular ocean, not touching any bit of skin. Gallantly, I offered to shave some strategic patches so she could get me hooked up. She agreed, so I spent 15 minutes in the bathroom hacking at the underbrush until I burrowed down to relatively bare skin. The EKG attachments worked well this time, although I fell into a yowling Steve Carell mood when I yanked them off my newly scraped flesh. Ouch! I can’t say this was exactly fun, but the episode amused me, and the hair grew back more luxuriant than ever, as I knew it would from past medical procedures.
The most satisfying affirmation of my look came way back in May 1987, when somebody went beyond furtive looks to – poke me in wonder. I was attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival then. The fun, the sun, the music and the crawfish made me groggy by mid-afternoon, so I stretched out on the ground, shirt off, hat over my eyes.
I had dozed off when somebody started playing with my feet. I opened my eyes and saw two young women sitting down by my feet. “You’re lucky I have such an amiable disposition,” I mumbled.
“Did you pass out?” asked one of the women in a heavy Southern accent. She had dark hair and said her name was Monie.
“I’m just tired,” I said.
“Let’s rub his stomach! That will wake him up,” cried Monie, the chattier of the two.
She did that – and was agog at what she found. “Why you are just the hairiest man Ah’ve ever seen,” she exclaimed. “Can I call you Curly?”
They had come to the festival from Mississippi with a male friend for the music and to see the sites. Well, they got a sight to see in me. Monie kept running her finger down my chest. I didn’t mind her frisky explorations.
“I bet you moan,” I told Monie, but my Mississippi Queen was too sloshed to get my drift.
I had my camera so I snapped a picture of her demonstrating what looked like a drunken Cajun-Caribbean limbo dance move. We listened to music for a while under the pounding New Orleans sun. Finally I handed the camera to their male buddy so he could capture my special moment with Mississippi Mona and her friend. And I’ve got the visual proof of her hand running wild through the Jewish jungle.
Van “Zev” Wallach is a writer based in Stamford, Connecticut. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. Van writes frequently on religion, politics and other matters. His interests include travel, digital photography, world music and blogging, which he does at Kesher Talk http://keshertalk.com/, where this piece originally appeared earlier this year.
“Our Hairy Jewish Bodies, Ourselves” is reprinted with permission of the author.