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He could not say for sure. But one morning, standing in front of the mirror, untangling the dental floss his son braided around his chin, Eilenberg suddenly saw his beard as if for the first time. He saw that it was reddish brown, and that it was thick and coarse. He saw the extra fullness, the uneven contours at the bottom. He touched it, pressing down. Suddenly it annoyed him — the crooked edges, the tangle of confusion, the thick tuft sprouting on his chin like a little bush.
Eilenberg knew what the Torah says: All God-fearing Jews must grow their facial hair. This way they look different than the goyim. The priests at the temple had grown beards; it had signified royalty and devotion. The holy tzadik and mystic Ha’Ari Hakadosh had carefully avoided touching his beard, lest a single hair accidentally drop from it.
That a few less strands of beard could compromise his moral core terrified Eilenberg, because Eilenberg did not want to be a less pious Jew. He only wanted to have a neater beard. The thoughts passing though his mind disturbed and bewildered him, and he left the bathroom resolved to forget this nonsense.
But the beard still bothered him. In the glass windows of the bakery, in the bank’s mirrored bathroom, in his mother’s front hall, he encountered his reflection and felt each time less like a holy priest, more like the saint of all shnorrers. He tried taming the thing, ironing it between his clenched hands, curling it into neat folds for hours on end, but it bounced back every time, every hair in its own direction.
His wife, Gitty, teased him. She could not understand what had come over her husband. And why, pray tell, did he take forever to get out the bathroom each morning?
“What are you doing?” she’d yell, pounding the door. “You’re a handsome man, I promise — now get out!”
But that fateful Tuesday morning, when Eilenberg came out mid-pounding, Gitty nearly fainted. It was her husband standing there, all right — but his beard? He had left it in the sink.
Gitty stared at him in shock. There, in a discarded pile, lay her husband’s beard, two-and-a-half inches of it, at least. There were curls on the counter, strands on the floor; what was left of it graced Eilenberg’s narrow chin like the freshly trimmed hedge. His wife did not know who this stranger was.
Neither did Eilenberg. He did not open the door proudly, but like he’d seen a ghost. He stumbled back and sat on the toilet seat.