I didn’t grow up eating kosher, but my wife did. Occasionally we’ll be watching television and a Pizza Hut ad will pop up, and she’ll say to me, “Do you ever miss bacon-pineapple pizza?” Truthfully, I don’t. There’s a story in the Talmud saying that for every forbidden food, God provided a permitted food that tastes exactly the same. But usually I don’t even need simulated treyf to help me get by. I liked pork chops, but I wouldn’t say I miss them. Even before I started keeping kosher, eating lobster was like eating big sea-roaches as far as I was concerned.
What gets me all misty are the ads for a new Gillette razor with triple-stacked blades, in which the newly shaved actor rubs his hand over his self-satisfied face. This is because, along with eating bottom crawlers and the Other White Meat, I gave up shaving with a razor, and I have had many occasions to wonder if I made the right choice. I spent a long time and have gone to some lengths in the quest for a shave that would come close to the real thing.
I miss the little rituals of whipping up a cup full of lather, filling the sink with piping-hot water, dabbing on shaving cream with a brush and then taking it off with a nice, sharp razor. You don’t have any of that with an electric shaver. Most electric shavers yank the hairs out of my neck one by one, like tweezers. For the past 10 years, shaving has been a half-hour auto-da-fe, a painful act of faith that I performed each morning or as often as I could bear it.
I could have grown a beard, but my wife hates the idea and my mother says you can’t trust a man whose chin you can’t see. The important principles of respect for parents and peace in the home trump my pain. Plus, my beard, when it grows, looks really strange. It is not even. It looks oddly anemic in places, mysteriously thick in other spots.
I could just shave with a razor and risk the Lord’s wrath, but this is an explicit biblical commandment (Leviticus 19:27, for those who care to check), not some medieval rabbinic stricture. I figured I could find a substitute if I just looked long enough; there must be a replacement razor out there, along with the kosher simulated crab and a tree that grows pigs, which I am confident scientists are cooking up in a vat even as I write.
Other cultural or religious groups have shaving or hair-cutting taboos — Sikhs and Rastafarians, for example — but as far as I know, Judaism is the only one that is interested in the technology of hair cutting as much as in the hair itself. Electric shavers squeak through the prohibition because they operate on the principle of scissors, not razors. That’s how many Jewish men manage to go bare faced. (Then again, there are those, like the Hasidim, who view any kind of shaving as forbidden.) But for those who go beardless, depilatories are okay, too. There’s no razor in a bottle of Nair, but no matter how sensitive the skin on my face, no matter how high my feminist consciousness is raised, I am unwilling to use a female-grooming product on my manly stubble. Short of having a Bedouin barber shave me with arsenic powder and a thread, I figured I was stuck with the electric tweezers.
Then one day, back when I was living in Manhattan on Claremont Avenue, right below 125th Street, a neighborhood that was largely black and Dominican, I noticed a product on sale at the corner bodega called The Black Man’s Magic Shave. Because some black men get bad razor bumps from shaving with a regular razor, capitalism had stepped in to meet the need for a male depilatory. It was the first time I had ever seen a depilatory marketed to men of any color, and my imagination was hooked.
I should say here that I am white. I am not Michelin Man white, but I’m not even café-au-lait-with-extra-cream black. Still, it was a lot easier for me to get over the ethnic-specific marketing than the gender barrier. If I hadn’t been so excited, I might have noticed that the Black Man’s Magic Shave was not flying off the shelves; the black men of the neighborhood generally preferred razor bumps to this stuff. The tube that I bought had a thick coat of dust on it.
I felt like I was busting down the barriers of mutual ignorance and ethnic isolationism. I was sure I was on the cutting edge of a cross-cultural grooming product revolution. I applied the stuff as per the instructions. I rinsed my face after 10 minutes, or whatever the tube said to do. It was a disaster. My beard fell out in clumps. I looked like I had radiation sickness. My face smelled like a kielbasa that had been out in the sun for a week in July.
With the failure of that adventure and my disappointment with a whole catalog of electric shavers, I had sort of resigned myself to the status quo. I had abandoned my little quest for the good Jewish shave in favor of martyrdom, viewing my deprivation as spiritually improving. I was reluctant to sink a lot of money into another gimmick. But a few months ago, I splashed out to the tune of $130 for a wet/dry electric shaver. It has revolutionized my life. It takes me five minutes to shave, and when I’m done my face feels softer than it did when I was 12. It gets my day off to a good start, generally has improved my mood and has made my wife very happy, thus fulfilling this verse: “It is good to thank the Lord, to sing to your exalted name, and to tell of your mercies in the morning.…”
Clearly we are in the end days, my friends. Based on my own experience, I counsel patience to those who really crave it, because pork grown on a tree must be right around the corner.
Jeremy Wexler is a writer and occasional contributor to CBC Radio’s DNTO. He is also the editor of No Damn Good, Art Music and Tomfoolery From N.D.G.