There’s an off-Broadway comedy show that has been around for several years, “My Son The Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy.” The title pokes fun at a stereotype that has Jewish parents disappointed because their child didn’t become a lawyer or a doctor. Like most children of Jewish families whose forebears immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, I grew up assuming I would go to college, and I did. I graduated from Brandeis University in 1979. Ten years later I became a hairstylist.
To me, my work was the ultimate gig — artistic, entrepreneurial, fun. Listening to my interesting, accomplished clients in metropolitan Washington, D.C., for 23 years was as cozy and intimate as pillow talk. We told each other everything. Facing the mirror together, we sought answers about superficial appearance that were really about core identity. Is this me? Is this my best self? Because of my intellectual family, though, I agonized over those questions throughout most of my career.
My parents weren’t the most observant Jews, but they had certainly adopted the value of using higher education as a springboard to a professional career. My mother was a second-wave feminist with a thriving psychotherapy practice. My father was an international trade lawyer/lobbyist. I was more interested in hair and make-up than in anything else.
That passion grew from dealing with my own kinky, curly hair, a frizzled mess that was completely out of style in the late 1960s, the era of smooth, straight hair.
As a teenager I tried to straighten it in the makeshift salon of our black-and-white tiled bathroom. In front of the medicine cabinet mirror, I mixed and applied smelly solutions from the home-straightening kits I bought with my babysitting earnings. In that small room reeking of pungent chemicals, I first felt the excitement of setting transformation into motion. The possibility of changing into someone different was thrilling.
Appearance seemed decidedly not feminist or intellectual. So my interest in hair remained a girly, guilty pleasure. Finally, when I was 32, 10 years after I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts in English, I went to Graham Webb International Academy of Hair, in Arlington, Virginia.
If my parents were appalled, they hid it well. They both quickly (and bravely) became my loyal clients while I was still in school. I told myself I would do hair “for a little while” until I figured out what I really wanted to be when I grew up. Mastering the techniques and tools of my trade felt artistic — the hair-color swatch book inspired my creativity like a freshly opened 100-pack of crayons, and my shears became an extension of my mind’s eye as I deftly sculpted away extraneous hair to reveal the hidden beauty I saw in my clients.
I worked in what psychologists call flow. I was energized and fully focused, and I enjoyed what I was doing. It was gratifying to be trusted for my taste, my expertise and my counsel on everything from the important — challenges at work, with relationships and parenting — to the mundane, like what color to paint the dining room.
I owned a business, earned a six-figure income and supported my family as the major breadwinner in my marriage. But I still felt disapproval. Someone in my family spoke of her hairdresser as “my girl.” Another, the first female child of my immigrant grandparents to earn a doctorate, actually rolled her eyes when my work came up in conversation. Although my mother seemed supportive and loved her hair, I noticed she was critical of her sister, who “wasted her education” by being “only” an elementary school secretary.
The first question anyone asks a new acquaintance in the D.C. area is, “What do you do?” Over the years, I had social conversations end abruptly when I answered that question. Inevitably, those same people would corner me later in the ladies’ room for a free impromptu hair consultation. People asked if I had any famous clients. I did. Naming those women illuminated me with an instant reflected legitimacy that was irrelevant, but one that I still welcomed as social tender. I managed to slip Brandeis into every conversation with someone new.
The stereotype is that hairdressers are flakey, dumb, gum-popping party people. In my experience, though, most stylists are smart and perceptive. We are warm, wise listeners. We are highly skilled in the worlds of chemistry, geometry and physics.
I retired six years ago after 23 years “behind the chair.” Snobbery toward the trades is real, but looking back I realize my conflict about doing hair was self-imposed. I let other people’s misperceptions influence how I felt. I was lucky to do work that I loved.
My 24-year-old son recently decided not to continue with college. He is on his own “less traditional” path. As his mom I am defending his decision to my family and at the same time resisting the urge to talk him into going back to school.
We American Jews encourage our kids to get a good education as a means of having a successful life. But our heritage is actually rooted in the trades. Generations of Jews in Europe, and of immigrants to the United States, were garment workers, cigar rollers, butchers, printers, tailors, weavers, silversmiths, day laborers and bakers. In fact, the Talmud’s most famous rabbinic statement about parents’ obligations to children (Kiddushin 29a) includes, among other things, teaching them Torah and a trade.
It turns out that having a trade was in line with my Jewish heritage after all.
Lisa J. Daniels has written for Dame Magazine, Divorce Magazine, and is working on a memoir about her hairdressing career. Follow her on Twitter @Lisadanielslive