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The Analyses of Acute Diagnostic Minds

This week’s portion, Tazria, is concerned with purity and contamination. It contains many passages along these lines:

And when a man or woman hath a plague upon the head… the priest shall look on the plague, and, behold, if the appearance thereof be deeper than the skin, and there be in it yellow thin hair, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. (Leviticus 13:29-30)

After several pages of variants on this I began to despair of ever having anything to say about the portion. But then, all of a sudden, I came on this wonderful passage, a passage offering reassurance and dignity and the hope of peace of mind to wretches like myself:

And if a man’s hair be fallen off his head, he is bald; yet he is clean. And if his hair be fallen off from the front part of his head, he is forehead-bald; yet he is clean. (Leviticus13:40-41)

There was a precise moment in time, decades ago, before I had lost any hair in front, when the bald spot at the back of my head was so small I couldn’t detect it in my bathroom mirror and my friends in New York were too circumspect to mention it. At just this precise moment in time I flew from New York to Australia to visit my mother. I arrived at Melbourne airport after a long flight across the Pacific, took a taxi home and an hour later knocked on the kitchen door. My mother looked over her exhausted son, whom she hadn’t seen in two years, and exclaimed, “David, you’re going bald.” I denied it, and protested with the vehemence of a person unaware of the shocking truth. My mother, looking directly at the evidence, sighed and said, “Have it your way.” The matter was not referred to again during that visit.

A few weeks later, back in my New York apartment, I started to notice small clots of hair clogging the drain in the shower after I shampooed. I was puzzled by this phenomenon, and applied to it the same mind that had written a doctoral dissertation titled “An Axiomatic Approach to the Study of Responsibility in Choice.” No explanation of the phenomenon presented itself. Several shampoos later, in the shower again, looking at the clot of hair blocking the drain, I had a terrible epiphany: Could it be, was it possible, that I was going bald? I called my primary-care physician, a man who, when I’d had a bad cough, sent me to the throat specialist who treated Luciano Pavarotti when he was in New York. The primary-care physician gave me the name of “the best dermatologist in Manhattan.” I sounded so desperate on the phone that I got an appointment for the next day. She, the best dermatologist in Manhattan, sat me in a chair over which loomed a large mounted magnifying glass. She parted my hair, examined my scalp and said breezily, “Standard male-pattern baldness. Nothing we can do about it.” “Nothing? Nothing at all? What about those potions advertised on subways and buses all over town?” “If you want to spend a lot of money each month to maintain a small fuzz then go ahead.” “Nothing?” “Well, I sense your trauma. Perhaps, after all, there is something we can do. If a woman comes to me with hair loss, I prescribe hormones like estrogen that — God knows why — promote hair growth. I could do the same for you. You would, of course, develop breasts and a certain appendage might shrivel up a little, but I doubt if it would fall off altogether.”

An excellent doctor, with an acute diagnostic mind. I thanked her and went my balding way.

Several years later, after the problem had become brutally obvious, I found myself collaborating on a translation of the medieval French poet Eustache Deschamps. One of his balades had a refrain that referred to the fur of a marten, an animal with a bushy tail. My collaborator, Jeffrey Fiskin, and I translated it this way:

You who are bald by accident, or through

foible of nature, here is what to do:

if you’ve a bald spot, flatten your hair down

and concentrate on covering up the place;

in wind, a hat protects your crown;

a comb should be kept handy, just in case;

bring hair at the back of the head fully into play

if dignity requires it for your family’s sake.

To often take your hat off is a grave mistake;

the best thing is a coon-skin cap, I’d say.

For if a coon-skin cap is on the head

it keeps the hair where it should rightly be

and in the winter there is warmth instead

of one poor freezing unprotected head,

and — also — there’ll be no one who can see

your affliction easily.

A man is wise indeed who acts this way,

who makes a gracious plaster his resource

but he’s a fool who follows another course.

The best thing is a coon-skin cap, I’d say.

Now, if the back is where you have a spot,

and, of the hair in front, you have lost none,

you’ll have to train the hair you still have got

backwards, and then the needed will be done.

Whenever you go riding, let the pace be such

it won’t blow hair too much;

when you dismount, remove your hat with care

so you don’t show the world your plastered hair

or else your name will be in disarray.

The best thing is a coon-skin cap, I’d say.

No, no, Eustache Deschamps! The best thing is the Torah’s message that those who are bald are still to be counted among the clean, and so can participate as full members of society in all of its sacred rituals.

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward with an abundance of hair on both sides of his head.

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