On Sunday, I attended little Shalom Labkowski’s 3rd birthday party. It was also his first haircut.
This was Shalom’s upshernish, a ceremony that marks the formal beginning of a boy’s Jewish education. The ceremony is also called an upsherin, which means haircut in Yiddish; I heard both names tossed around at this, my first upshernish. The custom is standard practice in Hassidic communities, including Chabad — Shalom is the son of Rabbi Dovid Labkowski and his wife, Shulamis, who together lead Chabad of Oakland and Piedmont. The practice is also somewhat common in other Orthodox communities.
Sometimes the upshernish is a relatively small party for family and close friends, but this was quite the affair. There were 60 or 70 guests and an impressive spread of food, drinks and desserts. Family had flown in from all over. Other guests came from a diverse spectrum of the community: I met Chabad families, a woman who belongs to Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom congregation, and folks I know from Oakland’s Beth Jacob and the Mission Minyan in San Francisco. A large contingent of young children trampled about, including Shalom’s brothers.
The living room of the Labkowski home — which features a prominent portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson — was arrayed with folding party tables, a bundle of blue and yellow smiley face balloons anchored to each one.
In another room, meticulously decorated desserts: kippah and tallit katan cookies and a cake decorated to look like a tallit, complete with fondant tzitzit. This pointed to the significance of the day; after his upshernish, Shalom will wear a kippah and tallit every day.
Naturally, as this was a Chabad event, a man (Shalom’s grandfather, it turned out) stood off to the side for much of the event inducing other men to wrap tefillin.
Shalom himself is a happy kid, a pretty typical 3-year-old — though before the cutting began, his sandy blond hair descended about halfway down his back. It’s hard to say how much he understood about the meaning of the day, but he seemed to be having a good time.
As the main event got underway, Rabbi Labkowski explained its significance, idly waving around a pair of oversize plastic scissors. He referred to the biblical verse that says, “A man is like a tree.” He then connected this with a law in the Torah that says the fruit of a tree may not be harvested until its third year.
“In Judaism, we’re obsessed with cutting,” he said. “First there’s the bris, now we cut his hair, at his bar mitzvah we cut him some slack — and at his wedding, the bride cuts him down to size.” (Laughter.) And unlike the bris, he joked, this time we all get a turn to cut. (More laughter.)
As the most elaborate haircut I’ve ever seen began, Shulamis braided a lock of Shalom’s hair to hold onto as a keepsake. I expected one symbolic snip of Shalom’s hair, but all present were invited to come up and cut a bit off. Rabbi Labkowski was vigilant in making sure the sides were not cut so Shalom would have peyes (sidecurls) at the end of the proceedings.
Everybody got into it. Some family members smiled and posed for pictures as they cut. Children got their turn as well. Even this reporter was invited to take a turn.
As the cutting proceeded, Shalom had other priorities. On the table in front him was a fully accessible bucket full of candy. Shalom occasionally peered around skeptically or required a brief moment of reassurance from his mother — but mostly he focused on the candy. Moments into the ordeal, the area around his mouth was covered in sugary blue residue as he shoveled more candy into his mouth.
I hope Shalom got a real trip to the barber the next day; the job we’d done on him was, shall we say, a little uneven. But with the upsherin over, Shalom was wrapped in a large tallit for the second phase of the ceremony: the areinfirinish, where he is “escorted in” to the classroom — the formal beginning of the boy’s Jewish education. Though it could be done in a school the next morning, Rabbi Labkowski said, doing it here is good because it’s an opportunity to educate all the guests about this ritual.
Shalom was presented with a honey cake. Etched into the frosting was the Hebrew text of Isaiah 50:4-5 (“The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue, to know how to speak timely words to the weary. Morning by morning, He rouses, He rouses my ear to give heed like disciples. The Lord God opened my ears, and I did not disobey, I did not run away.”) There was also a hardboiled egg with the text of Ezekiel 3:3 (“And He said to me, ‘Mortal, feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll that I give you.’ I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me”).
“These foods,” Rabbi Labkowski told me, “are meant to open the child’s heart for Torah.”
Then the education began. A book was flipped open to a page with the alef-bet. Plastic wrap was placed over it, and honey was poured on the plastic. Surrounded by people, chatter and, yes, more candy, Shalom performed what for a 3-year-old must be a superhuman feat of concentration: He recited the first few letters of the alef-bet as his father spooned a bit of the honey off the page and into his mouth between each letter.
All the sweetness — the candy, the honey, the cake — is meant to build in Shalom’s mind an impression of the sweetness of Torah and Jewish learning.
Then Shalom was made to read a bit of this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the beginning of Leviticus, which coincidentally is associated with the upshernish. The passage speaks of sacrifices, which are made to purify the people; this is tied to the inherent purity of a young child like Shalom. With no Tanach immediately at hand, Shalom’s grandfather swooped in with an iPhone displaying the first verse of Vayikra. In an only-in-the-21st-century scene, plastic wrap and honey were placed over the phone as well.
After an hour of ceremony, a tub of jelly beans appeared and Shalom’s focus finally withered. But, if all goes according to plan, his love of Torah and Jewish life will only grow.
Correction: In my Feb. 18 column, “Women count at only one daily S.F. minyan — this one,” I said that Orthodox communities “do not permit women to say Kaddish.” A congregant at Adath Israel Congregation informed me that at her Orthodox synagogue and others, women can and do say Kaddish.