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update 2003-01-24

My hair is shorn. These protein strands have been growing since they were last cut in 1998. I had no appreciation of how much lighter my head would be with short hair. Length of shower time has also been reduced. Overall, I am satisfied with the results. So is Dad. And the girls in Planning seem to approve as well. The vanity I feel is outrageous!

Since the first time I read Ecclesiastes, I’ve understood vanity to refer to the fleeting nature of material things, that everything except plastic degrades, that things owned are eventually lost, and that the dead travel lightly. Solomon writes “all things are like breath, fleeting.” In the King James version, the word for fleeting, hevel, is translated as vanity: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…”

Webster defines vanity as an excessive pride or conceit in one’s appearance or abilities, as well as things “trivial or pointless” lacking “real value: hollowness.” The vanity translated in King James is the latter, though often confused with the former. But even this latter translation of hevel is misleading. Breath doesn’t lack real value… it may seem hollow, but in essence it is the vehicle through which God animates Adam. Adam’s secondborn son, Abel, is named after this breath. What is fleeting about Abel is his very life, soon robbed by his firtsborn brother. Fleeting things are not trivial or pointless or hollow, rather, they are like life, full of potential, soon passing. (The vanity of hair in this sense is arguable: it continues to grow even after death, is fleeting for some and not others; and in any sense, hair is meaningful only in arbitrary culturally defined contexts, and functional only in the bitterly cold wintertime).

Ever since I listened to Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s Plateaux of Mirror, I’ve thought of the fleeting as beautiful things hidden by their ubiquity, lost like music or poetry to meanings and feelings constantly changing from one moment to the next, one context to the next, and long explicated in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. In an occult or theosophic sense, I conceive the Initiate as the perceiver of the ambient and fleeting thing, archetypally referred to as the Fool, the Simpleton, or Wanderer. Indeed, this very website is named after the simple tone which I imagine only the Simpleton could recognize and appreciate. This simpleton, in the devout sense of early Hassidism, is the same as the ish tam or simple man, the village idiot who alone among his congregants has the purity of heart for perfect devotion. On Yom Kippur, when the village fails in fasting and prayer, the fool succeeds through a whistle! But only the Master appreciates the fool’s freedom and individuality.

The fool, though, is also represented in Solomon’s brother Avshalom, who after a failed coup-de-tat of his father’s kingdom, was caught by his extremely long hair in the branches of a terebinth tree as he rode beneath it on a donkey. The Hebrew word for donkey is chamor. The same word pronounced slightly differently, chomer, means “physicality” and symbolises material wealth. A donkey later leads Solomon to his coronation. The vanity Solomon writes of in Ecclesiastes probably doesn’t refer to the length of his brother’s hair or the wealth of princes but to his bother’s fleeting life and his great plans. Additionally, Avshalom’s cautionary tale clearly teaches that by keeping your hair short, not only can you ride your donkey without fear, but your ass will also lead you towards ever greater prospects.

In 1993, in Israel, I had my hair cut short. I had been struggling to conform the lovely pretenses of my teenage identity with a certain anonymity and humility approached through devotion, and I was also being pressured to conform to the superficial ideals of a pious monastic community. I let it grow again when I returned to the US. I hid the long peyot of my secret Hassidut among other longer locks. This was fine as long as I was practicing Judaism alone at the University of Cincinnati — my appearance need not conform to the ideals of an orthodox community. Later, in Binghamton and Philadelphia, I developed an apology for my long hair by commenting on a famous story from the Talmud on the reformation of the bandit Rabbi, Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish left banditry for yeshiva life after the failed rape of Rabbi Yochanan who he had mistaken for an exceptionally beautiful woman. (I explained that Resh Lakish would never have confused Rabbi Yochanan for a bathing beauty if Yochanan hadn’t worn long hair, and hence, if Rav Yochanan could wear long hair, then so could I).

But my long hair and self-absorbed identity politics failed to attract an orthodox jewish female. Embittered, I cut my hair again in 1998. I was in Philadelphia, and this occured just before I met my super girlfriend Ray and began to develop the ambient consortium. My hair grew back, this time inspired by hacker culture and German electronic space music pioneers.

It is 2003 and I’m out of the back office of Datarealm, no longer hacking PERL, and about to begin interviews again as an Idealistic Planner and Advocate of Green Technologies. My freakdom is carefully hidden by a superficial absence of hair. Now that my hair is gone, could someone please show me to my ass?

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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