A Parisian hairstylist in Tiberias - short story

I believe it may even have been the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself who said, “You listen with your heart, not with your ears.”

 A barber gives a client a haircut. (illustrative photograph) (photo credit: hair spies/unsplash)
A barber gives a client a haircut. (illustrative photograph)
(photo credit: hair spies/unsplash)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

I don’t know what it is about me that makes people want to tell me a story, and not just any story but their story. I never considered myself much of a storyteller, for I simply leave that to others. I suppose that I may qualify as a good listener, so I’ve been told, but it is most likely due to the fact that I rarely feel like talking when I have nothing to say. It’s as simple as that. Some people mistake that trait for snobbery, but it really has nothing to do with being a snob. Snobs, being full of themselves, are naturally quite talkative. But what makes someone open up to me and confide in me, I suspect, has more to do with the fact that I have little or no desire to make conversation for the sake of conversation. I can listen intently and may even ask the odd pertinent question to keep the ball rolling, but rarely do I feel the urge to actually converse. 

Especially if I’m just getting a haircut.

When by chance I stumbled into Liam’s storefront barber shop in Tiberias, I had no idea who he was or where he came from. I did notice – because you couldn’t help but notice – the life-size framed photograph of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, perched high on the inner wall facing the street. And while I was never a fellow traveler in that movement, I have always regarded the charismatic, ubiquitous face of the Rebbe to be a welcome sign anywhere in the world.

Meeting the Parisian barber in Tiberias

When I entered his salon, Liam was hard at work fussing about the curly, reddish-brown freshly dyed hair of a middle-aged woman. He immediately looked over in my direction, smiled and beckoned me with arched eyebrows to take a seat. Although most men, myself included, have a primal fear of entering a new barbershop for the first time, there was something particularly warm and friendly in Liam’s manner that caused me to feel instantly at ease. 

A man in his mid-forties, Liam impressed me as being physically spry and energetic. His jet black hair was partially shaved to the scalp, except for a frizzy black ponytail that was tightly bound and bunched up at the top of his head. A colorful Hawaiian shirt hanging loosely over his Bermuda shorts made him look, well… positively French. When he spoke, his French accented Hebrew left no doubt. 

 The city of Tiberias on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). (credit: ISRAEL TOURISM/WIKIPEDIA) The city of Tiberias on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). (credit: ISRAEL TOURISM/WIKIPEDIA)

“I learned the art of hairstyling from my mother,” he said while holding out an apron to me, fitted with sleeves for the arms. “Pardon,” he said, as he slipped the apron over my outstretched arms, the puffy sleeves resembling something from the Court of Louis the XIV. He motioned me to sit down in the ornately decorated leather chair next to the reddish-brown-haired lady. In the mirror I could see her smiling from ear to ear while admiring her newly coiffed hairdo. She stood up, threw one arm around Liam and whispered something in his ear that made him smile. She then blew him a kiss as Liam opened the door for her, and she left. 

The barber chair was padded with surprisingly high-quality leather. “Ma-Ma was very successful with one of the most popular salons in Paris,” he said, resuming the conversation with me. “I had these chairs specially sent over.” 

Liam picked up a pair of scissors and a comb. He did not ask how I wanted my hair cut nor did I consider it necessary to make any suggestion. What precious hair remained on my head was clearly in caring and experienced hands. Without waiting for me to ask, but perhaps sensing my curiosity about him, Liam continued.

“You are wondering how I wound up in this humble hamlet of Tiberias coming from the famous City of Lights? I let my children decide.”


“You are wondering how I wound up in this humble hamlet of Tiberias coming from the famous City of Lights? I let my children decide,” he said, answering his own question. 

“You see, my grandfather was originally from Tiberias. I used to come here in the summers before I joined the French army. My grandfather lived on the hill above the Kinneret,” he said, pointing to the lake outside, which, in addition to its Hebrew name, is also known as the Sea of Galilee. “He had several donkeys. Do you know the story about the donkeys?” 

Of course I did not and shrugged my shoulders.

“You see, there was once a donkey in search of water,” he began, as he segued into the story. “The donkey came to a large pit which he assumed was full of water. So what did he do? Why, he jumped in, of course, only to find that the pit was completely dry as dust, and he had no way out. What can a donkey do?” Liam paused, then cried, ’Hee-haw, hee-haw,’ braying like a donkey.

“Other donkeys heard and came and stood by the open pit. ‘Kick in some dirt,’ the donkey said, and the other donkeys obliged. Pretty soon he was able to climb out one step at a time,” Liam held his shears aloft and smiled. “I just told that story to my children last night. I wanted them to know that you have to learn to pick yourself up when you make a mistake. 

“None of us is capable of jumping back all at once. It can only be done one step at a time,“ he insisted, while addressing my reflection in the mirror across from us. “Did you ever notice that donkeys have eyes like humans?” he asked, again not waiting for an answer. “Their eyes,” he repeated, “are exactly the same as ours.” Liam’s eyes had an oval, piercing shape, but I was not familiar enough with the anatomy of donkeys to know whether his observation held any water.

Holding up a small mirror to the large one across from us, Liam reflected the various angles of my shorn skull to which I perfunctorily nodded my approval. I was about to get up from the chair when he suddenly shouted, “Don’t move!” 

“Your eyebrows,” he announced. “They are uneven. Stay still,” he commanded, while advancing toward my face with wide open scissors.

Though I trusted him completely, I nevertheless blinked as he closed in with the shears. 

“You need not close your eyes,” he reprimanded.

“I know,” I admitted rather sheepishly. “It’s involuntary, like a reflex.”

“Next time, trust me, they will remain open,” he said with a confident air of self-assurance.

Liam drew the apron off me with aplomb, much like a Spanish matador would unfurl a red flag before a bull. 

The haircut was formally over, but Liam was just getting warmed up in his monologue. I was in no particular hurry, so I remained in the chair.

“I got an idea from the donkeys,” Liam continued. ”I was due to enlist in the army upon my return to France the following month and, in the meantime, I was quite broke. I thought what if I could offer donkey rides to tourists along the shore of the Kinneret and charge a small fee?” His eyes lit up with the memory. 

“I was so incredibly busy from the first morning,” he continued, “that I immediately had to hire an assistant. I lugged a broken fridge from my grandfather’s shed to the beach and filled it with ice. I threw cans of pop and beer into the old fridge and cooked a slew of hot dogs, which I placed in buns. The tourists were paying me ten dollars for a donkey ride and another six for a hot dog and beer. By the end of the month, I returned to Paris with my pockets stuffed with cash but not before leaving my grandfather with more money than he ever made for himself,” he said, beaming with pride. 

“I became an officer in the French army,” he said, suddenly switching gears again. “I was posted in the Caribbean, in the tropical island of St. Marten. We would inspect boats for drugs. It was a dream job,” he recalled with a smile. “But then one day, I received a telephone call from Germany, from the police,” and the cheerful expression on his face suddenly darkened.

“You see, I am an only child. My parents drove to Germany to buy me a new car, a BMW, which they wanted to surprise me with for my birthday,” Liam said, his voice choking up. “The German police officer insisted on speaking German,” he grimaced, “and nothing makes me more uneasy than hearing German. Why you know, just yesterday an old German tourist walked in off the street – right here in Tiberias – and asked me if I would shave his head.” 

“Shave his head?” I asked, unsure if he meant his beard or his hair.

Liam picked up a straight razor from the counter and held it up for me to see. “Yes, he wanted me to shave his entire head, all around, with this.” Liam suddenly focused his eye on a mutant hair that had taken root on my left earlobe. With a quick flick of his wrist, he slashed it off with the sharpened blade. 

Isn’t that just the epitome of aging, I thought to myself. Not only do we men tend to lose the once plentiful hair on our heads, but the remaining survivors tend to pop up in all sorts of unwanted and obscure places like flagpoles on our ears or bristles protruding from our nostrils. 

Liam laid the blade down and resumed his encounter with the German tourist. “So I start to shave his head, and I come round to the back of his head and what do I see?” He paused, but not long enough for me to venture a guess. “I scrape away the gray stubble and mon Dieu! A faded tattoo of a Nazi swastika! Can you believe it?” he said, still horror-struck. “For a moment I considered scraping the skin off his skull, but instead I asked him outright, “Monsieur, are you a Nazi?”

“You asked him that?” I must admit I was now fully engaged and sitting up in the chair.

“He was in my shop,” Liam said, pointing to his name in large Hebrew letters above the door. “Not in Germany. Not in France. But here, in Israel, in the Jewish homeland. I’ve got a right to know,” he insisted. “And you know what he answered me, the son of a beetch?”

As usual, Liam did not wait for a response. “He said that it was not a swastika but a Japanese symbol of some kind. So I didn’t speak another word with the bastard, but I made sure to charge the old Nazi double for the shaved head.” 

“And what about that German police officer who called you?” I asked in an effort to bring Liam back to the main story. 

“‘I don’t spraken Deutsch,’ I told him,” Liam continued, becoming agitated as he spoke. ‘We need you to come to Germany,’ the officer told me in English, ‘to identify the bodies.’”

Liam took a long drink from a bottle of water and stared out the window. “My father worked for Interpol and would often visit me on his trips to the Caribbean, Mexico and Brazil. We were very close.” He paused, taking another sip of water. “He told me on one of his visits, ‘If anything ever happens to me, you can always identify me by my name, which is inscribed on the inside of my right molar,’” Liam said while tapping on his own jaw.

“I found the tooth with his name on it in the morgue,” Liam continued. “I could not recognize his face. It had been too badly burned. I could not recognize my mother at all,” he sighed. “I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, it dawned on me. I was all alone in the world. No one to call. Can you imagine? How do you go on with your life when there is no one in the world to call?” 

Liam then pointed to the large looming photograph of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hanging on the back wall. “No one to call, that is, except for Chabad. I looked up their number and made a call to the local center. Within half an hour, two shlichim, two messengers, met me with the police at the morgue and beside the charred remains of both my parents immediately began to arrange for their funerals.” 

I followed Liam’s eyes as he turned his head acknowledging the portrait of the Rebbe.

“I took a leave of absence from my post in the Caribbean,” he continued. “I had to decide what to do, first of all with my mother’s salon. While it was one of the busiest salons in Paris, since the news of my mother’s death had reached her employees and with no one to supervise them, they began stealing right and left. Not only did they stop paying their share of the fee-splitting arrangement that they had committed to with my mother, but they began to steal expensive supplies – professional hair dryers, electric shavers, creams, shampoos and soaps, and so many other accessories. I knew I had to sell and to sell right away.

“Besides, I needed a career change. I could no longer go back to my idyllic life in the Caribbean. So I asked the army if they would enroll me in a bodyguard protection program in Paris, which they did. 

“I was assigned to the Presidential Guard and began guarding the president, Jacques Chirac. I made up my mind that I would only eat kosher food, so I brought my own food from home and prepared my own lunches. The other bodyguards resented me. They didn’t like the fact that I was a Jew. So I left the service and decided I would go into the only business which I ever knew, having been brought up in my mother’s hair salon. I took an apprenticeship at L’Experience, the leading Paris hair salon. I had no objection to starting at the bottom, which meant washing hair for tips.“

“That reminds me,” I interrupted, pulling a couple of bills from my pocket to pay for my haircut.

“Merci beaucoup,” Liam nodded, scooping the bills into his till.

“One day,” he continued, ”a well-dressed lady came to the salon while everyone was out for lunch and I was sweeping the floor. She asked if a hairstylist was available, and I told her everyone was out for lunch. She said that she was in a hurry and asked if I could attend to her.

 The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. (credit: WIKIPEDIA) The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

“I tried to persuade her to wait, but she had no patience and insisted that I get to work. I looked around for scissors, but all the stylists had locked up their tools in their personal kits before going for lunch. So I picked up a sharp knife and started to cut and shape her hair as my mother had taught me and, voila! – a new look was born. Madame was ecstatic and gave me a fantastic sum of 200 euros, which I dutifully placed on the owner’s desk. 

“When the staff returned from their lunch I explained to Pierre, the owner, what had happened and showed him the money that I had left for him on his desk.”

‘But how did you cut her hair?’ he asked incredulously. ‘With whose scissors?’

“I held up my knife.”

“‘Do you know who that lady was?’ he asked.”

“No, I have never seen her before, I replied.”

‘That was the wife of the mayor of Paris, and she is one of our best clients.’

“I thought I was going to be fired for my insolence; but before I could apologize, Pierre kissed me on both cheeks and slapped the 200 euros into my palm. ‘Keep it. You earned it. Besides,’ he said with a sardonic smile while slapping me on the back, ‘someone else would have pocketed the money and lied to me.’ 

“The next day, Pierre presented me with my own styling kit and gave me my own work station. ‘No more collecting tips from washing hair, Monsieur Liam; from today, you have your own chair and a starting salary of 2,500 euros per month.’ 

“And so I was on my way into the heady world of fashion and glamour which consumed nearly all of Paris. In no time, my appointment book was filled for weeks on end,” he beamed.

“Pierre invited me to Monaco, along with Jacques, a veteran hairdresser from the salon (who also happened to be Pierre’s boyfriend), where we were to cut and style hair for a wedding of the famous Rothschild family. I worked on several family members in a hotel suite while Jacques worked exclusively on the bride in the adjoining room. 

“I had just finished styling the last of my Rothschild ushers when the father of the bride burst into my room. 

‘Come quickly,’ he said, looking pale and exasperated. He led me to the other room, where the bride was crying hysterically.

‘What is the matter?’ I asked.

‘She hates the way her hair looks,’ he said, then added, ‘and frankly, so do I.’

“I lifted up her chin and begged her to stop crying. ‘But Mademoiselle,’ I pleaded, ‘you look absolutely beautiful,’ I lied. 

“Her hair had been teased to stand erect like a cone but in actuality was tilting to one side like the leaning Tower of Pisa.

‘I won’t get married looking like this,’ she blurted out between convulsions of tears.

´You have to do something,’ said the father sternly. ‘You must fix it!´

‘But she is not my client,’ I begged off. ‘She belongs to Jacques.’ And at that exact moment, Jacques walked into the room.”

‘Monsieur Jacques,’ the father of the bride addressed my colleague as I began to shrink in my shoes and took a step backward toward the door. ‘Do you have any objection if I request Monsieur Liam to finesse your design?´

’My design is perfect and needs no finessing,’ Jacques retorted. ´However, I have no objection if you feel that is necessary.’

‘You know how these girls are,’ said the father of the bride while gazing sympathetically upon his daughter and wringing his hands.´Very emotional, you know.’

‘Of course, I know,’ said Jacques and, picking up his tools, left the room in a huff.

“Monsieur Rothschild grabbed my arm and led me back into the room. 

‘Please,’ he implored, ‘Monsieur Liam, you must use your best skills and talent to save the wedding.’

“I asked to be left alone with the bride, and then I set to work. I immediately collapsed the cone and then ironed and curled her hair, wave upon wave, curl upon curl, until they came cascading down her dress. The effect was ethereal and lovely. 

“I heard a sigh of relief emanating from the bride, and before long we were talking and laughing. I ordered a bottle of champagne for her just to ease the pressure. I reassured her that on her wedding night everything would be just like the fairy tale of which she had dreamed. 

“Monsieur Rothschild beamed as he entered the room and saw his daughter glowing like the hundred candles that would soon adorn her multi-tiered wedding cake. He shook my hand and stuffed an envelope into my palms. I put it into my tool kit.

“Little did I know that returning to the salon on the Champs-Élysées on Monday morning would be like walking into a funeral parlor. The atmosphere was as if someone had died. However, I did not realize that the someone was me. I looked around the room to greet my colleagues. 

“No one acknowledged me. I looked over at my work station, only to see that it had been removed; my equipment, personal tools, fans, fragrances, spices, lotions, dyes – all gone, vanished.

“The receptionist would not look at me but only murmured while looking down that the boss requested my presence. Pierre’s door was open. He was expecting me, but I could see his disposition toward me had changed.

‘Why did you say to Monsieur Rothschild that Jacques was a lousy hairstylist and that he had ruined his daughter’s hair?’ he sneered.

‘I said nothing of the kind!’ I insisted. ‘Everything was done with Jacques’ permission.’

‘I cannot accept your explanation,’ Pierre sat up straight while pulling out a checkbook from his drawer.

“I was astonished. ‘So you want to fire me?’ I asked incredulously. 

‘Your conduct leaves me no choice,’ said Pierre as he wrote me a check for the balance of my pay. 

“As I walked past Jacques, I could not hold back any longer. He was blow-drying a customer’s hair, an elderly lady. ‘Pardon moi, Madame,’ I said to the distinguished looking lady, and then I slapped Jacques hard across the face. So hard, in fact, that he began to whimper like a little girl until he recovered, and then threatened to call the police.

“I kept walking. Out of the salon, down the street, until my feet took me to a park bench, where I sat down to collect my thoughts. I looked up at an old store across the way which had a ‘For Rent’ sign. 

“It was at that moment that I realized that it was not my feet that had brought me to this location but my guardian angel who was leading me to this spot. I called the number and asked the agent if he would give me a few months of free rent if I renovated the store in order to get my feet on the ground. He agreed.

“I worked on the design of the salon day and night. I bought broken marble chips for very little money and glued them to the floor all by myself. I scavenged old eighteen-wheel truck tires from the junkyard and nailed them to the wall and fastened mirrors inside them. I ran incandescent electric tubes for lighting over the ceiling and walls. 

“I made my own shampoo that incorporated flower petals, a recipe my mother had taught me (I collected the flowers for free at the end of the day from a local flower shop). 

“One day prior to the scheduled opening, I set up my work station and dusted off my personal kit. I opened the kit to make sure all my tools were in order, and lo and behold, there was the envelope that Monsieur Rothschild had given me! 

“I had completely forgotten about it. I imagined he might have left me 200 euros, which I could now use to purchase some last-minute flyers to advertise for the opening. Instead, I was stunned to find that he had gifted me the unbelievable sum of 10,000 euros! 

“My head swarmed with ideas of what to buy. A state-of-the-art sound system? Video screen? A giant aquarium? Professional tools? Oil paintings to adorn the bare walls? Unable to decide, I did what I usually do in such situations: I gave the entire amount to my wife – my childhood sweetheart whom I married shortly after my parents’ deaths – for she has always been by my side. 

“It was she who suggested we try to have a family as soon as possible after the tragedy, otherwise I would never have emerged sane from the abyss. ‘You have neglected yourself for too long, ma cherie,’ I told her. ‘Spend it all on yourself, the children, the home, whatever makes you happy.’

“The opening was a grand success, especially as I had reduced the going rate for a cut and fan to half. There were daily line-ups outside the door. On our first day, we served 200 clients, and I ran out of towels. I had to send someone to buy up all the available towels from every store in the neighborhood.

“After two months, I had a surprise visit from Pierre. Even more of a surprise was his offer to join me in a partnership. I dismissed his offer out of hand and predicted that he would close his doors within three months. He turned his back on me and cursed me. Nevertheless, I am not often wrong when it comes to the future, and Pierre closed his salon before three months were up.

“People say my life is like a movie and that I should write a screenplay about it. But who would star as me?” Liam laughed just as a young woman entered the salon. “And, you see,” he said taking note of the young lady, “I am too busy to play myself.” 

“Are you the hairdresser Liam?” she asked.

“Indeed, I am the Liam from Paris,” he said, bowing gracefully and running his fingers through her hair. “And you, Mademoiselle, need a fresh new look, with some blonde highlights perhaps and to trim the split ends and shorten the overall length of your gorgeous hair by about four centimeters.”

‘You are amazing,’ she gasped. ‘How did you know?’

“A good hairdresser knows everything, my dear,” he smiled at her and winked at me. “Please, Mademoiselle, over here,” he said, pointing to a nearby chair reclining by a sink. 

“Mon ami,” said Liam shaking my hand with a very solid grip. “It was my sincere pleasure talking with you. I enjoyed our conversation immensely,” he said, though I doubt I had contributed more than a few words all along. 

“I feel that we know and understand each other very well,” he said, “and that we have been friends for much longer than this day.”

With that, he handed me his card and held open the door. Turning back, I noticed again the daunting picture of the Rebbe on the wall. His piercing eyes seemed to follow me as I walked out the door. Outside, the cobblestone sidewalk sparkled under the dazzling light of the noonday sun.

That’s just the way it is with me, I thought, while fishing for sunglasses in my jacket pocket. Strangers feel obliged to tell me the most intimate details of their life. Why is that? All I do is listen, nothing more. But then, there are different ways to listen, aren’t there? And I believe it may even have been the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself who said, “You listen with your heart, not with your ears.” ■

©Gabriel Emanuel 2022