The Human Spirit: Elul lessons

There are moments of compassion and understanding when you might least expect it.

Cancer hair 311 (photo credit: Barbara Sofer)
Cancer hair 311
(photo credit: Barbara Sofer)
Auditing our spiritual accounts is the divine assignment for Elul, this last month of the Jewish calendar. There are Elul lessons out there just waiting to be had. These aren’t just harsh judgments, but moments of compassion and understanding when you might least expect it.
ELI COHEN is snipping and shaping, fanning and feathering wigs. The High Holy Days are high season for high-end wig-makers, and calls come from fashion-conscious women in Paris, Rio and Sydney. But Cohen is not in his exclusive studio in Ramat Gan nor en route to his factory in China, where Moldovan locks are plaited into French braids. Right now, Cohen is turning a mousy pageboy into a chic bob fitting it to the wearer’s drawn face. He lowers his professor’s glasses and has a second look. It’s perfect. The woman looks in the mirror and her countenance lights up in joy.
Cohen says that “99.9 percent of the women get up from his chair with a smile on their face. That’s my reward.”
This is the Ma’agan-Tishkofet Center, an inviting apartment with herbal tea brewing in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. The women around me are all ages at all stages of battling cancer. I’m grateful that I’ve come as a journalist. I think of the title of a friend’s book, Any Day with Hair Is a Good Hair Day.
Ma’agan-Tishkofet is offering a pre-holiday “pampering day”: facials, makeup and massage.
But the longest line is for wig renewal. “I thought I’d like to be bald going through this process,” says a woman in a pixie cut wig.
“But when I got there, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.” A woman wants to use her late mother’s wig. “No, no, we’ll find her something else,” says Cohen.
He grew up in the veteran town of Binyamina, and learned hairdressing from Vidal Sassoon in London. On his return, weight-loss surgery nearly killed him. He lives with severely compromised intestines and understands chronic illness. In Israeli style, he’s become an inventor, finding solutions for women partially bald from ringworm treatment in the ’50s, for alopecia and even trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder).
Cohen gives each woman his cellphone number. He’s available around the clock for emergencies, he says. Emergencies? Moralistic lecturers this time of year remind us that inner beauty is all that counts. Who hasn’t experienced a wave of guilt and the need to apologize for what might seem on the surface as a vain indulgence? But the afternoon at Ma’agan-Tishkofet teaches us that the connection between body and soul isn’t so simple. Self-denial can be unholy, too.
Cohen, 54, a sabra father and grandfather, has indeed been summoned in the middle of night by women whose ability to continue their brave fight against a mortal enemy depends on being able to face the world with a pleasant appearance.
ON THE same week that I met Cohen, I had a meeting with Racheli Goldblat, a partner in one of Tel Aviv’s high-powered public relations firms. Funny how just when you’re about to stereotype someone, you learn how wrong you are.
Goldblat, 46, describes herself as “secular,” “vocal” (okay, she actually said “bigmouthed”) and “tough” in a business milieu that’s vicious and cynical. She’s worked her way up in a fiercely competitive field. When I first met her, I assumed her long, wavy brown locks cascading below her waist was her signature hairdo.
But now I hardly recognize her, her hair falling in short corkscrew curls around her face. Goldblat had been growing her hair for three years so that she could donate it to make a wig for a cancer combatant who couldn’t afford one.
“I don’t want to know who will get it,” says Goldblat. “I just hope my hair will give her the energy of victory and the belief that you can conquer this disease.”
She credits that energy and determination as critical in her own triumphant struggle with cancer, which began when she was just 24. “Body and soul interact in mysterious ways. When you’re struggling to go on with your life despite the most terrifying threat, your mood has a lot to do with your ability to cope.”
Her desire to donate her hair brought her – you guessed it – to the Ramat Gan studio of Eli Cohen. He gets a surprise donation like hers about once a month.
THE LAST Elul wisdom comes from Jerusalem.
In the midst of a workday I’m summoned to one of its most religious neighborhoods because the special-order holiday turkey which meets the stringent requirements of my extended family is hogging the shop freezer.
I consoled myself about the interruption with the wonderful story about the late Chabad rebbetzin, Haya Mushka Schneersohn, who was on her usual weekday drive when a detour sign forced her to change her route. On the detour, she discovered a family being evicted from a home, and paid their debt. According to the rebbetzin, there were no meaningless detours.
The store owner is absent when I arrive. In the back of shop, an older Jewish woman with a severe head scarf is quietly cleaning fish with an Arab man. Such a tranquil scene.
Maybe peace will come, I can’t help thinking.
Suddenly a rebellious carp flicks its wide tail and nearly catapults to the floor. The woman catches it just as the store owner returns. “Aha – you have the luck of a non-Jew [mazal shel goy],” she tells him, referring to the nearly spoiled fish.
I go still. The offensive expression doesn’t escape the Arab worker, either. He, speaking fluent Hebrew, demands to know what she means.
“Just an expression of ours,” she says, trying to make light of it. “It means good luck.
When you tell someone he has non-Jewish luck, you mean good luck.”
She manages to explain it away. Sort of.
This pious woman comes into the shop once a month to personally prepare all the fish for her large family. She prides herself on hands-on fish making, supervising every stage in preparation. As I carry away my turkey. it occurs to me that when you’re making food for Rosh Hashana, you need to be careful not only about what goes into your mouth, but what goes out. The lesson of my detour.
Which brings me to apologize for any errors, omissions or hurtful comments I have made in this column or on the lecture circuit in 5770. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a healthy, productive and blessed new year.
The writer is walking in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on October 28 in Jerusalem.