My Hirsute Pursuit
I posted a personals ad on Craigslist as a joke of some sort: I was looking for men with facial hair. “I want to French kiss a man with a mustache,” I wrote. What I had in mind was a bearded Brooklyn hipster.
As it turns out, when you get really specific on CraigsList, you get a lot of replies. And speedy ones — within five minutes of posting. You also get a journey through a strange cross-section of male personalities that could make you the envy of an entire school of anthropologists.
Men liked my post, they told me, because it was short and straightforward. Although really, I know you can post anything and men will want you. I admit I was flattered. It is empowering, all those starving males with raging hormones, for you and you alone.
Some guys were more crass than others. Some didn’t know their own hairy topography very well; what they called a “mustache and beard,” was what we call in my country a cannon with two wheels. Nothing, however, surprised me as much as the responses I got from my favorite variety of hirsute men: Hasidim.
I have always been fascinated by Hasidim. I am half-Jewish, and that side of my family has been shrouded in a bit of mystery. I would sometimes walk around Williamsburg and stare at the Hasidim, wondering where among them lay my family’s history. I would try to talk to them, but never had much success.
And suddenly, thanks to my hairy pursuit, it seemed as if I had woken up an entire community. I had said I was looking for facial hair. They had facial hair.
At last, I could talk to them.
Most of the interactions with these Hasidic men were via email. They were all different, and yet, many of them seemed so alike. The majority of them were married. They lived, they told me, among the most restrictive sects. Many were awkward, struggling with fears and anxieties that made me see them as both endearing and pathetic. They were not in pursuit of friendly conversation alone; they wanted more, they were clear about that. Happily married or not (and some claimed they were), they wanted desperately to French kiss a shiksa.
The funny thing was, I liked these guys. Even the ones who insulted me, the ones who judged me for living a life that they themselves rejected. Even they seemed complex, with their strange inhibitions, their deep desire to experience love and their clumsy and almost-childlike pursuit of it, their inability to recognize sexual boundaries, both in themselves and others, and — at the same time — their fears of getting swept up in attachments and drama.
There were also the virgins. Or near-virgins. Never married, or married but without fulfilling sex lives. Not to put too fine a point on it: They were very horny. Some of them didn’t quite know what sex was. Some of them were completely unfamiliar with STDs. They seemed disappointed that I wasn’t willing to provide them with the kind of education they sought, but I did not work for a sexual charity, I explained.
I couldn’t blame them, even when they insulted me, hurt my feelings, spoke to me as if I satisfied only a fetish, as if I was a plaything and not fully human. Some of them were ignorant and narrow-minded, and I tried hard to understand their anger, their bitterness, their rebellious impulses, and all their strange references to the Torah or the Talmud.
I too was ignorant. Of their world and their lives — I still am — but I tried hard to learn about them. I had questions, so many questions: How can you sleep with a person you barely know? A person you don’t love? How can you stay locked in an unhappy situation just for the sake of family and community? How can you have children and raise them while living with a spouse you have little affection for? How do you look at your children knowing they are fated to live the same way?
Some of the questions I kept to myself; I didn’t want to add to their misfortune by stating the obvious, but from all the conversations, dozens and dozens of exchanges, I learned a lot.
I declined to meet with most of them. Some were hard to follow, with their bad English and a general inability to express themselves. And I had little interest in going anywhere serious with married guys. When I told them that I wouldn’t meet them, their desperation was palpable, sometimes generating a frenzy of pleading and sweet-talking that was both maddening and heartbreaking.
There were exceptions.
There were some who were surprisingly thoughtful and expressed themselves just fine. I knew that I was still a shiksa to them, exotic and strange, but also unique in that they had few outlets to speak their minds and I was there to lend an eager and attentive ear. I grew very fond of some of them. I accepted our arrangements for what they were, knowing they could disappear without warning, for fear, for the stress imposed by stepping outside their usual boundaries. I could expect nothing, I knew. I took whatever they gave: Fake names, strange stories, lots of laughter and tears and suppressed dreams.
I will never forget how one man described his feeling about Shabbos, how he waited for it each week, and that nothing in the world could make him break it. A billion dollars, he said, and he wouldn’t break it, and I believed him. I got goose bumps all over my body thinking about it. What kind of belief in God created such intense and unbending devotion?
I ended up meeting more of the Hasidic men than I’d intended. We were vampires, always meeting late at night. Over glasses of beer in dark bars all over Brooklyn, I would try to discern the color of their eyes or their hair. It was a payess fashion show, with subtle differences in each, straight and curled, tucked behind their ears or under their yarmulkes.
Some of them wished they could run from their communities, but even if they would, they could never escape who they were, their essential Jewishness. Their roots went deep, clearly. Some of them seemed surprisingly well-bred, in a European way. With my own European roots, these were the men I felt closest to.
I posted the ad several times, hungry for more stories. There was something about their Europeanness, their being descendants of Holocaust survivors, that made me come back for more. There was something sad about them, yet compelling. Bound to their lifestyle and traditions, it was as if they were Hasidic before they were human. And yet, I discovered, beneath the payess and the beards and the mustaches, there were faint glimmers of individuality, elusive but present.
My goal had been to French kiss a hairy man. I did that. But once I got to know these men, it was not their facial hair that drew me in but the mystery behind it. It was those glimmers of individuality, behind the facial hair and the black and white garb, that called me back for more.