When the word ‘optimal’ has newfound meaning

When the word ‘optimal’ has newfound meaning

After his father's death, "If growing my hair for the full year was 'optimal' that is what I wanted to do."

Gene Tabachnick, left, before The Great Cut, and after, below. (Photos by Toby Tabachnick)
Gene Tabachnick, left, before The Great Cut, and after, below. (Photos by Toby Tabachnick)

March 16, 2019, San Diego, California. The Great Cut. Donated locks flowed in from around the world to benefit Children With Hair Loss, a nonprofit organization that provides natural-hair wigs, free of charge, to children who suffer hair loss due to chemotherapy, alopecia or other medical conditions. After all of the donations were weighed and tabulated, a new Guinness World Record had been set — 339 pounds of hair, enough to supply hundreds of wigs to needy children.

I was proud to be a donor, and to participate in person. Is it a worthy cause? No doubt. Was it a noble endeavor? For sure. But for me it marked the completion of a long and challenging period. Seventeen months prior, on Oct. 16, 2017, my father died. My mother had died 17 months before that, and my brother, Kenny, six months before that. So, in a period of less than three years, my sisters and I not only become intimately familiar with the Jewish way in death and mourning, but experienced it fully.

One following the other, each mourning was unique. We made a conscious effort to not merely follow the mandates of Jewish law, but to honor each of our parents and our brother in a way that would be special to them — a path that led me to San Diego for The Great Cut.

A common practice is for mourners to refrain from cutting their hair. As Rabbi Maurice Lamm explains in “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,” “When mourning for relatives other than parents, haircuts are not permitted until the end of the 30-day period, the shloshim.” He continues: “Optimally, those in mourning for a parent should not cut their hair for 12 months. However, the law provides for the principle of ‘social reproach’ … [so] that those in mourning for parents may cut their hair after the 30 days at the first instance of even mild reproach or criticism by friends or neighbors.”

Frankly, I had never known anyone who had refrained from cutting their hair for the full year of aveilus; I am not even sure I knew that was a thing. I was aware of the “social reproach” principle and had employed it when mourning for my mother. Given the scores of times I had read or referenced Rabbi Lamm’s book over these past few years, it was only in the context of mourning for my father when that one word — optimally — stood out. If growing my hair for the full year was “optimal,” that is what I wanted to do.

And that’s what I did. Along the way, I developed a newfound appreciation for those who care for and manage their long hair. As my hair grew, I learned and made adjustments. For example, I experimented to find the best way to wear tefillin with long hair (place the knot of the shel rosh under the ponytail or man bun). And with each passing month, I had repeated opportunities to explain to those who asked that I was growing my hair to honor my father’s memory, in accordance with Jewish tradition.

We marked Dad’s first yahrzeit on the 26th of Tishrei, 5779 (corresponding to Oct. 5, 2018), and my hair was longer than it had ever been before. At that point, it seemed wasteful to simply have it cut, only to be swept up from the barber shop floor. So, I researched whether it could be donated. A handful of organizations collect hair donations, and each has its own requirements regarding minimum length, whether they will accept gray hair (I have some), dyed hair, etc.

During my research, I came across TheLonghairs.us, a website designed specifically for men with long hair. Coincidentally, they were just then announcing their campaign to set a new world record for the most hair donated in a single 24-hour period. They teamed up with Children With Hair Loss, and set Saturday, March 16, 2019 as the day. My hair met all of their requirements; my only problem was that I wouldn’t be able to donate my hair until after Shabbos. I contacted them, and they were eager to accommodate, promising me a prime cutting time slot after Shabbos ended. I was in.

The Great Cut event ran from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at The Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier. Men, women and children filed in to donate their hair, or to encourage and support those who were donating. More than 2,000 of us donated; those who could not attend in person mailed in their donations. Together we set a new world record but, more importantly, we did a mitzvah for those kids.

I cannot speak for the others, or their motivations for donating their hair that, in some cases, they had grown for eight years or longer. I, however, was pleased to be able to leverage the mitzvah of honoring my father’s memory with the added mitzvah of using my hair to help children in need.

That Shabbos was Shabbos Zachor, “remember.” In shul, the rabbi welcomed me and asked what brought me to San Diego. Another opportunity to tell about growing my hair for the year of aveilus to honor my father’s memory, about The Great Cut, and the chance to multiply mitzvahs.

As I sat in shul, I remembered my father, and hoped that I made him proud. PJC

An attorney in Pittsburgh, Gene Tabachnick is the husband of Chronicle senior staff writer Toby Tabachnick.

read more: