Tra­di­tion And The Trades

Forward Magazine - - Legal Notice - Is this me? Is this my best self?

There’s an off- Broad­way com­edy show that has been around for sev­eral years, “My Son The Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy.” The ti­tle pokes fun at a stereo­type that has Jewish par­ents dis­ap­pointed be­cause their child didn’t be­come a lawyer or a doc­tor. Like most chil­dren of Jewish fam­i­lies whose fore­bears im­mi­grated to the United States from East­ern Europe, I grew up as­sum­ing I would go to col­lege, and I did. I grad­u­ated from Bran­deis Univer­sity in 1979. Ten years later I be­came a hair­styl­ist.

To me, my work was the ul­ti­mate gig — artis­tic, en­tre­pre­neur­ial, fun. Lis­ten­ing to my in­ter­est­ing, ac­com­plished clients in metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for 23 years was as cozy and in­ti­mate as pil­low talk. We told each other every­thing. Fac­ing the mir­ror to­gether, we sought an­swers about su­per­fi­cial ap­pear­ance that were re­ally about core iden­tity. Be­cause of my in­tel­lec­tual fam­ily, though, I ag­o­nized over those ques­tions through­out most of my ca­reer.

My par­ents weren’t the most ob­ser­vant Jews, but they had cer­tainly adopted the value of us­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion as a spring­board to a pro­fes­sional ca­reer. My mother was a sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist with a thriv­ing psy­chother­apy prac­tice. My fa­ther was an in­ter­na­tional trade lawyer/ lob­by­ist. I was more in­ter­ested in hair and make-up than in any­thing else.

That pas­sion grew from dealing with my own kinky, curly hair, a friz­zled mess that was com­pletely out of style in the late 1960s, the era of smooth, straight hair.

As a teenager I tried to straighten it in the makeshift salon of our blackand-white tiled bath­room. In front of the medicine cabi­net mir­ror, I mixed and ap­plied smelly so­lu­tions from the home-straight­en­ing kits I bought with my babysit­ting earn­ings. In that small room reek­ing of pun­gent chem­i­cals, I first felt the ex­cite­ment of set­ting trans­for­ma­tion into mo­tion. The pos­si­bil­ity of chang­ing into some­one dif­fer­ent was thrilling.

Ap­pear­ance seemed de­cid­edly not fem­i­nist or in­tel­lec­tual. So my in­ter­est in hair re­mained a girly, guilty plea­sure. Fi­nally, when I was 32, 10 years af­ter I grad­u­ated from col­lege with a Bach­e­lor of Arts in English, I went to Gra­ham Webb In­ter­na­tional Academy of Hair, in Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia.

If my par­ents were ap­palled, they hid it well. They both quickly (and bravely) be­came my loyal clients while I was still in school. I told my­self I would do hair “for a lit­tle while” un­til I fig­ured out what I re­ally wanted to be when I grew up. Mas­ter­ing the tech­niques and tools of my trade felt artis­tic — the hair-color swatch book in­spired my cre­ativ­ity like a freshly opened 100-pack of crayons, and my shears be­came an ex­ten­sion of my mind’s eye as I deft- ly sculpted away ex­tra­ne­ous hair to re­veal the hid­den beauty I saw in my clients.

I worked in what psy­chol­o­gists call flow. I was en­er­gized and fully fo­cused, and I en­joyed what I was do­ing. It was grat­i­fy­ing to be trusted for my taste, my ex­per­tise and my coun­sel on every­thing from the im­por­tant — chal­lenges at work, with re­la­tion­ships and par­ent­ing— to the mun­dane, like what color to paint the din­ing room.

I owned a busi­ness, earned a six­fig­ure in­come and sup­ported my fam­ily as the ma­jor bread­win­ner in my mar­riage. But I still felt dis­ap­proval. Some­one in my fam­ily spoke of her hair­dresser as “my girl.” An­other, the first fe­male child of my im­mi­grant grand­par­ents to earn a doc­tor­ate, ac­tu­ally rolled her eyes when my work came up in con­ver­sa­tion. Al­though my mother seemed sup­port­ive and loved her hair, I no­ticed she was crit­i­cal of her sis­ter, who “wasted her ed­u­ca­tion” by be­ing “only” an ele­men­tary school sec­re­tary.

The first ques­tion any­one asks a new ac­quain­tance in the D.C. area is, “What do you do?” Over the years, I had so­cial con­ver­sa­tions end abruptly when I an­swered that ques­tion. In­evitably, those same peo­ple would cor­ner me later in the ladies’ room for a free im­promptu hair con­sul­ta­tion. Peo­ple asked if I had any fa­mous clients. I did. Nam­ing those women il­lu­mi­nated me with an in­stant re­flected le­git­i­macy that was ir­rel­e­vant, but one that I still wel­comed as so­cial ten­der. I man­aged to slip Bran­deis into ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion with some­one new.

The stereo­type is that hair­dressers are flakey, dumb, gum-pop­ping party peo­ple. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, though, most stylists are smart and per­cep­tive. We are warm, wise lis­ten­ers. We are highly skilled in the worlds of chem­istry, ge­om­e­try and physics.

I re­tired six years ago af­ter 23 years “be­hind the chair.” Snob­bery to­ward the trades is real, but look­ing back I re­al­ize my con­flict about do­ing hair was self-im­posed. I let other peo­ple’s mis­per­cep­tions in­flu­ence how I felt. I was lucky to do work that I loved.

My 24-year-old son re­cently de­cided not to con­tinue with col­lege. He is on his own “less tra­di­tional” path. As his mom I am de­fend­ing his de­ci­sion to my fam­ily and at the same time re­sist­ing the urge to talk him into go­ing back to school.

We Amer­i­can Jews en­cour­age our kids to get a good ed­u­ca­tion as a means of hav­ing a suc­cess­ful life. But our her­itage is ac­tu­ally rooted in the trades. Gen­er­a­tions of Jews in Europe, and of im­mi­grants to the United States, were gar­ment work­ers, cigar rollers, butch­ers, printers, tai­lors, weavers, sil­ver­smiths, day la­bor­ers and bak­ers. In fact, the Tal­mud’s most fa­mous rab­binic state­ment about par­ents’ obli­ga­tions to chil­dren (Kid­dushin 29a) in­cludes, among other things, teach­ing them To­rah and a trade.

It turns out that hav­ing a trade was in line with my Jewish her­itage af­ter all.

My shears be­came an ex­ten­sion of my mind’s eye as I deftly sculpted away ex­tra­ne­ous hair to re­veal the hid­den beauty I saw in my clients.

Lisa J. Daniels has writ­ten for Dame Magazine, Di­vorce Magazine, and is work­ing on a mem­oir about her hair­dress­ing ca­reer. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @Lisadaniel­slive

NIKKI CASEY

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