For Mutty Schtroks, May 12 was more than just the day after his third birthday.
While other kids might relish in the memory of a birthday party and play with the gifts they receive, on the day after his third birthday, Mutty got a haircut – witnessed by more than 100 people from the Bayonne Jewish community.
In more Orthodox Jewish traditions, elders do not cut a boy’s hair for the first three years of his life. On the day after his third birthday, the boy gets his “upsherin” or “upsherinish,” in a traditional Jewish haircutting ceremony.
At this point the boy also adorns a yarmulke and tzitzit, beginning his life lessons in faith.
“While a boy is taught before he is three, it is believed that at age three he is capable of understanding.” – Rabbi Lipman Heller
Traditional Jewish men wear the small prayer shawl constantly in order to fulfill the commandment of the Torah, which says, “So that you will remember to do the commandments.”
It is also supposedly a reminder of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
It is often worn under more conventional garments.
“While a boy is taught before he is three, it is believed that at age three he is capable of understanding,” said Rabbi Lipman Heller, brother in law to Rabbi Menachem Schtroks of the Congregation Ohav Zedek.
The hair cutting is considered a joyous occasion in the Jewish community as a whole. The cutting of the hair is the sign of a new era in a boy’s life.
This is a community event, something to signify the role the community plays in helping make certain a child finds his feet on the path to faith.
And as in tradition, members of the Jewish community pass the scissors from hand to hand, each elder taking a snip from the curly locks Mutty Schtroks has.
The ceremony drew people from various parts of the Jewish community, partly because it has become a rare ceremony in Bayonne, where the Jewish community is aging.
“From birth to three, a parent does not cut the boy’s hair,” said Joseph Wigdor, who was one of the members of the Jewish community who came to the event. He said this was an important event in Bayonne because it has become so rare.
“The Jewish population in Bayonne is aging, and many of the young people have moved to other communities,” he said. “At one time, we had these ceremonies frequently. We had a bar mitzvah nearly every weekend, sometimes more than one.”
Despite Bayonne being an urban center, its Jewish community has always been interconnected, with everyone knowing everyone.
In the 1950s, Bayonne had a thriving community with a lot of young people. But over the decades, many have moved to other communities, and traditions involving the young have become rare. That is why when they do happen, they become even more significant.
During the day, as families arrived, people paused to give Mutty gifts. This is also part of the tradition, as is the festival of dancing – although, over the years here and elsewhere, the ceremonies have become less extravagant.
By contemporary standards, the celebration that included dancing and food on the lawn in front of the Avenue C synagogue was fairly elaborate. There were even tables of desserts laid out in the basement.
This is his time of life, and people celebrate the happiness he will have in the future.
Some theories claim the tradition dates back to pilgrimages made to the Tomb of Samuel, a Nazirite prophet that was bound by oath not to cut his hair. Later, pilgrimages were conducted to other locations when the Tomb of Samuel was no longer accessible.
The hair cutting is also attributed to a passage in the Torah, which compares man to a tree – “For man is like a tree of the field.”
A tree and a person both grow from a small seed, extend branches, reach maturity and bear fruit. During the first three years of a tree’s life, its fruit may not be cut for use. So too, a little boy’s hair is not cut during his first three years.
“It is something we used to see all the time in Bayonne,” said Marvin Siber. “It is a rare thing now.”