It’s been about 3 months since I shaved my head to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. You can still donate to the fund by clicking the link, and I and a bunch of rabbis with funny hair will be deeply grateful.
Growing my hair back has been a surprise too. Who would have guessed that I wouldn’t want it back?
I have kept growing it this far for dear friends who wanted me to have hair – my own hair, not a wig – under their chuppah. They are officially married now, and I fulfilled my promise. I held off on going to a barber today because (1) I had to drive to Boston and didn’t really have time to go find a barber and (2) I thought I might have second thoughts.
Nope. This scrubby hair with its weird widow’s peak is making me crazy. It’s long enough now that I get (horrors) HAT HAIR. Off it goes, as soon as I can find someone to do it.
Funny thing about mitzvot: you never know where they’ll take you. I had no idea I would like being bald.
A little over a month ago, I wrote about shaving my head at the “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” event in Chicago. A group of rabbis, mostly but not all Reform, shaved our heads in an effort to raise consciousness and cash for pediatric cancer research. Our inspiration was the life of a little boy who did not survive leukemia, the eight year old child of our colleagues, Sammy Sommer.
The experience has given me one surprise after another.
It turned out that it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to shave my head: I actually felt freed by it, and after fulfilling a promise to a friend this summer, I intend to get rid of the hair again. I liked the bald look: elegant in its own way, and striking.
In the meantime, I’m walking around with what looks like a bad crew cut as the hair grows out. My hair is about half an inch long. If I put on a hat, my scalp itches. Every day, I’ve gotten a little more upset when I looked in the mirror, and today I finally figured it out.
I had gone out today without makeup or earrings. While I was pumping gas, I caught sight of a reflection in the car window. The image looked to me like a middle aged man with a bad crew cut. “Who IS that guy?” I thought, annoyed.
Then I realized: That guy is me.
My next thought was: Never, ever leave the house again without lipstick.
I am quite aware that just as shaving my head was nothing like having cancer, this tiny bit of gender discomfort is nothing like the reality facing transgender people. On the other hand, it does seem that there may yet be more to learn from this experience, especially since now I know why the clerk at Staples seemed to be looking at me funny, and hesitated in speaking to me.
So – if you would like to join me in supporting childhood cancer research, you can still donate here. Truly, it’s a good cause.
And if I learn anything worth passing along about being mistaken for a middle aged guy with a bad crew cut, I promise to print it here!
It’s very late, but I want to write this before I forget anything.
The mood tonight before the #36Rabbis Shave for the Brave event was giddy. We milled around in the common area in the B2 level of the Fairmont Hotel, waiting for a program to end. The noise level was high; the group was noisy and discombobulated. Rabbi Julie Adler and I talked about how strange it seemed that we were in such a manic mood, when the heartbreaking story of Superman Sam had given birth to the whole project. We were gathering in our grief and our rage that children suffer with these terrible diseases. Pediatric cancer destroys young lives and it is brutal for the families who suffer it, even when the patient survives. We had come to raise funds for research to find a better way via the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
My own mood was unstable – on the one hand, I’ve been working towards this event for months. Every time I think about Phyllis Sommer, and imagine losing my own child, I begin to cry. Every time I remember the children in the Bone Marrow Unit at City of Hope, I feel great sadness. Those feelings warred with my personal feelings of vanity: I was about to go bald! My hair is a major source of vanity for me, especially since it has stayed thick and dark as I’ve aged, and letting go of it was a big deal. I was acutely aware that it was too late to back out. I was glad my brother and his wife were there; I leaned on their presence.
The mood in the room was giddy. That seemed inappropriate until I asked the question: what IS the appropriate response to an obscene event, the death of a young child? We do not have the wherewithal to digest such a thing. It is, literally, unthinkable. Then it didn’t seem so strange that the children ran around in circles and adults took nervous photos of one another. We had no way to respond, so we circled in nervous energy.
Finally it was time, and we filed into the auditorium for a brief evening service. Rabbi Rex Perlmutter led a service of quiet and calm, centering us for the task ahead, reminding us why we were there with a memorial of all those we’ve lost of late, including Sammy Sommer. The giddy mania stopped, and a quiet expectation filled the room. We “shavees” were called up onto the stage for a br
ief final song, then lined up for the shave.
I was the last rabbi shaved. I watched my colleagues go before me, and I saw that for some, especially women, it was difficult. I cried a little bit watching them. But when my own time came, I sat in the chair and the barber checked with me briefly, “You OK?” I said, “Well, I figure that this is one time I will get exactly the cut I wanted.” He laughed, and began to cut.
The cold air hit my scalp in patches. I had worried that I might cry, but it was such a peculiar sensation that I didn’t feel like crying. My head grew colder, and I felt a breeze. I felt a weight falling away from me. Then some hair dropped across my face, and I scrunched my face against it. I could hear my brother teasing me about the faces I was making, so I made more faces.
It was a moment of intense life. A moment of loss, and a moment of freedom. It was a moment of extreme closeness with colleagues, some of whom I had only recently met. It was a moment of rabbis coming together to mourn and to insist upon making the world better, and I feel blessed to be part of such a group. All the nerves were gone; what remained was a holy peace, shalom.
Now I sit here with my cold head and my heavy eyelids, trying to process it all. The fundraising continues: I am not yet at my goal. But whatever happens, I know that I have been present for something I will never forget.
In the midst of Shabbat preparations, in the midst of preparations to go to the CCAR convention to participate in a ritual of grief and stubborn hope, I have only a few minutes to type today.
If you turn on your TV, it seems that grief is everywhere: authorities are still searching for Malaysia Airlines MH370, still searching for the place where they should search. North of me, in Washington State, the community of Oso disappeared under an avalanche. And in the local news, there’s more grief: shootings, car accidents, death, death, death.
In the local news, more awful stuff has happened. Drive-by shootings, corrupt public officials, horrible news stories about what some people are willing to do to other people: it’s endless, mindless, ghastly.
But for Shabbat, Jews will stop. Just for a little while. We will stop and do our best to appreciate the wonders of creation.
We will stop to notice love. We will stop to rest our bodies. We will turn off that blasted cable news machine and concentrate on goodness. For those in the depths of grief, obviously, that doesn’t stop. But the community pauses, and we hold the mourners in our midst, and we stop to do what we can to rest, to recover, to simply be.
and to raise funds for research so that future cancer sufferers will have more and better options than did Sam.
Did you know:
Worldwide, a child is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes.
Most childhood cancers are not related to lifestyle factors – they can’t be prevented by “living well.”
In 80% of children, by the time the cancer is discovered, it has already spread within the body.
More than 90% of survivors of childhood cancers will have lifelong conditions from their cancer treatments.
Only a tiny percentage of federal cancer research funding goes for treatments for childhood cancers.
We can’t save Sammy, but we are raising funds to bring about better treatments for the children who will be diagnosed in the future. Current treatments are brutal and too often ineffective. Research dollars go to look for more effective treatments that do less damage to children.
St. Baldrick’s, by the way, is not a religious foundation. “St. Baldrick” is a combination of “bald” and “St. Patrick’s,” a reference to the fact that the first fundraising head-shaves took place on March 17, 2000. St. Baldrick’s Foundation is a good steward of the funds you donate; Charity Navigator gives it a coveted 3-star rating.
If my words have ever been useful to you, or if the story of Superman Sam has touched your heart, I beg you to give, if not through my page, then through the page of some other rabbi you know. In these months of Adar, when “joy increases” let’s do something concrete to increase the years in young lives, and the joy in the lives of young families.
When someone dies, we say, “May his (or her) memory be for a blessing.” Sometimes we mean that we hope that the family and friends will be comforted by good memories, that the person will be long remembered, and so on. But it can mean a lot more than that.
“May his memory be for a blessing” can mean “May he leave a legacy of blessing.” In Jewish terms, that might be the very best thing that you can wish for a person, that long after they are gone, the goodness of their lives will go on doing good in the world.
A little boy died this past Saturday morning. He was only 8. He had a short life, and there were many things he never got to do. The unfairness and the sadness of it is heartbreaking. Sammy Sommers‘ life was cut short by leukemia and he will never … I can’t bear to make the list, but make it for yourself. What good things have happened to you since you were eight years old?
Sammy leaves a legacy of love already – his sweetness and that of his family have touched a lot of people. But some of us who are heartbroken for him and for his parents would like to do more. We’d like to leave a legacy to bless all the other Sammies, children who will be diagnosed with one of these terrible diseases and who face a limited set of treatment options. We want to raise at least $180,000 for research to give them more and better treatment options.
I’ve already posted once about this: I’m one of 36 rabbis who will shave our heads on March 31 to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Sammy’s memory. Our joint goal is $180,000. My personal goal is 1/36 of that, $5,000.
My total has been stuck at $878 for a few days. I’m very grateful to those who have donated thus far, but I intend to make my goal, so I’m saying here and now: I will shave my head March 31, and I will not let it grow back until I have raised $5,000.
So now, take your mouse, CLICK ON THIS LINK and donate $5, or $10, or $50, or $100 to pediatric cancer research through St. Baldrick’s. If you don’t have a credit card, don’t worry, they’ll take a check. If you really can’t afford $5, or if you’d like to do more than donate, pass this link along to someone else. But please, do something.
Too many children die of cancer. Too many families suffer as the Sommers family is suffering. We can do something about this, in Sammy’s memory.
This March, I am going to pray in a new way: I’m going to shave my head.
Sam is a eight year old with acute myeloid leukemia, the son of two of my colleagues, rabbis in the Midwest. He has been through a year and a half of horrific treatments, and recently doctors informed his parents that the disease is back but all of Sam’s treatment options are exhausted. The leukemia is going to take Sam’s life, despite all he and his family have suffered.
Many of us who have prayed and watched with breaking hearts as this drama unfolded have struggled for some response to this. We have learned some startling things: that only 4% of federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for children’s cancers, that many of the treatments available are hideous and, bottom line, too many children go through those difficult treatments and still die of cancer.
I saw some of this first hand a few years ago when I was a chaplain intern in the Bone Marrow Unit at City of Hope in Duarte, CA. Bone marrow transplants can sometimes work miracles, but even the success stories are harrowing. Following Sam’s story brought back memories and nightmares from that internship, and I was not a patient, only a chaplain.
This March 31, at the national convention of Reform rabbis, 36 of us are going to shave our heads in solidarity with the children and the families that are devastated by cancer. We’re calling it 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. We do this as a prayer: a prayer for more research, a prayer for more effective, less destructive treatments, and a prayer that the children and their families will know that we stand with them as they face these terrible diseases. We will do it as a prayer of lamentation for young lives that know too much pain, for young lives cut short, for families who have to watch as little children suffer.
But this is an active prayer, and we ask others to participate. Here’s the deal: I’m going to shave my head. You, dear reader, can participate by donating to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a fundraiser for children’s cancer research. All you have to do is click the link at the bottom of this post and donate what your heart suggests. In exchange, I will send you a nice thank you note with an “after” picture of myself, bald as my baby brother. You will also have a tax deduction and the knowledge that you have not stood by while your neighbor bleeds – or goes bald. (Leviticus 19:16)
During the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he “prayed with his feet” at Selma. I am going to pray with my hair. Please, join me in prayer by clicking on the link and joining me in speaking up for children with cancer. We cannot save Sam, but this we can do.