A story about beards
By Israel Drazin
This is a true story about Baltimore, Maryland, during the mid-twentieth century and my dad’s feelings about beards.
Dad, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, was the highly respected rabbi of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore, from 1933-1964, one of the largest Orthodox congregations in its day. The synagogue had over 1500 seats, and all of them were filled during the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The leadership of Shaarei Tfiloh was unusually cheap. They would give my parents a gift each year. One year the sisterhood of the congregation gave mom a set of two items and told her one of the two was for next year. The synagogue “sold seats” for the high holidays; i.e., they charged for the seats. To make more money, although they had great respect for dad, they refused to give dad’s children free seats, so dad put us in the choir, even though I was and am a monotone.
Dad was paid $6,000 a year as his top salary. Fortunately, his parents, my grandparents, were wealthy and gave mom and dad money; so mom put away the $6,000 as savings and gave each of her three children $5,000 for furniture when we married.
I succeeded dad as rabbi of Shaarei Tfiloh in 1964 and served as their part-time rabbi for seven years. In 1970, when I reached my thirteenth year as a rabbi, I asked the Shaarei Tfiloh leadership for a plaque commemorating this “bar mitzvah” event. They said “yes,” if I paid for it. So I quit and became the first live-in rabbi of the new community of Columbia, Maryland. I was part-time at Shaarei Tfiloh and Bet Shalom in Columbia, because my full-time job was with the federal government working, at that time, in the Civil Rights Movement.
Synagogue rabbis in Baltimore during these years, at least in the larger synagogues, of all Jewish denominations, were PhDs. This recognition that rabbis should have a strong secular education changed around 1960 as did the Jewish attitude toward beards. In the 1970s, I was on the board of a synagogue whose rabbi retired and they had two finalists to fill the position. One had an MA and the other only a high school education. The dislike of a secular education was so strong at the time, as it still is among very Orthodox Jews, that they chose the high school rabbi because of his lack of education.
I received semicha, rabbinical ordination, from Rabbi Ruderman, the Rosh Yeshiva, dean, of Ner Israel Yeshiva, “rabbinical College,” in Baltimore in 1957. In 1957, no rabbi in Baltimore that I knew of had a beard except for Rabbi Ruderman, neither his son-in-law, Rabbi Weinberg, who succeeded him as Rosh Yeshiva, nor the Mashgiach, the rabbi who taught us proper behavior, wore a bear; it was just not done. Additionally, all of the prominent rabbis of all denominations, such as dad, had no beards. But like the educational requirements, this changed in the 1960s.
A colleague of dad visited him one day wearing a new beard. After he left, dad laughed and told me this story.
A man visited the grave of his deceased wife and wanted to say the traditional memorial prayer, but didn’t know how to do it. He saw a rabbi in the distance, ran over to him, and asked him to say the prayer for him.
The rabbi said, “Sure, with a beard or without a beard?”
“What’s the difference?” asked the man.
“With a beard, the charge is $7; without a beard it’s $5,” the rabbi responded.
Thinking his wife deserved only the best, the man said, “With a beard.”
Whereupon the rabbi reached into his pocket, pulled out a beard, and said the blessing.