JONATHAN MORNINGSIDE hurries across Street to Davidka Square, his mop of black wavy hair bobbing in the wind. The second he bounds past the tracks of the light rail, Jonathan realizes he’s left the present far behind. All the men bustling along Prophets and Kiach are bearded and wear black suits, white shirts, Homburg hats. Jonathan doesn’t see a single, solitary woman walking through the Makor Baruch neighborhood of Jerusalem. The billboards that line the streets feature images of wizened Jewish sages, death notices written in old Hebrew, advertisements for upcoming concerts, calls to prepare for the arrival of the messiah and pleas to not pass through the area in immodest clothes.
Stopping and peering at each of the store windows along a gray, grim strip mall Jonathan is struck by the amount of cell phone stores crowding in on one another. “Who on earth are these people calling?” Morningside muses.
“Ah, Avi’s,” Jonathan exclaims triumphantly. He flew from Berlin to Jerusalem for a wedding, that of his South African cousin Libby to an American of dubious lineage but undeniable charm. Family from Johannesburg, London, Vienna and several parts of Israel would be in attendance. The shabby chic look he cultivates as an up and coming artist operating along Berlin’s bohemian fringe won’t cut it with this crowd. A makeover is in order. Step one: get a haircut…in the middle of what looks to him for all the world like the remnants of one of those Eastern European ghettos he’s seen pictures of in museums, school books and the odd Holocaust documentary.
His cousin’s soon-to-be husband, a guy by the name of Bill, Bob or Ben, raved about this barbershop. “He’ll tickle your scalp until you purr like a kitten.” The groom-to-be then placed a direct call to the proprietor, one Avi Maimon. “Old wires dangling from the ceiling… Is that a pile of bricks over there? Counters made of strips of wood… Fifty shades of gray wallpaper. How chic,” Jonathan thinks as he steps into the barber shop and grabs a seat in the waiting area.
Morningside scrolls through his smartphone, quietly thumbing a ride to nowhere on the digital superhighway. As the Klezmer music blaring from Avi’s radio mercifully mutates into white noise, a jittery little man wearing blue shorts and a curiously small baseball cap whirls into the shop, makes no eye contact with anyone and
heads straight to the barber’s chair. “Hey, Avi. I gotta motor. Big meeting with the mayor at 11:00.” Jonathan has the Hebrew comprehension of a fifth grader, so he gets the gist of what’s being said.
Avi doesn’t look up from the current head of hair he’s shearing. The man with an important appointment to keep grabs an electric razor from the counter, turns it on, takes off his hat, trims what looks to Jonathan like a perfectly bald head, puts the shaver back in its holder, puts the cap back on, leaves a NIS 10 coin in an ashtray and darts out of the shop as quickly as he came in.
The man with the lazy smile who was getting his ears lowered when Jonathan walked in hops off the barber’s chair and admires himself in the mirror. “Avi, you’re the master.” He gives Avi some Shekel bills and coins. “Bless you,” the master says as his latest work of art waddles out the door.
“Hi. You. Come. Please.” Jonathan is roused from his self-induced stupor by Avi’s gruffly melodic summons. He heads to the coveted barber’s chair as the half dozen men in the waiting area leaf through newspapers or pretend to be preoccupied. Avi shuffles to the corner of his shop and pulls open a brown love bead doorway, revealing a grime covered sink located under a window encased in thick black bars, keeping this part of the shop in perpetual dusk.
There are several open sleeves of paper cups strewn across empty five-gallon Eden water bottles. Avi bends down and picks up one of the cups.
Jonathan sits down and looks up to see framed pictures of Butch Cassidy, Buffalo Bill and John Wayne hanging over the mirror that’s in front of him. Morningside wonders if he’s the only person to ever visit Avi’s who knows that John Wayne wasn’t a real cowboy. Jonathan takes off his eye glasses and sets them on the counter. Even the temporary state of blindness he’s entered can’t dim the distinct aura of failed lives and opportunities squandered that illuminates this place like those harsh fluorescent office lights that probably cause skin cancer.
“Here. Drink.” Jonathan is simultaneously touched and repulsed by Avi’s cordiality. The cup of tan-colored sludge gives off no smell and reflects no light, it’s the drink of the damned. “Oh… I just had a cuppa before I arrived here. That’s…” Avi leans in, his steel blue eyes narrow. “This real Moroccan spiced coffee… Drink.” Jonathan swallows hard. The chunky ooze slithers down his throat, momentarily strangling him.
Avi grabs a pair of either gold or seriously rusted scissors – Jonathan can’t tell for sure because he’s not wearing his glasses – and starts to trim the top of the visiting Englishman’s head. “Ah… I’d like a French Crop. It’s quite the rage right now in Berlin. You can trim the sides with a hair clipper and cut the top with scissors. I style it with either matte pomade or wax.”
Avi continues to cut off chunks of Jonathan’s hair, seemingly oblivious to the request he’s been given. “What this French crap? No one in Berlin cut like me. Every day I walk in Shuk. I see everything new. Soldiers. Students. Rock stars. I see their hair. I make you look like cowboy. John Wayne.”
Jonathan hasn’t properly prayed since he was bar mitzvahed at London’s Barking & Becontree Synagogue. This was back when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and every self-respecting British Jew voted Labour. But a haircut mishap two hours before the social event of the year would take years to live down. Picturing those raised eyebrows, soft sighs, squeamish smiles and limp hugs from 250 invited relatives was causing Jonathan to break out in a cold sweat.
“There are no atheists in barber chairs,” Morningside thinks. He sends a silent appeal for a stay of execution to God, Picasso, Chagall and Miles Davis.
As Avi slashes through Jonathan’s precious locks, this artist as
a young man grips the sides of the barber’s chair. To stay sane Morningside distracts himself by focusing on his first solo exhibition, coming up next week at Berlin’s Konig Galerie. His mind’s eye reassess the portraits he took through a beer can that he had converted into a pinhole camera.
Jonathan feels a tiny patch of skin above his left ear open up. Avi’s left him stranded in the barber’s chair, bleeding. An ancient landline is ringing and based on Avi’s sudden loss of composure, the old barber knows exactly who the caller is. Avi stomps across the shop to where the phone is, on a bookshelf in the waiting area.“Yes…Yes! Pink Lady apples…Eight…OK… I’ll go to the shuk after..I’m with clients…Please hang up now…What? No…Don’t care…She’s lying to you…He’s an idiot. They’re your kids too…No! OK. Don’t forget to baste the chicken.”
He hangs up and returns to Jonathan, who’s sitting like an obedient child in the barber’s chair, wrapped in a sickly blue plastic apron, blindly staring at the mirror in front of him. The bleeding above his ear has stopped. “OK.” With that, Avi shucks off the infuriating conversation and resumes the molding of Jonathan’s head.
“I’m back, dear righteous brothers!” The bellowing yet friendly voice is that of a man who’s used to being recognized and adored. The dramatic entrance elicits no response from anyone in the shop. Then, one waiting patron gets up, shakes the hand of the well-dressed gentleman with the well-trimmed salt and pepper beard and returns to his seat. Another waiting customer quietly gets up and leaves.
“You just cost me a client, Rabbi Aflalo. Take a seat, you’re sixth in line,” Avi hisses. “You refuse to age, Avi, my older, wiser, brother.” Even with a blow dryer blowing in his ear, Jonathan hears Avi take in a deep breath, center himself and respond: “For God’s sake, you were only in for, what, six months?” Rabbi Aflalo takes the seat that was just abandoned. “I was released yesterday. It was on all the TV stations. What a headache. Now, I just want to go back
to a quiet life teaching at Dvar Yerushalayim. I mean what I said: I’m through with politics.” Aflalo opens up and starts to thumb through the most recent Kol Hair, a weekly local newspaper, that someone left behind.
“OK. We’re done.” Avi suddenly sets down the razor he’s been using on Jonathan’s neck and removes the apron. Morningside fishes around the counter for his glasses. “Here, my boy, take.” Jonathan takes the glasses from Avi and puts them on. What was he thinking listening to his cousin’s American fiancée? From the pictures he’s seen on the family Whats App group the man dressed for every occasion like he was on his way to the beach: Crocs, Bermuda shorts, Los Angeles Lakers cap – worn backwards- and sleeveless t-shirts that always included some piece of bumper
sticker wisdom – ‘Dream big’, ‘Never settle,’ etc.
Jonathan forces himself to unsquint his eyes, to except the mutilation of his mane with a stiff upper lip. Maybe his idiot Yankee in law will let him borrow that purple and gold cap to wear to the wedding. He opens his eyes wide. “I…struck dumb. Avi, it’s a masterpiece.” A self effacing soul like Jonathan doesn’t usually admire himself in the mirror, but he does now. Maybe the Moroccan spice coffee was cutting off the oxygen to his brain but the reflection
looking back at Jonathan was gorgeous, commanding, eternal – no less so than that black and white picture of The Duke that Avi has hanging on the wall above the mirror.
“Berlin? No. You American cowboy. Bless you.” Avi lets out a big laugh as Jonathan walks out of the barbershop, six inches taller than when he walked into it.
This piece was originally published in the Jerusalem Report magazine May, 2020.