A Haircut, a Cake and a Candy Shower: A 3-year-old's Entry Into Judaism

Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions involving Torah scrolls and a haircut happily collide at 'khlake' ceremony for little Benyamin Schatz on Kibbutz Hefetz Haim.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Assaf, with Torah scroll, holding Benyamin's hand. The essence of this rite of passage remains the same across the various cultures. All Photos by Gil Cohen-Magen
Assaf, with Torah scroll, holding Benyamin's hand. The essence of this rite of passage remains the same across the various cultures. All Photos by Gil Cohen-Magen
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Hafetz Haim Ashkenazi synagogue

Time: 6 P.M.

In the neighborhood: The last rays of light project blots of red and orange on the fields surrounding Hefetz Haim, a religious-Zionist kibbutz situated about 20 kilometers east of the coastal city of Ashdod. Small one-story houses, their tiled roofs a stark contrast to the deep-blue sky, line quiet curvy streets. An Israeli flag waves from a kitchen window.

Venue: A paved yard is sharply divided by the setting sun into a large sun-washed area and a sliver of shade, the latter slowly being filled with tables laden with food and desserts. On either side of the yard stand the two synagogues: the older Ashkenazi one, erected by Hafetz Haim’s German-Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, and a Sephardi one built four years ago by the kibbutz’s newer residents.

Simcha: Benyamin Shatz’s khalake or upsherin ceremony

Number of guests: ~25

When Worlds Collide: Benyamin, 3, was born to Asaf, 37, a junior high-school teacher, and Sara, 34, a hospital nurse – the first boy to be born into the young Shatz household, joining an impressive roster of three older sisters (Hallel, Tamar, and Yael), with another baby sister in the works.

Asaf places his hand on his son's head, blessing him, as the rabbi does as well.

Benyamin’s rather eclectic background resulted in the somewhat mixed character of the ceremony, the essence of which remains the same across the various cultures: the welcoming of the 3-year-old boy into the world of Jewish education and life. In the German-Jewish tradition, represented by Asaf’s side of the family, this is done through the “wimpel” ceremony, in which the cloth used to swaddle the baby at his brit milah (circumcision) is embroidered with a blessing and then ceremoniously wrapped around a Torah scroll. Asaf: “It shows the connection to the Torah.”

From the other side, however, according to Sara’s Sephardic background, the custom, known as the khalake, traditionally centers around the boy’s entrance into Jewish life via a ceremonial first haircut and, as a result, the creation of the boy’s first peyot (earlocks). Benjamin’s ceremony, ultimately, will include elements from both traditions.

Rites: Asaf, nervously awaiting the arrival of new guests, stands on the street side of the tiled yard, checking his phone every once in a while. An older man cycling by looks at the small celebration, blurting out a smiley “mazel tov” before disappearing around a bend.

Huddled against the shaded Sephardic side of the yard (Asaf: "This side has an electric socket”), family members and a few friends gather round simple tables laden with homemade, dairy-based dishes and cakes. Overhead, strings of balloons shift in the slight breeze.

Asaf takes the cover off Torah scroll which is encircled by the wimpel, or swaddling cloth.

Once everyone has arrived, the happy group moves, led by the long-haired boy-of-the-hour, into the synagogue, with men and women all convening around the bimah in the syngagogue. Weathered wooden chairs, complete with blue upholstering, line the synagogue space, with an office-style acoustic ceiling overhead.

The children quickly take a seat around Asaf, who proceeds to place a large kippah on Benyamin’s head and to drape him with a miniature tzitzit (ritual prayer fringes). The father then goes on to bless his son, one hand warmly placed on the little head. The gang is then joined by the local rabbi, who blesses the young boy and then gets to be the first to cut a lock of Benyamin’s flowing hair.

Soon enough everyone wants in on the hair-cutting party, with the green scissors passing from Asaf, to Asaf’s father Michael, Sarah’s father Haim, and pretty much anyone who wants in. Someone from Asaf’s side invites Sarah’s mother Rivkah to join in on the fun: “Maybe once the men are done,” she says.

Halfway into the full haircut the khalake part comes to an end (Sarah: “He’ll just have to go to a barber”), which leads to the beginning of the wimpel. A swaddling cloth (Asaf: “Though not the one used at the actual brit”) is brought forth. It is embroidered with the traditional blessing – “May he grow up into the Torah, the chuppah, and good deeds.”

The cutting of the little boy's locks, a Sephardi ritual.

The cloth is then wrapped around one of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls, and placed in the holy ark. Over to the side, Sarah’s father Haim studies a prayer book silently. All the while, children toss a hailstorm of candy at Benyamin, then quickly scurrying about to search for their delicious projectiles.

After a few more blessings and some songs, the gang moves back out for train-shaped cake as well as another, in the theme of cartoon hero “Fireman Sam.” The sun slowly disappears behind the houses of nearby Ganei Tal, a religious moshav made up of residents of the former settlement of the same name that existed the Gaza Strip until 2006.

Children scurrying for the candies they threw at the boy of the hour.

Music: Liturgical songs.

Food: Quiches, salads and a variety of cakes.

Drink: Soft drinks, juices, water, coffee, and tea.

In my spiritual doggy bag: That the seemingly hard work of sewing differing traditions together can be much more fun than it seems.

Random quote: A guest shows off a joke received via WhatsApp: “Which ‘five minutes’ is longer, the woman’s ‘almost ready’ or the man’s ‘almost home’?”

The cakes and other goodies for the celebrants, who included relatives and friends.

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