By Abraham Goldberg, translated by Daniel Kennedy

Born in Yarmolinetz, Podolia (modern day Ukraine), Abraham (Ab) Goldberg (1883–1942) was a prolific writer, journalist, and public figure in labor Zionist circles in New York. His journalistic writings were collected in four volumes of essays (three in Yiddish and one posthumously-published collection in English). In this essay, taken from his 1924 collection Grenetsn (Borders), Goldberg offers a tongue-in-cheek history of facial hair in Jewish societyfrom tender memories of bygone beards from the shtetl, through depictions of facial-hair in Jewish art. Lamenting the smooth-chinned face of American Jewry in the early 20th century, Goldberg would no doubt have been pleasantly surprised by the grooming habits of the 21st.

Daniel Kennedy


We here in the blessed land, America, have all but forgotten the age-old custom of Jewish men wearing beards. Stand on any street corner in the Jewish neighborhood of your choice and you will see a clean-shaven Jewish youth, without a hint of facial hair. The same is true for middle aged Jews—smooth chins as far as the eye can see. Occasionally you may glimpse a lone mustache hugging a pair of lips, a relic of the old world; but often you won’t even see that. Only a few old men still wear beards; here and there a doctor runs by with his bag of instruments and trademark “Ballanger,” which is practically a calling card of his profession. But lately even those beards have also begun to vanish. We have become—like the Anglo-Saxons—a people whose men shave their faces.

This is how things are in America. In the old country, however, the situation is different. Various reports tell us that certain loathsome Polish hellraisers have thought up a new, dangerous game to amuse themselves: pulling Jewish beards. 

Those noble Jewish beards!

Our enemies have always enjoyed depicting us with scraggly, patchy goat-like beards. The motive is clear: to make Jews appear ridiculous. Admittedly, beards of that sort are indeed ridiculous, but the truth is that you'd be hard pressed to find a Jew who has one. Jewish beards are more handsome; they instill respect and express strength, nobility and character. 

My memory suddenly teems with the beards of my shtetl. Such fine Jews, such monarchs! I recall the beard of Yoysef-Note, an angry beard, a pointed beard. You did not need to exchange a word with Yoysef-Note to understand that you were dealing with a man who regarded life earnestly and who was committed to justice—his beard told the whole story. You would not dare raise your voice in his presence; his beard commanded: have respect, young man—do you not see who the elder is? 

Then there was Moyshe Pine's beard, which used to spread wide and comfortably over his chest. A tall man and a large beard which, despite its ruddy hue, was a noble one. You would glean from that beard that its owner was a good man, a kind man. The beard was mild, a beard at its leisure. 

The beard of Moyshe Soyfer was known as the Brass Beard, for within it the fires of rage never ceased to burn, like the Burning Bush through which God spoke to Moses. 

Don’t let yourself get into Moyshe Soyfer's bad books his beard seemed to warn.

The aforementioned beards were all exceptionally long, the majority of beards being of middling length, and various forms. There were those that, like the embroidered hem of a tallit [1], hugged the cheeks, as well as rounded beards and pointed beards. Most beards were black, but there was no shortage of red, flaxen, or brass-colored beards either. 

I’m reminded of Shakhna Yudas' little beard, a silky blond thing, which seemed to radiate a kind of shyness and reserve. He was the epitome of a gentle, tender soul, and his beard was pure silk.

A spiritual beard redolent of the celestial realms was that of the Rabbi of Kornitz. It was not thick, but it possessed a certain substance and presence. It was not yet entirely gray, but graying. You could count each individual hair. The beard gave the impression of being self-aware and seemed pensive, as though it were pondering the mysteries of the universe. 

Beards of all kinds. Those Jews with their handsome beards; where have they all gone?  

We have very few pictures of our great-grandfathers, but in those that exist we can see that our ancestors also had fine beards. 

The portrait of Maimonides— it's hard to say whether it is a genuine portrait, but what a beard! A witness to his reason and justice. You can almost discern in it a certain rhythm. 

Much wilder is the portrait of Maharsha [2]: a long, overgrown beard, pilpul [3] embodied, like a Talmudic discussion on a complex issue. You must have seen the portrait. In any event a fine beard, entirely in keeping with Maharsha's character.  

Because, really—have you ever been able to imagine Maharsha without a beard? Or a clean-shaven Maimonides? The idea is risible. 

When Michelangelo carved the likeness of Moses in stone he depicted him with a large, long, majestic beard. How could he have done otherwise? Moses without a beard? Or Moses with a meagre goatee? A man like Moses, who commanded such respect, a man who conversed with God himself should have a small beard? That would have flown in the face of reason and good taste.

This is why we do not like the portraits of the prophets that the great Sargent painted. Alongside the others he also depicted beardless prophets. The logic behind this is beyond our reach. Not impossible, but improbable: A Jewish prophet without a beard is a contradiction in terms, pure nonsense. Jewish leaders always had beards. 

Naturally, things are changing now. Once the center of Jewry has moved to Anglo-Saxon countries, the era of Jewish beards, it seems, will come to an end. Before now things were different. The great leader of the Zionist movement, Dr. Herzl, wore a beard, and a fine, regal beard at that. 

Hermann Bar, the famous Austrian writer and a personal friend of Herzl's, wrote an article about the late Herzl's beard, eulogizing both its majesty and dreaminess. Herzl without that beard would have been an impossibility, Bar concluded.

I would add that, in the early days, a Zionist leader without a beard was a rarity. 

Observe: It was not just Herzl who had a fine beard—also the allies who stood by his side were wreathed in splendid facial hair. Wolffsohn [4] with his firm, severe beard, and Nordau [5] with his beard, white and crystalline, as radiant and symmetrical as a snowflake. 

Ussishkin [6], from the opposing faction, possessed a logical, secure beard: even the strongest wind could not succeed in budging a single hair of it. Lilienblum, the principal theoretician of Hovevei Zion [7], boasted yet another colossus of a beard. 

Even Edmund Rothschild [8] was in possession of a decent beard. Baron Hirsch [9], on the other hand, who did not have a beard, was opposed to Zionism. Incidentally his portrait was the first representative of a beardless Jew ever to adorn the walls of Jewish households. 

When Wolffsohn stepped down, Zionism fell into the hands of beardless leaders: Warburg, Handke, and Ruppin were all beardless Jews.

In America, Zionism was initially led by bearded leaders such as Gottheil and later Friedenwald. But now the beardless are firmly in control. Is this a sign of progress, or the contrary? 

In any event, for better or for worse, the era of beards is well and truly over. 

Among our writers, bearded Jews are becoming a rarity, though it was not so long ago that for a Jewish writer to wear a beard was the most natural thing in the world. I have already mentioned Lilienblum; Lewinsky also has a beard not to be sneezed at. Our Breinin [10] wears a beard to this day. The same is true of Ahad Ha’am [11], and Klausner [12] too. On the other hand, the great Hebrew poets Bilaik and Tchernichovsky no longer wear a trace of a beard. Shneour alone among the Hebrew poets is suitably hirsute. Frishman was clean-shaven, and there is not much to say about the younger generation—nary a beard among them.

Say what you will, when I read about the terrible things Poles are doing to Jewish beards, I regret that so many of us have begun to shave. Is that not enough reason to grow our beards again—to show them that there is a difference between true human beings and beasts in human form?



[1] Tallit (Yiddish: Tales): a fringed garment traditionally worn by religious Jews.

[2] Shmuel Eidels (1555–1631) was a renowned rabbi and Talmudist known as Maharsha from the Hebrew acronym for “Our Teacher, the Rabbi Shmuel Eidels.”

[3] Pilpul: a method of studying the Talmud through intense textual analysis in attempts to either explain conceptual differences between various halakhic rulings or to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts.

[4] David Wolffsohn (1856–1914) was a Lithuanian-Jewish businessman and prominent early Zionist.

[5] Max Nordau (1849–1923) was a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic. 

[6] Menachem Ussishkin (1863–1941) was a Russian-born Zionist leader.

[7] Hovevei Zion: a variety of organizations which began in 1881 in response to the Anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire, considered to be the forerunners and foundation-builders of modern Zionism.

[8] Edmond James de Rothschild (1845–1934) was a French member of the Rothschild banking family.

[9] Maurice de Hirsch (1831–1896).

[10] Reuben Breinin (1862–1939) was a Russian Jewish publicist, biographer, and literary critic.

[11] Ahad Ha’am, pen name of Asher Zvi Hersh Ginsberg (1856–1927), was a Hebrew essayist and founder of Cultural Zionism, a branch of Zionism centering on the importance of secular Jewish culture, history, and language. In opposition with Herzl’s Political Zionism it sought to safeguard the Jewish character of a Jewish state.

[12] Joseph Klausner (1874–1958) was a historian and scholar of Hebrew literature.


Daniel Kennedy is the translations editor for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and was a two-time participant in the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation Fellowship. His translation of Warsaw Stories by Hersh Dovid Nomberg is available now from White Goat Press.

Read the original essay in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.