A Hanukkah tale: the search for God at the barbershop

“This one’s for you, Rabbi.”

Vinnie insists on calling me “Rabbi.” He has to be the world’s only barber with a piano in his shop. Now in his late 60’s, Vinnie’s been taking lessons for the past couple of years, and for a beginner of his age he’s pretty good. He sits down to play whenever there’s a break in his schedule, as there is this morning when I come in for my date with John, who rents one of Vinnie’s chairs.

I’m expecting Hava Nagila, or maybe I Have a Little Dreidel. Instead, Vinnie starts some slow, dirge-like melody. “Do you recognize it?” he asks. I don’t.

“It’s Taize,” he says, rising from the keyboard and coming over. “It’s very spiritual. All religions – Christian, Jewish, Muslim. They’re all spiritual. The kids love these songs when we play them Sunday mornings over at St. Giles Episcopal Church. I was just confirmed there last month. Can you believe it?”

Vinnie has a broad, in-town Boston accent, but he lives in a horsy suburb, with large lots and distant neighbors, mostly WASP’s, and Jews who look like them. Vinnie is neither.

“I was Catholic growing up,” he says, though I haven’t asked, “but it didn’t do anything for me. My father walked out when I was 11, and my Mom had a nervous breakdown. It was a pretty tough childhood.

“My first wife was Catholic too,” he says, “but we got divorced. You know with the Catholics you can’t do that, they excommunicate you. Unless you have money,” he says, rolling thumb over forefinger. “It’s like with rabbis, I guess. You want a get, you need some green.” I don’t say anything.

“My son is gay,” he says, “he lives in New York. Now me, I’m liberal. I accept everyone. The Episcopalians do too, at least the ones in the eastern part of the state. Jews are liberal too. Except for the Orthodox, they hate everybody.” Vinnie stops himself. “Wait,” he says, “you’re not Orthodox, are you?” I smile and say I am, just not that kind of Orthodox. He can figure that any way he wants.

“I’m blessed,” says Vinnie. “I came from nothing, and now I live in a mansion, I keep chickens in the backyard, I have my own business. One of my sons is an angel, a gift from heaven. But after my second son committed suicide two years ago, I told my wife we should join a church. We keep to ourselves. We don’t eat out, we don’t even go to the movies. Who would want to be friends with us?

“I was actually going to be a Jew,” he says. “But it’s too hard. You have to study so much, you know, the Torah and all. So I thought we’d go Episcopalian. My wife was fine with it. I took four sessions, and like I said, the confirmation was last month.

“They had bishops there. The most impressive one was a tall, black woman – the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church. Boy, was she a presence. She took me in her arms. I was shaking. She told me to calm down. It was a wonderful experience, the best I’ve felt in my life.

“Would you like this piece of the Taize sheet music I was playing?” he asks. I try to turn him down – I say I don’t play the piano – but he obviously wants me to have it. “It’s very spiritual,” he says. Then he sits down and starts to play again, this time the Moonlight Sonata.

The sheet he gives me explains that “the Taize community is made up of over a hundred brothers, Catholics and from various Protestant backgrounds…that wants its life to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and between separated peoples.” Vinnie is not into theological nuance.

By this time John is almost done cutting the little hair I have. John is a Baptist from Brazil. His son had various jobs before becoming a non-denominational minister, and now he’s on leave to get a Ph.D. in theology somewhere in the area. Along with many in-the-know practitioners, scholars of religion carve crisp categories and make fine distinctions, but out here in the wild the spiritual world is rather messy.

I wish John a Merry Christmas. “Happy Chanukah, Rabbi,” calls Vinnie. “Shalom.”

I get off the chair and go over to Vinnie, still at the keyboard. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Newly-Confirmed,” I say.

Vinnie grins, pumps my hand. “I joined,” he says happily. “I finally belong somewhere. How about that?”

A taste of Taize

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts