Mark Shinar
Coach, Consultant, Author: Practicing Authentic Living and Leadership

On haircuts and closets

When a chatty London barber asked me where I was from, Israel was the accurate answer – but what was the right answer?

Three years ago, I got a haircut and came out of the closet (in that order). Admittedly, the haircut may not have been the day’s headline. It’s hard to remember. What they have in common, however, is that both feel so irreversible, always coupled with an anxiety of what it’s all going to look like. Inevitably, there comes a moment when you have to stare at yourself in the mirror, gnawed at by a tinge of regret, feeling kind of itchy, even if you are, ultimately, happy with the results.

A few weeks ago, I was in London and needed a haircut. The barber I found was committed to making my appointment an immersive experience of hot towels and witty British banter. I was totally into it. 

It was somewhere in between the wash and the cut, when the scissors were clipping noticeably close to my ear, that the chatty barber, Jonny, having clearly noticed that my accent wasn’t local, asked me where I was from. I told him New York, the Bronx to be more specific. 

I wasn’t surprised. I had anticipated the question and prepared for the response. I didn’t see any reason to say that I lived in Israel for exactly the same reason I didn’t walk into the store wearing my kippah in the first place. The world is a bit of a mess, and we just don’t know who’s on which team. Why take the chance, especially over something as insignificant as a haircut? 

What I hadn’t anticipated was that my living in NY was of particular interest to Jonny. He started asking questions about the city while I volleyed back all the reasons why I thought London was pretty great too. 

Soon enough, his questions became a little more personal, although not to the untrained ear. Was I married? Yes. Kids? Four. What did I do for a living? Principal of a private school. Continuing to cut away through what then felt to be an interminable appointment, he began a series of rapid-fire smalltalk questions about the details of my life.  

Within seconds, perhaps all the more bamboozled by scents of talcum and pomade, I slid backwards down an 8-year long rabbit hole, forcing my brain into some pretty remarkable acrobatics. He asked me about the school I run. It can’t be a Jewish one, but I don’t know enough about public school to sustain that story. So it had to be an independent college prep school.

Next question: how old are my kids? I stupidly started with my 19 year olds which prompted him to ask me what they were up to in life. Oh boy! They are definitely not in pre-army gap year programs in Israel. So, I guess that means they, like the students I teach, must be in college. Obvious next question: which college? Damn it. A bead of sweat slowly formed at the corner of my brow. I wondered if he had noticed. This one was going to be a trick. After all, given the climate, I don’t want the kids in Harvard or Columbia. Yeshiva University was clearly out, so I settled on Queens. Everyone loves Queens, especially, I figured, in the UK. 

The conversation continued to my wife, her work and mothers-in-law, am I right? No matter how hard I tried to shift the conversation, Jonny, a seasoned yente, brought it back to me. Finally, after what must have been the longest haircut in the world, he turned me around. There I was, in the mirror, having absolutely no idea what had just happened. The haircut was fine, actually nothing special given the length of time that I was in the chair, but I still felt a pang of nausea in my stomach at the reveal. 

What was remarkable was how many closets I had managed to throw myself into in just that half hour: my sexuality, my country, my religion. I just kept going deeper and deeper, one tale leading to the next, making myself as unremarkable as possible. I paid my tab and went on my way, not considering for even a moment that Jonny, most likely, couldn’t have cared less. 

Aren’t closets amazing and surprisingly comfortable? The act of coming out presumes such finality, but it seems, like haircuts, you end up doing it over and again. I suppose we’ve all got closets, and we’re all, at one point or another, retreating in and out of them. Personally, I’ve felt that to be even more apparent since October 7. I especially admire those who have publicly used their voices, despite the inherent dangers, to fight a fight that is much more critical than mine. I’m not particularly proud of my behavior, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to me. All it took was just a few innocuous questions for me to weave together a narrative of a life that wasn’t my own, even though it could have been. I got lost in a mess of disorientation and self-minimization of my own making.

Over the past few years, many kind people have told me how brave they think I am. I don’t think it’s true. I don’t feel brave. I have understood and internalized, especially within the context of our Jewish organizations and communities, that the rules of the road are clear. I am loved and I am welcomed, but if I’m going to be a part of the team, I need to responsibly curb my voice. I’ve taken this painful and practical advice to heart. It turns out keeping quiet is an environmentally learned skill, one that is not necessarily so easy to turn off and on again at will.

In one way or another, it seems these days that we are all in a fight for our lives: physically, metaphorically, or both. As the world has forced us to face harsh truths about who we are and what we believe, all of us have, in one form or another, a closet worthy of breaking down. Fact of the matter is: I’m a gay Israeli, no longer a straight New Yorker. My identity has, in the past few years, changed and as a result, so has my voice. No one should take that away. Not even me.

About the Author
Dr. Mark Shinar is an educational coach, consultant, speaker and author. He earned his BA from Yeshiva University with an English Literature and Theater degree and completed a Masters degree in Private School Administration from Columbia University Teachers’ College. He taught General Studies and English Literature in SAR Academy’s elementary and middle schools before becoming Head of School at Oakland Hebrew Day School in Oakland, CA. There, he earned an Ed. D in School Leadership from Mills College. Mark returned to NY in 2009 to serve as the Director of General Studies at SAR High School for eight years, before making Aliyah with his family in the summer of 2017. Mark was the founding principal of an independent, bilingual school located in the center of Israel and most recently, he was the Head of School at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
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