It’s About the Beard

I started growing my beard just about one year ago. Once it reached a respectable length, I had a new headshot taken and submitted it to the editors of this column. One upshot was reader confusion. “Are there two Jim Castagnera’s?” one inquired. The occasional re-appearance of the older, beardless picture has not helped to dispel the suspicion that I have an evil twin.
However, any confusion endured by readers of this column is nothing compared to what I encountered at the Newark International Airport two weeks ago. As you may recall, I was off on a ten-day trip to Israel, compliments of an Academic Fellowship on Terrorism from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies [www.defenddemocracy.com]. My forty-three fellow Fellows and I flew El Al. Israel’s national airline is the world’s safest. These folks learned the hard way, being among the first targets of terrorist hijackings in the 1970s.
You don’t get to be the world’s safest airline by being laid back. As my comrades and I waited in line to check-in, El Al employees set up a half dozen music stands. Were we about to be treated to a medley of Jewish folk songs? Not bloody likely, I thought. I was right. A half dozen interrogators were needed to quiz each and every one of us, before we were allowed to check our bags.
When my turn came, I pleasantly presented my passport to the youthful lad in the blue blazer behind his music stand. Problem is my passport is five years old. Inside its blue covers is a clean-shaven guy with longish hair of the “Grease” variety. The El Al employee looked from me to the passport photo and back to me… about five times.
“Do you have any other identification?” he asked. Uh Oh.
I dug out my wallet and handed over my driver’s license. Also almost five years old, its photo is also of a clean-shaven fella. Five more glances at me and the IDs and…
“Anything else?”
This time I did better. Dredging up my university ID card and my VA disabled-vet card, I was able to show him two examples of a bearded me. This did the trick.
This hassle was repeated before I was allowed to board the plane a bit later. This time the ticket guy brought his supervisor into the discussion. Following a mumbled consultation in Hebrew they let me board the plane.
I suppose I can sympathize with El Al’s caution. Beards are definitely more popular on Ossama’s side of the War on Terror than they are on ours. Only two other FDD Fellows — both old dogs such as myself — sported beards. On a field trip to an Israeli prison for terrorists, I estimated that more than half the inmates were facially hirsute. One of my colleagues started calling me Amed after that field trip, suggesting that I had the right profile to go undercover in the jailhouse. But for my lack of Arabic (and courage), I might have agreed with him.
Why beards have fallen out of fashion in the West is a bit of a mystery to me. Photos from the 19th century reveal fantastic forms of facial hair, spanning the spectrum from chest-length beards to dapper goatees to mutton-chop sideburns. An American historian once demonstrated that all the winning generals of the Civil War were bearded. So were such giants of their age as Darwin and Freud. Einstein at least had a moustache, not to mention the lush head of hair that has become synonymous with the mad scientist.
The Sixties saw a resurgence of hair, including plenty of beards. Think of Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan (sometimes), Bruce Springsteen (also only sometimes), Jimmy Hendrix, and Mama Cass (just kidding). But since the sixties, beards have fallen into disrepute, and not just because they are favored by Muslim extremists. For instance, feminists make fun of us bearded boys. Witness this excerpt from a website entitled “Facial Hair for Feminists.”
“Men have kept us down long enough and we’re not going to take it. Lets all stand up for our rights and live normal free feminist lives doing what we please. We are intelligent, beautiful, and wise. We can have and do anything a *MAN* can do, and we do it better. That’s why I’ve concocted a new scheme to strip males of a major feature of their masculinity. That’s right girls. Facial Hair! We look so much better then those men with our beards. We can even grow them ourselves, keeping our silky smooth feminine bodies. This may seem radical for some ladies, but it’s your duty as a member of the female race to let go of the standards males have placed upon us, shed those fears and grow some facial hair! It makes you feel like a true woman.” http://www.iamlost.com/features/beard/
Some women in my family beat this feminist to the punch. Electrolysis was their salvation. If this notion ever catches on, I’m going back to shaving.

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