The Little Dictator (2015), directed by Nurith Cohn

 In 1966-67, I spent the year in Israel studying at a Haredi/ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva. All the rabbis had beards and I decided to grow one as well. I wore a suit jacket every day to the Yeshiva even when it was very hot. It was a uniform in which I felt very comfortable.

When I returned to the States at the end of my year in Israel, I began to feel a dissonance between the way I looked and my religious environment in the US. My teachers in the US were devout and knowledgeable, but they did not have beards. I asked one of them why he did not have a beard. He told me that he felt he could fulfill his Torah teaching mission more easily in America if he were not bearded. A beard for him separated him from his students and he did not want that to happen. The Little Dictator, a short but compelling film, deals with the consequences of shaving off one’s beard. It is a simple tale, both humorous and possessing a profound message.

Yossi Kleinmann teaches history at a local university. His specialty is the study of totalitarian leaders. His students barely pay attention to his boring lectures. On the 90th birthday of his wife’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, he is asked to deliver a word of Torah at the Friday evening Sabbath meal.

His wife asks Yossi to shave his beard before the Sabbath, and he begins to shave with only a short window of time before dusk when Jewish law forbids shaving. Ultimately, he does not have enough time to finish and he is only partially shaven. What he looks like, I cannot say because the spoiler will ruin your enjoyment and appreciation of the film. Suffice it to say that appearances often determine how people react to people, and appearances matter the most to the individual who distinguishes himself by the way he looks.

Rabbi Berel Wein, historian, writes: “There is a long tradition in Judaism for men to have beards. This is based originally on the Torah prohibition against shaving facial hair with a straight razor. Because of this prohibition, it became customary for Jewish males to wear beards and in many circles to also allow their side locks -peyot – to grow uncut.”

A beard was considered by the Talmudic sages to be “the glory of one’s face.” It marked one as being Jewish in contrast to the Catholic clergy that was always clean-shaven. However, in modern times, many Orthodox Jews stopped wearing beards, first, because of the use of depilatory compounds that were available to remove facial hair and, later, because of the invention of the electric shaver. Still, many Jews had beards because it reflected their rejection of modernity in an ever- changing and morally ambiguous contemporary world.

In The Little Dictator, shaving off a beard is consequential, but not necessarily in the way one would think. Yossi Kleinmann gives us a new understanding of facial hair as he perceives it, as his loved ones and friends perceive it, and how his wife’s grandmother perceives it. For her, facial hair on a man’s face has a very particular meaning.

Although appearances do not necessarily telegraph who a person is on the inside, they often give us a clue as to a person’s essence. I now live in Israel. When I lived in the US, I would attend synagogue with a suit, tie, and black fedora. In Israel, in my synagogue, most of the men wear white shirts sans tie, suit, and hat. That does not make them less religious than those who wear a suit and tie. It just means that they express their religiosity differently. That is not a bad thing, for God created us all with the ability to be unique. We are created in His image, but that image does not make us all alike.

The Little Dictator, a brief 28-minute film, is worth watching and thinking about. It is available on YouTube for free.

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