Biblical Archaeology, Barbershop Edition
By Shulem Deen
I’m Benny,” my East Village barber said to me the other week as I settled into his chair. He fumbled with the cape’s snap behind my neck and looked at me in the mirror. “What’s your name?”
Benny was in his 20s, with that urban cool vibe that’s just slightly off for a white dude named Benny.
He put his hand in my hair and tousled it.
“Shulem,” I said.
Benny let go of my hair, and fixed me a look. “You Jewish?”
I shrugged. I should deny it?
His expression was curious. Sharp as any Brighton Beach fellow, he grasped in an instant what others usually don’t. “Shulem” meant more than Jewish. It meant Borough Park, and a wide-brimmed rabbit-fur hat, and expertise with dense text.
He told me about his own Jewishness. “I’ve got a rabbi and everything.” A rabbi and everything. The whole setup. Like it was a car, or a home entertainment system. Latest version plus the add-ons.
He began to buzz my head with the clippers. Clumps of hair fell around me and a few moments of easy silence passed.
“So,” Benny said. “What happened?”
How did one go from “Shulem” to, well, someone like me?
I shrugged and murmured, “Just no longer a believer.”
I try not to say much. I’ve had too many of these conversations.
Benny considered my response for a few moments, then asked, “So what do you do about the papyrus?”
“The one from the archaeology,” he said. “It shows the whole story, you know, the Jews, and the king, and the blood, and the frogs, you know, that whole story—you know the story?”
“I know the story.”
“That whole story. It really happened.”
He seemed like a good guy. He was proud of his Jewishness. He’d been to Israel recently. “Israeli girls? Gorgeous!” But his rabbi told him that if he didn’t believe in Hashem (his term), he’d have no reason to be a good person. “Like, I’ll just go around, and, you know, every girl I see, you know, like, why shouldn’t I?”
Benny finished with the clippers and grabbed the spray bottle. Three expert spritzes produced a perfect cloud of mist that settled into my hair and scalp.
“So the papyrus,” he said again, “that means nothing to you?”
Biblical archaeology was once a particular interest of mine, and I still try to keep up with discoveries, but I hadn’t heard of any new papyri. Believers, of course, often see tantalizing Biblical hints in all sorts of archaeological artifacts, so this wasn’t all that surprising. The old standbys of pseudo-history are still prevalent, as well. “Hasn’t it been proven that Jews built the pyramids?” a religious friend once asked me. He seemed surprised that I would question that established wisdom.
As far as the scholarly consensus goes, though, the pyramids were likely built without a Hebrew in sight. Contemporary Biblical archaeology leans towards skepticism.
But Benny — or Benny’s rabbi — had no use for skepticism.
“You know the papyrus, yeah?”
I did, in fact, know the papyrus.
Or I had a fair guess. I suggested he must be referring to the Ipuwer Papyrus, which describes a period of chaos in ancient Egypt that appears similar to some of the Biblical plagues.
“Does it tell the story of the Jews and the king and that guy—whatshisname?”
“Yeah, Moses. Does it say anything about him?”
“Well, not exactly. But it has some stories that sound a little like—”
“No, no, no, no,” he interrupted. “My rabbi told me this just a few days ago. The papyrus tells the whole story. Exactly like in the Bible.”
He was finishing up, now clipping my eyebrows. “So you’re saying the story never happened?”
“I’m saying the Bible isn’t history. You need another source.”
He pondered this for a moment, then said, “Another source. I got you.” Ah gotchu.
He held up a mirror behind me. I never know why barbers do that. Supposedly, to show you the back of your head, but it always just looks like the back of a head. “Perfect,” I said, thumbs up.
I got up from the chair. A sign at the register said, “NO CREDIT CARDS.”
“I can get you a source.” He sounded conspiratorial, like I’d asked him to procure me some illicit substance. “Let me talk to my rabbi.”
I handed him a twenty.
“I’ll find out about that papyrus,” he said, and counted out four singles in change. “What’s your phone number?” He took out his phone. We were buddies now, I supposed, so I gave him my number.
The next day, I was at the Beacon’s Closet thriftshop in Bushwick when he called.
“Shulem! I got something for you.”
I’m a terrible shopper. I needed some shirts, but instead I was trying on a blazer and checking it out in the mirror. It was perfect, and only twenty-five dollars.
“Let me have it,” I said to Benny. A woman in the next aisle looked up at me.
“I couldn’t get more info on that papyrus,” he said. His rabbi was out of town or something. But he spoke to a different rabbi, who gave him something else. “Ok, you ready?” he asked
He paused for effect. “The Koran.” His tone was triumphant. Scored you big, right?
“The Koran?” I asked.
Silent shoppers passed all around me, and I felt the onset of self-consciousness, as if my voice carried from one end of the cavernous shop to the other.
“The Koran,” Benny said. “My rabbi says it has all the stories about the Jews in Egypt.”
“Well, the Koran—you can’t—” I stammered. “That’s not really the kind of source—”
“Do you know the Koran?” Benny asked, cutting me off. I dropped the blazer over a rack. “You know the Koran or no?” He was getting impatient.
I had to admit, I did not know much of the Koran.
“You make it sound like you know everything!” he said, and I wondered, Did I?
I stepped outside and stood on a corner near Flushing Avenue, with industrial warehouse-type buildings all around me. A pair of Mexican men passed me. I was cold, and was trying to figure out if I should go back inside or go home.
“Dude, it’s all in the Koran. You said you needed a source. I got you a source.”
The woman who’d eyed me from the other aisle was now leaving the store. I still needed shirts. A blast of cold wind blew my hood back, and a city bus lumbered by, drowning out whatever else Benny was saying.
For my next haircut, I thought, I should just be Michael. Like at Starbucks.