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August 22, 2017 3:00 pm

Jewish Beard Growers Strive to Be the Face of Global Facial Hair Showdown

avatar by Orit Arfa / JNS.org

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Haim Hoffmann, a German champion for the “Imperial Beard,” at the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind Museum in Berlin. Photo: Orit Arfa.

JNS.org – Visitors to the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind Museum in Berlin often meet Haim Hoffmann when they enter. He always asks them to leave their backpacks at the reception desk before entering this former brush factory, which was used to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The visitors also notice Hoffmann’s weird beard.

“You should try that,” a Jewish tourist from Florida told her husband, pointing to Hoffmann’s strange sprout.

“It’s called the ‘Three-day Freestyle,’” Hoffman, the museum’s shift manager, says when talking about his scraggly hair growth. He should know.

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Hoffman wears an “Imperial Beard” — the kind of mustache-beard that arches upward, in the style of the German emperor, Wilhelm. He’ll be defending the bronze medal at the 2017 World Beard and Mustache Championships (WBMC) in Austin, Texas, from September 1-3.

Twenty-seven categories of mustaches and beards will be represented at the WBMC, including the Dali, Musketeer, Hungarian and Freestyle.

Born in Germany to Polish Holocaust survivors who eventually made aliyah, Hoffmann came to Berlin in 1970 with a scruffy mustache for a “post-army trek.” Neither the mustache nor the trek ever ended. With stints as a truck driver and bar owner, he eventually made his professional home at the workshop museum in 2001, and started competing in mustache and beard competitions in 2012.

Yet Hoffmann doesn’t like to take attention away from the museum’s righteous namesake, Otto Weidt, also known as the “blind Schindler.”

Speaking with JNS.org in Hebrew at the artsy courtyard outside the museum, Hoffmann said that he’s particularly popular among children who visit the venue. Occasionally, he overhears young Israelis talk about his beard in Hebrew, not imagining that he’s Israeli.

“They say, ‘Oh, my God! See how he looks! What is that? What kind of shape is that?’” Hoffmann said.

When he surprises them by speaking in Hebrew, they turn apologetic. “They start to say, ‘It’s nice, it looks cool.’ At the end, they ask, ‘Could we take a picture of you?’” he said.

Among the American champions in the Freestyle category is Keith “Ghandi Jones” Haubrich, who spent his teenage years in Israel.

“I was the only 7th-grader in Tel Aviv with a mustache,” he said in a Skype interview, surrounded by his cats. Those cats inspired two winning mustaches: one in the shape of whiskers, and the other in the shape of a black cat.

Like Hoffmann, Haubrich naturally gravitated towards creative facial hair. “I haven’t seen my upper lip in over 10 years,” he said.

Haubrich currently works as a waiter in Seattle. He is an atheist, but considers himself Jewish by culture — and humor.

Another WBMC competitor, Regev Nyström of Chicago, has Israeli roots; his mother was born in Kiryat Gat. Today, he’s active in his local Reform synagogue.

“A lot of people are hardly shocked when they find out I’m Jewish, and they [think] I’m more Orthodox than I am because of the beard. This isn’t a problem until someone starts trying to speak to me in Yiddish,” Nyström said.

And while haredi Jews with long, traditional beards may be prime candidates to enter facial hair contests, there are Jewish restrictions on such practices.

Styling beards sometimes involves shaving the hair with a blade, which is forbidden according to the code of Jewish law. That code — the Shulchan Aruch — also sets limits on how much time a man can spend primping himself in front of a mirror, in order to avoid vanity. Hoffman, for example, spends about 45 minutes every morning styling his beard with a blow dryer, after applying beard oil to soften it overnight.

But perhaps the rabbinate could give permission for Nystrom’s next idea: “I’m … contemplating a Magen David,” he said.

More Jews and Israelis may soon be able to participate in beard contests. Next June, the 2018 Open European Beard Championships are being held in Tel Aviv.

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