By Orit Arfa/JNS.org
Visitors to the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind Museum in Berlin would need to be blind not to notice Haim Hoffmann — or rather, his weird beard — as he asks them to leave their backpacks at the reception desk before entering this former brush factory that was used to save Jews during the Holocaust.
“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, joked about his scraggly hair growth.
Hoffman should know. He’s the German champion for the “Imperial Beard” — in which a sizable mustache-beard arches upward, in the style of German Emperor Wilhelm. He took second place at the 2017 World Beard and Mustache Championships (WBMC) in Austin, Texas, in September.
Twenty-seven categories of mustaches and beards are represented at the WBMC, including Dali, Musketeer, Hungarian and Freestyle. (No, there isn’t a “Hitler” category.)
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 museum in 2001 and started competing in mustache and beard competitions in 2012. But Hoffmann doesn’t like to take attention away from the museum’s righteous namesake, Otto Weidt, also known as the “blind Schindler,” even though it’s inevitable.
Speaking in Hebrew at the artsy courtyard outside the museum, Hoffmann said he’s particularly popular among children who visit the venue. Occasionally, he overhears young Israeli women talk about his beard in Hebrew, not imagining he’d be Israeli.
“They say, ‘Oh, my God! See how he looks! What is that? What kind of shape is that?'” Hoffmann said.
When he’d surprise them with Hebrew, they’d turn apologetic. “Then they start to say, ‘It’s nice, looks cool.’ At the end, they ask, ‘Could we take a picture of you?'” he said.
One would think that Jews, with their religion’s bearded rabbinic tradition, would be well-represented at fuzzy competitions. Bryan Nelson, president of the Austin Facial Hair Club and organizer of this year’s WBMC, counts at least a handful of “Members of the Tribe” among the record-high 700 contestants. In fact, a judge and leader in the female category — don’t worry, female beards are fake! — is Jewess Jodi Mitnick of New Jersey, founder of “The Whiskerinas,” a women’s beard and mustache society.
Among 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 while sitting on his bed, with three of his cats crawling over him. His cats inspired two winning mustaches: one in the shape of whiskers, the other in the shape of a black cat.
Like Hoffmann, Haubrich naturally gravitated toward creative facial hair.
“I haven’t seen my upper lip in over 10 years,” he said.
Currently working as a waiter in Seattle, Haubrich is an atheist, but considers himself Jewish by culture — and humor.
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 guess I’m more Orthodox than I am because of the beard — not 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 such contests, there are Jewish restrictions.
Styling such beards sometimes involves shaving the hair with a blade, which is forbidden according to the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. The Shulchan Aruch also sets limits on how much time a man can spend primping himself in front of a mirror, 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 a concession for Nystrom’s next idea: “I’m still contemplating a style — possibly a Magen David?”
Next June, many more Jews will have their big, bearded chance. The 2018 Open European Beard Championships are being held in Tel Aviv.