By Larry Gordon
This is a story I have been waiting almost a year to write. It is about my barber, Mel Laregina, who has been cutting the hair on Jewish heads for more than a half-century, and his recent trip to Israel. He returned from his trip last week and if you think that he was talking about it incessantly before he went, well, you ain’t seen or heard nothing yet, so to speak.
Mel is 76 years old. He came to this country from a small town in Italy about 55 years ago at the age of 20. He quickly went to work as a barber and has been plying his craft with panache and expertise for five decades now.
Mel works for the new owner of Your Salon on Central Avenue in Lawrence just across the street from the Seasons supermarket. Boris, who owned a similar shop in Arizona before moving to this area, works well with Mel who used to work side by side with Sal, who cut hair here in the salon in Lawrence for 35 years before selling to Boris and moving to Florida.
So now you know the abbreviated history of the shop where some of the finest heads have their hair cut and have been doing so for many years. Sal and now Boris and Mel are where many of the rabbis in the Five Towns get their haircuts. It has been a staple in the community for years and continues to play that same role under new ownership.
Mel has been dreaming about going to Israel as far back as he can remember. As to why he has felt compelled to go, he says that in part it is because so many people whose hair he cuts tell him about their visits to Israel, which created a curiosity in him that could only be satisfied by making the trip himself.
I spoke with Mel as he was cutting hair on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend. He told me months ago that he was going on a tour and had me go over the itinerary with him. He said that he was happy to be flying El Al and would not have it any other way. After returning, he said that he did not understand why so many of his customers made a point over the last year, since he began to plan the trip, of telling him that they make certain to fly with airlines other than El Al.
“The flight was great and the attendants were very polite and attentive,” he said. When he was checking in at JFK, he thought the El Al security agents’ questions were a little unusual. I don’t know about other passengers, but I know that when we fly El Al, the questions here in New York usually revolve around whether you have relatives in Israel, where they live, what yeshiva you attend in Israel or here in the States, and so on.
They could not ask Mel any questions like that, so they asked him, “Do you know any Palestinians?” Of course, they don’t make those types of inquiries when you fly to Italy or just about anywhere else in the world so he was taken by surprise. I asked him what his response was. He said that he did not know any and did not want to know any. He says the security agent nodded his head with a tiny smirk.
Mel says El Al was great; the service courteous and the food excellent. As to why so many of us on the inside prefer Delta, Swiss Air, and even Lufthansa, that’s a matter for another deeply psychoanalytical essay at another time.
Seeing the Tel Aviv coast from the air was a very emotional moment for him. “This was a dream of mine that was about to come true,” he said. Once they landed, a bus met the tour and they were off to their hotel in Jerusalem. Mel and his tour stayed at the Agripas Boutique Hotel, which, I will venture to say, you have passed many times as you walked around the city but have never entered. (I’ll be happy to place bets on that one).
Mel says he was enamored with just walking around the city and that his tour visited the Kotel area as well as the Temple Mount. They traveled to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as to Ramallah. A non-Jewish tour of Israel and especially Jerusalem can be very different from the places we generally see for ourselves.
He was hoping that, at some point in the nine days that he was in Israel, he would run into one of his long-ago regular barbershop customers, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. While that was unlikely to happen as he walked around the city or traveled around the country, that did not stop Mel from reminiscing about the ambassador’s father, Rabbi Morris Friedman, a’h, the longtime rabbi of Temple Hillel in North Woodmere and a man who was a mainstay in the Five Towns for decades.
“He was a wonderful gentleman,” says Mel, “and I always enjoyed the times we spoke as I gave him haircuts over all those years.”
When I asked Mel to tell me what the best part of his trip was, he thought for a moment and said, “The favorite part of my trip was every moment.” After another minute or so, as he cut a customer’s hair, he went back to the subject and added that the best part of the trip was when he put on a suit and tie and yarmulke and went to the Great Synagogue, a short walk from his hotel, to join the services on Shabbos morning.
Mel says that he was overcome at the thrill of being in shul that Shabbos in Jerusalem. In fact, he adds, he ran into at least one person he knows from the Five Towns. He did not say who was more surprised to see that familiar face there on a Shabbos morning.
As we chatted, Mel was exuberant and so excited that now when those in his barber chair talk to him about Israel, instead of just listening he can talk about his own experience in Israel. Like all of us, he was impressed with the array of young soldiers he noticed just about everywhere he went.
When he returned last week and was telling his friends about his trip to Israel, Mel said that one of his Jewish friends said that it sounded like he was ready to convert to Judaism. I asked if that was actually the case. He stopped cutting the hair of the person in the chair, took a step in my direction, pointed to his head and then his heart, and said, “I feel like I am already Jewish in here.”