A lesson in art, observation, history, and minhag

You can engage in an exercise we had at a tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a sample of how works of art are shown to policemen to sharpen their powers of observation. The picture below was not used in that tour, but I select it deliberately as one of the things policemen have to do is note objective rather than subjective facts. So think of what you see in this portrait. You can jot it down. Now, let me guess. You took this to be a representation of a family. And you would be correct. This portrait by Renoir is titled Madame Georges Charpentier (née Marguérite-Louise Lemonnier, 1848–1904) and Her Children.

Now, during the tour for policemen, we were instructed not to read any of the information posted next to the paintings. But I did give something away here. Now think about the title and what it gives away that you may not have thought of just from observing the picture itself. Would your title for the painting use a different word? If you know a bit about the time period you may have guessed what I am driving at.

Did you get it?

The portrait is of a mother and her children, not of a mother and her daughters. The two children are a daughter and son. Georgette-Berthe (1872–1945) and Paul-Émile-Charles (1875–1895). Given the years, you should be able to conclude that the smaller child is Paul. Indeed, the gallery label reads: "Wearing an elegant Worth gown, Marguérite Charpentier sits beside her three-year-old son, Paul. Following the fashion of the time, his hair has not yet been cut and his clothes match those of his sister, Georgette, who perches on the family dog." You can check that out for yourself at the museum or online at http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art/collection_database/Madame_Georges_Charpentier_nee_Marguerite-Louise_Lemonnier_1848_1904_and_Her_Children_Georgette-Berthe_1872_1945_and_Paul-emile-Charles_1875_1895__Auguste_Renoir/ViewObject.aspx?OID=110003528&pgSz=1

And why do I bring up this point? It is proof that the practice of delaying a boy's first haircut was not uniquely Jewish at all, though the age at which a boy was"breeched" [taken out of dresses and put into pants along with getting a short haircut] was sometimes 5 rather than 3, as I believe it was for FDR. But the idea of marking the difference between boys and girls at a particular age seems quite similar to me. Just the rest of the world dropped it soon after entering the 20th century.

Admittedly, my ancestors were not Hungarian, so the upsherin practice is not one of my own. The Yekkes actually have a different ceremony to mark a boy's maturity involving a wipple to be used in shul. That is tied to a child's ability either to walk to shul on his own (no eruv in Yekke land) or to his having mastered the skills that usually precede getting tzitzis. But I don't think my brothers did that, no did they have their sons do it. In fact, my brother who lives in Israel does the upsherin because that is what is expected in his circles.


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