Visitors to the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind Museum in Berlin would need to be blind not to notice Haim Hoffman — 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 Hoffman’s strange sprout.
“It’s called ‘The Three-day Freestyle,’” joked Hoffman, the museum’s shift manager.
Hoffman is the German champion for the “Imperial Beard,” in which a sizable mustache-beard arches upward, in the style of German Kaiser Wilhelm. He’ll be defending his bronze medal at the 2017 World Beard and Mustache Championships (WBMC) in Austin, Texas, from Sept. 1-3.
Twenty-seven categories of mustaches and beards will be represented at the WBMC, including “Dali,” “Musketeer,” “Hungarian” and “Freestyle.”
Born in Germany to Polish Holocaust survivors who eventually made aliyah, Hoffman 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 Hoffman hesitates 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, Hoffman said he’s particularly popular with children who visit the venue.
One would think that Jews, with their bearded rabbinic tradition, would be well-represented at these fuzzy competitions. Bryan Nelson, president of the Austin Facial Hair Club and organizer of this year’s WBMC, counts at least a handful of Jewish contenders among the record-high 700 contestants.
Among American champions in the “Freestyle” category is Keith “GandhiJones” Haubrich, who spent his teenage years in Israel.
“I was the only seventh-grader in Tel Aviv with a mustache,” he said in a Skype interview.
Like Hoffman, Haubrich naturally gravitated toward creative facial hair.
“I haven’t seen my upper lip in over 10 years,” he said.
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 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.
Next June, many more Jews will have their big, bearded chance. The 2018 Open European Beard Championships are being held in Tel Aviv. JN