Holy Mascara!
Tue, 12/13/2011
Special To The Jewish Week

The Bible as a moral guide, the Bible as a record of historical events, the Bible as God’s revelation to man — yes. But the Bible as the original Glamour Magazine?

Yes! According to “Biblical Beauty: Ancient Secrets and Modern Solutions” (Anbern Press) by Rachelle Weisberger, the Bible provides excellent advice for everything from keeping your skin hydrated to the importance of choosing a good lipstick and mascara before heading out for that black-tie event. 

The notion that the Bible supports and encourages a woman to beautify herself with “artificial” means is a perspective in direct opposition of the fundamentalist Christian faith in which I grew up. On the contrary, according to my church of origin, the Bible forbade make-up. I still recall that fateful day in 1980 when the minister screamed from the pulpit: “Women, you are leading the church away from God with your make-up! Women, it’s because of YOU that Jesus cannot return! Your make-up is an abomination!  Throw it out!” he shouted, as if it were a bomb ready to detonate. 

Not only was my mascara preventing Jesus from returning — but, according to the minister, wearing make-up was tantamount to rebelling against God — just like Lucifer, who had rebelled and had fallen and become the Devil himself. In that cheerful pink tube of Maybelline mascara lurked Lucifer.

That sermon was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the church and with Christianity. Yet, over the years, I’ve continued to be curious about what, really, is the biblical stance on make-up or personal adornment, and if, in fact, the Bible actually has a stance. The church justified its dogma by referencing Jezebel, a Baal-worshipper and the foreign-born wife of the Israelite King Ahab. Jezebel, who painted her eyes and had a propensity for persecuting the prophets, was surely proof that make-up was inherently related to idolatry and pure evil. 

“Biblical Beauty,” on the other hand, takes the biblical text as well as archaeological discoveries, biblical commentary and historical research, to make a case for the Bible’s endorsement of the use of beauty aids in general. The book offers an accessible and interesting perspective on what make-up products our female ancestors might have put on their faces, how they wore their hair, perfumed themselves, protected their skin and got themselves all decked out for their daily lives as well as for weddings and going to the Temple. 

So, for example, there’s Esther, who was known for soaking for an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub. What took her so long?  Well, there was a lot a girl had to attend to before meeting the king, not least of which was perfuming herself with oils.  Weisberger, who is a cosmetologist, make-up artist and skin-care specialist, uses this particular biblical story as a jumping-off point to provide a historical background on perfume and fragrance. She cites references in Psalms and Proverbs that attest to the use of fragrance on clothing and bedding, then delves further back into the Latin origin of the word itself: per (through) and fumum (smoke). Perfume was nothing more than incense, or sacred scents used as offerings to deities. A street called Shuk ha-Besamim, the street of spices, “still exists in the Old City of Jerusalem, a reminder of the perfume shops that thrived there thousands of years ago,” Weisberger writes.

Unlike the women of ill repute in the Talmud, who put myrrh and balsam oils in their shoes “so the scent would drift upward and arouse passion in passersby,” women today have a lot of choices when it comes to perfume. Weisberger guides the consumer through the nuts and bolts of modern perfumery, and offers tips on aromatherapy.

Each chapter is organized more or less in that fashion: Bathsheba is the biblical model for skin care; Deborah, who sat in the shade under a tree when she judged Israel, for sun care; Rebecca for jewelry and Judith for hair care. The many various modern solutions and suggestions that follow each subject — i.e., caring for jewelry, a recipe to combat hair loss — are practical and easy to understand, and serve as a bridge between the ancient and modern world. 

Biblical beauty couldn’t be complete without a mention of inner beauty. These less visible qualities such as spirituality, strength and self-confidence are also trademarks of biblical women like Miriam, Deborah and Esther, who lived lives of purpose. 

Weisberger’s inspiration to combine two of my favorite subjects —“Biblical” and “Beauty” — is as ingenious as mixing peanut butter and chocolate. There’s something inherently exciting about learning that the Assyrians were the first hairdressers, or that 5,000 years ago the Egyptians were writing down remedies for thinning hair (“toes of a dog” and “hoof of an ass”) on papyrus. It’s nice to be reminded that for biblical women, being “religious” and looking good weren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, Isaiah describes women as being dressed in lace gowns and shawls and wearing rings on their noses, ears and fingers, and the Song of Songs woman has “scarlet lips.” 

Whether the Bible can or should be used as a beauty guide is debatable, in my opinion. But “Biblical Beauty” certainly succeeds in tracing today’s multi-billion-dollar beauty industry back to its roots in Mesopotamia and Egypt, two places the people of the Bible had much contact with. Now, whenever I so carefully apply coats and coats of mascara to my pale lashes before going to a bar mitzvah, I’m reminded not only of the timelessness of the Bible but also how we women haven’t changed so very much, after all.