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Bartender barber preserves Tajik craftsmanship and Jewish traditions

Roman and Semion KikirovSEMION Kikirov, 31, the cutting edge, blue-jeaned barber of Lincoln Street, hears lots of stories from clients falling under the spell of his soothing, expert craftsmanship.

His male customers regale him with news of their jobs, kids, grandkids, relationship issues, fast cars and filthy carburetors.

Like a trusted bartender at the neighborhood watering hole, Semion keeps every informational nugget under wraps.

“I am a bartender in a way,” he tells the IJN in a conference room above Semion Barbershop for All, which he opened last year with his brother Roman, 24.

“But what’s good about my job is that people are in much better shape when they come in here,” he laughs. “And they remember who I am the next time we meet.”

An intense, turbulence-tossed man, Semion’s humor twinkles like the first star you see at night. You don’t easily forget it.

Semion and his family are Bukharian Jews, descended from a unique culture that has survived in predominantly Muslim central Asia for 2,000 years.

After the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and the ensuing civil war in Tajikistan, countless Jews left their homeland for the US or Israel.

The Kikirovs, among the last of Tajikistan’s Jews to flee the war-torn region, arrived in New York as refugees in 1999.

Accompanied by his parents, his sister Bella (now deceased) and brother Roman, the 18-year-old Semion utilized the tonsorial skills practiced by four generations of Kikirovs to help support the family in this brave new world.

“I attended law school in Tajikistan, but I realized that being a barber was the only way to make money,” he says. “So I pursued my profession in New York.”

Employed at various shops, he finally hit pay dirt when he was hired at Astor Place, the world’s largest barbershop. Semion cut hair alongside 120 barbers of disparate nationalities. The competition was fierce.

“I was a kid of 18 or 19,” he describes the invaluable experience. “I thought I knew my trade. At Astor Place I learned that you can never know enough in this business.

“You had to be good. You had to be fast. That’s how you established your client base. Astor Place was like a school — the best on-the-job training imaginable.”

In 2001, the Kikirov family moved to Denver, where Semion established a solid reputation at Floyd’s Barbershop. He left after nine years to strike out on his own.

Semion Barbershop for All is exactly that. Despite the mezuzzah affixed to the front door at 507 Lincoln St., one of the owners’ top priorities is incorporating diverse cultures under one roof.

“There are places only black people go to get their hair done,” Semion explains. “There are places only Hispanics will patronize. I don’t want anyone passing my shop to think twice about coming in for a haircut.”

Roman manages the financial end of the business. Recipient of a degree in finance and accounting from DU, he faithfully wears a kipah.

Semion, who lost his hair at age 21 and is now rock-star bald, dispenses with a kipah for practical reasons. “It’s impossible to get it to stay on,” he says.

“You know, it isn’t easy being a bald barber,” he adds with a straight face. “But it’s a lot easier than being a blind barber.”

SEMION’S offers a wide range of services for men and women at surprisingly affordable prices. Unlike some high-end, nose-in-the-air salons, the barbershop puts a humble premium on comfort, value and quality.

“It’s true, I could have gone to an expensive women’s salon,” Semion says. “But it didn’t make sense. First of all, I don’t  pretend I can understand a new client’s hair in an hour and then justify charging her $200.”

He says it’s easy making customers look beautiful in the chair — but heaven help them when they try to duplicate that same look at home.

“When you’re in the chair, I make you beautiful for that moment. But once you get home, wash your hair and try to play with it, you can’t duplicate it. It’s also very important to make sure hair looks good as it grows out.”

The gender line at Semion’s is inviolate. Men receive haircuts from men, and female staffers apply their talents to women.

“I don’t claim to know a woman’s hair needs better than a female stylist,” the barber says. “It’s not logical.”

The barbershop’s menu of services offers delectable options for both sexes.

A 20-something guy might choose the Buzz, a one clipper-size run all over the head, followed by a hot lather razor neck shave.

Then there’s the Face/Head Neck Shave evocative of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story — a classic straight razor shave with hot towel, massage and oils. The only thing that’s missing is a cocktail.

Semion’s color palette for women includes all-over color, highlights, lowlights, custom color formulas and grey blending.

Women’s haircuts are priced according to length. Children 12 and under get a good deal as well.

“Paying less for your hair equals the playing field,” Semion elucidates. “If the stylist acts like a hair guru, you will be afraid to challenge his opinion and request something different.

“But our prices encourage a collaborative relationship. You ask, we accommodate.”

For some, visiting a new stylist for the first time can be a stress-inducing, hair-raising experience.

The master of several languages, the hip barber prides himself on being able to relax clients within the first 15 minutes.

“Laying all your stuff on me restores your energy,” he assures.

The Kikirov brothers dedicated the barbershop to their late sister Bella, also a stylist.

Abstaining from elucidation, they prefer to let the gesture speak for itself.

Tajikistan is a land unto itself. The food is unique. The fashion conforms to centuries of Muslim domination. And the hairstyles — outmoded odes to bygone days  — are 21st-century feathered anachronisms.

“The food is heavy,” Semion says as Roman disappears into delicious memory. “You get big in a few months if you eat it, but it’s very tasty.

“Cooking is labor-intensive. That’s where Jewish women spend most of their time, in the kitchen.”

“The dress is old-school,” says Roman, who seems to prefer taking a backseat to his brother. “Jewish women in Tajikistan have always been influenced by Muslim dress. You won’t see any modern dress on the streets of our country.”

Asked about barbershop and salons in Tajikistan, Semion winces slightly.

“The barber shops looked pretty awful,” he says. “Not good at all. Except it would be a lot cheaper to get your hair cut, of course.”

Roman, yet another Kikirov barber, describes the shops as minimalist — just one chair and one mirror.

“Everyone wore mullets,” Semion says. “For guys, the hair is cut shorter on the side and blends into the length.” The same is true for women, except the hair is feathered on top and segues into longer tresses.

“Where we come from it’s very hot,” Semion says. “So people got their hair cut very short to feel cooler — or because they couldn’t afford regular maintenance and needed that cut to last.”

Perms were popular. Color was unheard of.

And product — a staple of America’s hair industry — consisted of homemade concoctions.

“We did put sugar in water, comb it through the hair and let it dry out,” Semion says with disbelief. “Or we used a dairy mixture for facials.”

“The women,” Roman interrupts, “were more stylish than the men.”

“Yes, I would agree,” Semion smiles.

THE Kikirov brothers, who are both single, attend the Colorado Bukharian Center led by Rabbi Yaakov Abeyev.

While neither one works on Shabbat, there are perceptible differences in how they actualize their Judaism.

Roman is more spirituual than his brother. Every Friday afternoon he wishes a hearty “Good Shabbos” to the shop’s Jewish clientele.

“I rest on Shabbat, I attend shul,” Roman says. “But wearing the kipah is the most obvious thing.

“In Tajikistan, we had the Russian influence mixing with the Muslim influence mixing with the Jewish influence, all at the same time.

“So I feel being a Bukharian Jew is very special.”

Semion is a religious individualist.

“When people ask me to define myself, I say I’m Jewish, not a Bukharian Jew,” he clarifies. “I’m just Jewish. I don’t like labels or titles.

“I stick with my roots, and that’s it.

“Jews like to separate themselves into this kind of Jew or that kind of Jew; observant or less observant.

“But to the anti-Semite, whether you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi is irrelevant. To them you’re Jewish. Nothing else matters.”

Would Semion ever consider going back to Tajikistan for a visit?

“I’ll tell you what,” he answers. “Sometimes I don’t choose the life. It just happens.

“I can’t say I would never return there because that’s the country I came from — and I will never forget where I came from.

“I try to stick to my roots, which can be very hard in America. You get a lot more than you deserve and it blinds your eyes.

“You lose your principles. You get lost.

“As long as I remember who I was, I can keep my life here in perspective and appreciate it even more.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN Senior Writer |

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