פאה Peyot are an iconic sign of Jewishness.
The stiff, cylindrical coil of curls wagging on either side of a man's face. Or maybe a relatively inconspicuous length of hair, at the sideburns. Perhaps the more secretive styles, such as a tuft tucked behind the ear. These are all manifestations of פאה peyot, which arose from a mitzvah.
לֹא תַקִּפוּ, פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם; וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית, אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ
[do-not attack edge (peyot) head; and-do-not corrupt the edge beard]
Shaving the edges is considered an idolatrous practice.
Do not remove the entire beard. CCN177 Do not round the corners of the head (traditionally the area between the ear and beard, manifested as פאה peyot). CCN176 (Considered idolatrous practices.)
My פאה peyot
When thinking about Jewishness, I felt that symbols were important.
Accepting Jewish symbols as part of my life not only brought me closer to the Jewish community, but also set me apart from the larger world. So iconic are the kippah and פאה peyot that before I'd even read about halacha, I'd already bought a kippah and started contemplating my פאה peyot.
As I read more, I became drawn to the פאה peyot.
I soon learned that the kippah was a cultural tradition and not a commandment like the פאה peyot (and zizith). Yet I right away started wearing a kippah. I felt like I was owning and asserting my Jewish identity. I remembered the times I had gone to synagogue and seen men put on public kippahs, then returned them to a basket before leaving, tacitly saying, Time to take off this thing! But by wearing my kippah when I left the house, and taking it off only when I was getting ready for bed, I felt like I was saying, No! I am not Jewish only on special occasions. I am Jewish all the time But I forgot to wear it one day and never put it back on for several months, and also stopped studying the Torah. To put the kippah back on was to also admit that I had disappointed myself -- and maybe someone or something else -- because to wear it was to constantly remind myself, and to remain vigilant, and to put it back on after an extended period felt like I was admitting I had not so much made a mistake, as not lived up to my full potential, that I had let things slide, which was perhaps more embarrassing in many ways than an entirely accidental mistake.
But while my kippah underwent vicissitudes, my פאה peyot kept growing.
They were not distinctly recognizable as פאה peyot for the first few months. It felt like they were gestating. I learned to protect them. I even started cutting my own hair after a few careless barbers carelessly set back my peyot progress. And it was a comfort that no matter how distant I became from studying and thinking about Judaism, my peyot were there. I could touch them. Just being kosher was a big transition from the start of the year. It was like that, a series of conscious decisions that felt right, made sense, and which brought me to more decisions.