I can remember back to a time when I looked forward to covering my hair. It was exciting. So much cooler than a wedding ring. It was a big whopping sign that I’d gotten married. It made me feel special.
But then I started doing it. Every day was a bad hair day. The head coverings damaged and dried out my supersensitive kinky hair. I cried all the time. No matter how bad my hair looked, my husband told me he loved it. But I didn’t. I ended up shaving my head.
What I liked most about having no hair was that I could suddenly wear all those trendy hats I saw women at shul wearing. I could fit in. I didn’t look like that monster from the Alien movies or Marge Simpson because my afro was threatening to explode from underneath my hair covering. I looked like those dazzling women on coveryourhair.com.
But the hair grew back. My husband made me promise I wouldn’t shave it off. He agreed to spend money we didn’t have to support my hair: only the best hair products, only the best hair cuts from curly hair specialists. I became a hardcore lover of Ouidad though I dabbled in Miss Jessie’s and wondered about Devachan.
When I went to get my haircut for the first time since growing back my hair, I took off my head covering which much shame. It was matted, brittle, dry, damaged, disgusting. And embarrassing. It didn’t matter how much product I put into it. When my hair stylist saw my hair come out of my head covering, she couldn’t hide her horror. She gasped.
But nothing could prepare me for what she said after she had combed through it.
“You’re losing your hair,” she said.
“I see it in a lot of my Orthodox clients,” she replied quietly. “Especially the ones who wear wigs.”
“But I’m not wearing wigs,” I told her adding that a wig wouldn’t fit over my hair.
She ran her fingers through my hair. “It’s really thinning,” she said. “See how your hairline has receded?”
I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t looked at my hair for over a year. It was too shameful. But she was right.
After she washed and styled my hair, it looked wonderful. Better than it had in ages. But as soon as she was done, I pushed it back into the large black headscarf my friends made fun of because it was “too frum.” The hair stylist pursed her lips but said nothing.
Covering my hair was ruining my self-esteem, causing my hair to fall out, but I wouldn’t stop. Forget my relationship with G-d or halacha (Jewish law), sadly I was more concerned that not covering it would have made me stick out more. Besides, I knew what people said about women who didn’t cover their hair. Other Jewish women were not “very observant” or “frum” if they stopped covering their hair but as a convert, I feared they would say worst. (See: “Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Are Reversing Conversions By the Fistful”)
I didn’t notice it at first. As a freelance writer, I spent most of my days at home, alone, where I didn’t cover my hair. Outside the home, I found myself tugging listlessly at my head coverings, not just because they were itchy but because my head hurt. Really hurt. I left Shabbos meals because of pain that started at my head and traveled down my neck, my back to the rest of my body. I got headaches no matter what head covering I wore so I made it a point not to go outside for too long where I had to wear them.
Finally, I threw a tantrum at the supermarket because my head and neck hurt so much. They hadn’t hurt so bad half an hour ago. I couldn’t figure out why it was so bad in the supermarket just them. When my fibromyalgia, my chronic pain condition, flared up something fierce, I couldn’t think straight much less be polite.
“You weren’t in this much pain before you left the house,” my husband said. “What happened?”
I touched my head, around that area just above my neck where it felt a sharp knife had been plunged in, and it dawned on me. “I covered my hair,” I said. It was so obvious. I had always been tender-headed. Even headbands had troubled me as a child. But back then, I could carelessly remove my head covering at will. Now I could not. Would not.
“Take the head covering off,” he suggested.
“Here? In public? Are you crazy?” I said.
Again, it wasn’t just Jewish law I was worried about, didn’t he remember what my hair looked like underneath? Instead, we left the supermarket and I shrunk down in the passenger seat of our car, removed my hair covering and cried.
There was another trip to the hair stylist. The update? I was still losing my hair. It was still thinning. It still looked like I’d stuck my finger in an electric socket. And it felt worse.
Before a wedding in Monsey, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York, I sat in a pile of my head coverings. Hats, berets, tichels, bandanas, you name it. If it wasn’t a sheitel (wig) or turban, I owned it. And now, I was crying all over them. No matter what I put on my head, it hurt something awful. And with my longer hair, many of the head coverings didn’t fit anymore. My little sister sat with me, holding my hand, picking out scarves, trying to be helpful. “What about this one?” I shook my head.
We settled on a Rastafarian beret I had purchased at Venice Beach just after getting married. (My husband thought they were cool and “exotic.” And every other hat at the boardwalk hat store hadn’t fit my head no matter how hard the salesman had tried to find something.) I knew that by wearing a Rastafarian beret in Monsey, I might as well have been wearing a big read and black bull’s-eye on my head. But my hair fit in it and while my head still ached, it hurt less.
At the wedding, a sea of expensive sheitels, no one said anything about my beret. Every time someone looked at it and didn’t say anything, I said a little thankful prayer to G-d. When I made it to dessert without a single comment, I exhaled deeply. I had survived.
According to her, it was obvious I was wearing a Rastafarian beret to “make a statement.” I was a rebel! She connected the dots with what little information I had given her after many failed attempts at Jewish geography, a game that is played at Jewish functions as if life as we know it depends on it. And few converts or Jews who didn’t grow up Orthodox can play it well.
Growing up in Washington Heights, if you didn’t have the latest sneakers, you were teased mercilessly. Nasty little children yelled at you: “You’re on welfare! You’re on Food Stamps!!!” In actuality, many of us were on welfare, even the children in shiny new sneakers. But if you looked like you were on welfare and collecting Food Stamps, like I often did when I was wearing my orthopedic shoes paid for by Medicaid and my hand-me-down clothes from distant cousins, then you were targeted.
I heard a rumor recently that some rabbi who has never met me thinks my conversion should be revoked because he heard from someone else that I was either not covering my hair all the time or that I was wearing pants.
There was never a class during the conversion process where a rabbi (or Rebbetzin) sat me down and explained that choosing between a sheitel, a tichel or a headband would make me a part of one Jewish community and a pariah to another. But if you look, apparently this class is being taught on our street corners, at weddings, at bar mitzvahs, and well, everywhere you’ll find a bunch of Orthodox women crowded together bochinchando (that’s what Dominicans call gossiping) about each other.
But does the color of a kippah really tell you whether a person davens with kavannah? Does a sheitel tell you how stringent someone is about keeping kosher or saying after the bathroom? Does a covered or uncovered hair tell you who struggles with or who simply (or with complications) loves covering their hair? To me, being Jewish is about more than the clothes you wear and the head coverings you don or don’t. At least, that’s the Judaism I signed up for, what about you?
JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Journal Fall 2009 on “Body Image” with several articles on hair and hair covering, including a look at a Jerusalem exhibit on hair covering that shows women with and without their head coverings
“Hide & Seek: Jewish Women on Hair Covering” Book by Lynne Schreiber