chronic pain/fibromyalgia · hair · Hispanics/Latinos · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · rabbi · Rabbi Avi Weiss · Riverdale · wedding

The Rastafarian Beret & Other Adventures in Hair Covering

Growing up, I thought obsessing about hair was a “Dominican thing.” Later, I found out it was also a “black thing.” And after converting to Judaism, I realized it was also a “Jewish thing.”

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.

“What?”

“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.

“Do I have to go to the wedding?” I asked.
My husband nodded.
“Do I have to leave the house?”
My husband insisted I did.

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.

Or so I thought. Until the woman wearing a sheitel next to me leaned over and told me what she thought about my beret.

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.

The dots? “Live in Riverdale.” “Husband in Rabbinical School.” RASTAFARIAN BERET!!!
“Obviously,” the woman said, I was one of those “left-wing-Modern Orthodox-Riverdale-Rabbi Avi Weiss-following-Rastafarian-beret-wearing” women. If I hadn’t felt like crying, I would have laughed. All my close girlfriends in Riverdale who went to the same synagogue, had husbands in the same school, owned expensive sheitels they wore to weddings. None of them owned a Rastafarian beret.

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.

In high school, my guy friends told me that girls who dressed “like sluts” were easy. But I met girls in mini-skirts and halter tops who had never kissed a boy. I know because we started a club for girls who had never been kissed. We even made a pact not to kiss any disgusting boys. We made allowances for club membership for one girl who had been kissed by a disgusting boy against her will. I learned not to judge people by what they were wearing. But that didn’t stop people from judging me.

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.

At one speaking engagement, after I had spent all morning carefully picking out the perfect headband that gave me the least amount of pain, I heard a man in a black kippah and white shirt tell a woman that I was definitely “not Orthodox” because I wasn’t covering my hair. (Indeed, most of the headband had been swallowed up by my voluminous hair but he didn’t even bother to lower his voice within earshot.) Instantly, I felt small, a little girl in Washington Heights again wearing my clunky black shoes.

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?

P.S. Oh, the book I could write on hair covering. And the tongue lashing it would give to every women or man who has commented on any Jewish woman’s hair (especially my afro!) and what is or isn’t on it.

Related:

Coveryourhair.com (Also check out their awesome Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages!)

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

Version 1.0: “The Rastafarian Beret and Other Adventures in Hair Covering”

24 thoughts on “The Rastafarian Beret & Other Adventures in Hair Covering

  1. oh girl, you are singing my song!! GREAT article!! I could just cry right along with you. I am also losing my hair, my husband tells me. I get migraines from most headcoverings and have to choose my scarves/sheitels carefully too. Even after the wig comes off, the migraine pain is usually there to stay for hours. I often wonder if this is what HaShem really intended? I don't understand it at all. I am also shocked and embarressed by the behavior I often see from other Jews. I chose this religion based on the correctness of the Torah. I never imagined I'd encounter so much UN-Torahdik behavorior along the way…from Jews!

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  2. There is a difference between Jewish law and Jewish culture. They should go hand in hand, at time though it is not the case. In reality, a person's level of observance can not be truly measured by an outsider. How can anyone know what spiritual level you are on, how can anyone know what your intention is when doing various actions? As a substitute for mind reading people use external things as indicators of observance. It is wrong for then to do so, but how else do you know who is like you inside, who thinks as you do, and who acts as you act?
    So they think you are a rebel when you dress differently because that is exactly what dressing differently means, an outward sign of internal difference. So while you may be the most perfect person in the world, to them you are a rebel, no matter how much your head aches because of it.

    It is unfortunate and for this reason there is a Halacha to judge people in a meritorious fashion. It is easy to keep this law when there is only one type of Jew, the orthodox one who grew up in the same circumstances as me. However, in this day and age, it is very hard to judge everyone for the good. What does it even mean to judge everyone for the good?

    The bottom line though is that that is all for “the other person” it is their problem if they don't judge you fairly. As for yourself, you do what you gotta do. God knows what your real intentions are.

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  3. Not to be a wise guy (yeah, right) but have you tried a hijab? The women at work who wear them (all Moslem, of course) run around with seemingly perpetual smiles on their faces.

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  4. That's my biggest fear of getting married! Ha!

    I went to high school with a muslim girl who wears hijab. Her mom and her told me it's all about the fabric you're using and how tightly you're wrapping the scarf you wear. I wouldn't feel comfortable covering my neck completely (out of vanity, I have a round face so I think it'd make me look fat – I know, terrible).

    They showed me how to put it on and I also don't find it very comfortable. I'll stick to rasta-berets. I wear them when I'm at school and having a horrible hair day anyway (my hair is super wavy, not like yours, Aliza, but it's usually uncontrollable). I buy looser-hanging ones, though, that are usually crocheted in tan or dark brown.

    Great post, Aliza! 🙂

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  5. I cover my hair on a regular basis, not every day but more often then not. It’s something I’ve done since high school (before I knew anything about Judaism) because I thought it made me look pretty. I thought nothing of it until I started getting more involved with the Jewish community. People asked me if I was married (something I thought was very strange since hair covering, at least to my knowledge, means nothing in Dominican culture). To my surprise, a lot of people found my head covering habit to be quite honorable, impressive even. The hardest thing for most women to do when they get married is cover their hair and it’s something I do, to spite being single, because I truly like it. I’m still in the process of converting and when it comes to trying to fit in, I don’t even bother anymore. I wear what I want, say what I want, act the way I want and so on.
    Uno no puede vivir pa’ la gente. La gente no sabe na’! jaja
    As for trying to get a hair covering to fit you, what I do is gel my hair down before hand and tie it in a pony tail. Then I put the head covering on like this: http://i192.photobucket.com/albums/z215/oOAnnichkaxX/Me/_MG_8909copy.jpg

    Maybe you can try that.

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  6. I also get headaches from having anything on my head. The most I can manage is a crocheted kipa that I keep in place with one bobby pin while davening. Anything hurts. Horribly. On a good day I can do clips for a short while.

    It can be easy for people who don't experience the level of pain that we do to judge us.

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  7. Ay nena. I don't know what to tell you. What I want to tell you is what I shouldn't tell you so really, I really don't know what to tell you.

    I was looking around, because I know plenty of afro hijabis and I found this link. http://thehijablog.wordpress.com/2008/09/21/how-to-wrap-a-gravity-defying-hijab

    Maybe you could use a modified version of this. Or maybe just the beginning part where the scarf is just covering her hair and is simply pinned in place and left hanging? Maybe pinning instead of tying your scarf can be less painful?

    **cyber hugs**

    I hope you find a less painful way to cover you hair hun.

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  8. Um, that link is supposed to teach you how to wrap a 'gravity defying hijab' not how to wrap 'gravity defying' hair. If you guys saw my hair in person on a good day, you'd understand.

    And trust me, I didn't write this piece so people could inundate me with suggestions on how to cover my hair. That's the least of my problems.

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  9. I won't give you any suggestions for hair covers; I'm sure you've tried them all! I'm so sorry that you have to deal with such awful things that people say, and so frequently. I'm sure I wouldn't be able to handle it as well as you have.

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  10. “There was never a class during the conversion process where a rabbi sat me down and explained that choosing between a sheitel, a tichel or a headband would make me part of one Jewish community and make me unseemly to another.”

    The rabbis who omitted this discussion did you a very, very big disservice, that's for sure. (I know and like the people in question.)

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  11. According to a frum-book I recently consulted, back in the old days, Jewish women not only wore something akin to a hijab, but they donned facial veils as well. Personally I loathe the thought of a veil, but I find hijabs to be rather cool, not to mention that some of the younger Moslem women on the campus where I work look elegant in their hijabs – no kidding. Also, more recently, Jewish women living in places like Iraq wear hijabs, I assume only because it's forced on them by the local Moslem authorities. As for springy Dominican hair, I know nothing. Have you considered straightening it (uh oh)?

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  12. No, no, 100%, Judaism is not a fashion show and there are many more important things to discuss, but it should have been part of the acculturation curriculum. Because–obviously–it's an issue.

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  13. I suppose part of the problem is that most rabbis are not willing to say, “I hope you will always cover your hair according to the strict letter of the law. But if you don't, here are the styles that you can get away with, and here are those that will get you called a colossal goy.” That is where a good peer group at the time of converting can really help.

    Although mostly these “studies” bore me to tears, I would bet that connection to peers during conversion prep is a better indicator of happiness/level of observance 5 or 10 years out than connection to rabbis (however important the rabbis obviously are).

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  14. WOC do not have to chemically alter their hair to follow halachah. Ever.

    Not to cover if they choose

    Not for the mikvah (don't get me started on horror stories I've heard)

    Never.

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  15. Knowing that a rabbi believes your conversion should be revoked is bad enough. A rumor implies that the rabbi let everybody except you know what was on his mind is especially troubling.

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  16. I think the problem any decent rabbi has is: does he tell you as things are, or as they should be?

    Imagine you're a Modern Orthodox rabbi, and someone asks you about Judaism's view of secular learning and non-Jews. Do you teach them what you believe is the truth – that we following Rambam on secular learning ( = secular learning is awesome!) and Meiri on gentiles ( = everything Jewish literature says bad about gentiles is directed only towards ancient immoral heathens) – or do you teach them what most Orthodox Jews believe – R' Elhanan Wasserman or Hazon Ish on secular learning ( = avoid it like the plague) and Tanya and Maharal and Kuzari on gentiles ( = Jews and gentiles have totally different kinds of souls, and maybe gentile souls are even from “the dark side”, sitra ahra)?

    Either which way you go, you're being dishonest. Now, the ideal path would be to teach them everything, like you're all in some sort of Jewish history course, where you teach everything like it is, for good or for bad. But I doubt most converts have the time to learn all this.

    I never knew that hair-coverings could cause pain for women. (Personally, I've only suffered from sweat and heat, but I guess being a guy who shaves his head with a 1/4 inch guard, I shouldn't be surprised that my hair doesn't cause me pain.) I think this is all a very good reason for us to support Rabbi Yosef Messas and Rabbi Isaac S. Hurewitz, who said women no longer have an obligation to cover their hair anymore, at all.

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