hair · Hispanics/Latinos · jews of color · mikvah · money · race/racism

The Mikvah and "Black" Hairstyles

I’d like to respond to a number of issues in this post. For one, I’d like to respond to a number of criticisms of my video post, “Going to the mikvah with your ‘nappy’ hair”.



1. Too negative.
I hate this criticism. Heehee, H-A-T-E. I feel like I hear it every time I write something critical of the Jewish community or critical of anything really. People want you to talk and walk softly, make it pretty, make it less ugly. But I’m not that kind of writer. I’m blunt. I tell it like it is. My husband’s been trying to get me to talk and walk soft for over three years and well, you can see how it’s going….
In this video, I wasn’t highlighting something positive about the mikvah, but something negative and so indeed, I was negative in the video. Duh.
2. Making a big deal out of something small.
This is not a small issue, as I pointed out in the video, to women with hair like mine. It is one thing to get criticized about your hair when you’re fully clothed, it is quite another to get criticized when you are completely naked in front of a complete stranger. Get it? Good.
(Incidentally, a white Jewish friend told me a mikvah lady has commented repeatedly rather unfavorably on her body parts! Apparently, someone’s got to start “mikvah lady sensitivity training”!)
3. This makes me want to never go to the mikvah!
Oy vey, this was certainly never my intention. I hope that the fact that I continue to write critical things about the Orthodox Jewish community but very much so maintain my membership in the Orthodox Jewish community shows how much I love Judaism in spite of the criticisms I have.
I love going to the mikvah. Yes, really. Every single time, it’s a reminder of the first time I went for my conversion ceremony and how far I’ve come since then. Often, I wish I could languish in the mikvah and focus on that instead of doing a hit-and-run-dip as so frequently happens.
Do I have criticisms about niddah and “family purity”? Yeah? So? Who doesn’t? I’ve never met a woman who thought that being in niddah was awesome (though many women will tell you that keeping the laws of family purity does affect their relationship with their husband in not just negative but positive ways).
4. I said detangling my hair without conditioner was barbaric.
My rabbi agreed. After three years of pulling out my hair LITERALLY, I talked to him about this issue because I finally formulated it into a simple question: “Can I use conditioner to comb through my hair and then shampoo it out?” Duh. (Update: Many people have contacted me to say that one can use conditioner and NOT have to shampoo it out.)
5. This isn’t a criticism but I want to point out, I did not feel comfortable talking about mikvah issues on my blog. I learned really early on that talking about “going to the mikvah” was just not done in the Orthodox Jewish community because doing so is seen as immodest for many reasons, including that your mikvah visits are supposed to between you, your husband and the mikvah lady. I decided to write/talk about this issue after many friends coerced me.
Okay, that’s it for my response to the criticisms about my video.
Part 2 of “Going to the Mikvah with your ‘Nappy’ Hair”:

First, let me state that I am not black. Yes, according to outdated American standards of race, the one-drop rule means that I have enough African ancestry that I could go around calling myself black. (Though many-most-people would just roll their eyes and look at me, and my light skin, with confusion). As someone of Dominican ancestry, I am multiracial…black, white and a little sprinkle of everything else (native American possibly if they weren’t all dead by the time the Spaniards, well, you know).
So once again, I am not black. And despite this, I am going to write about an issue that is considerably out of my depth and I probably should have waited until after watching “Good Hair” to write about. Mostly, I’m writing this because no one seems to be writing about this. I know. I’ve Google-ed.
A number of African-American Jewish unmarried women and prospective converts have told me that they are concerned about how “going to the mikvah” will effect how they will be able to style their hair. (And please, please, stop yourself before you react with: just shave your head! Just shave your head! Just shave your head! What’s the big deal? Just shave your head! Why are black women so obsessed with their hair? Shave your head! Wear a wig! Straighten your hair! SO NOT HELPFUL!)
As I should probably clarify, when you go to the mikvah, your hair needs to be squeaky clean and combed through so that nothing gets between you and those mikvah waters.
The first time I heard this, I thought…well, if I was still regularly straightening my hair, would this mean that I would have to get my hair done AFTER going to the mikvah every month? Probably. Interesting. Possibly “inconvenient.”
But my African-American friends thought…well, um, this means I can’t wear my hair in dreadlocks, braids, cornrows, weaves and a whole manner of other hairstyles that I, as a Latina who had only two options growing up: straightened or not (and therefore pulled into painful ponytails), cannot even imagine or name.
In my understanding, the issue is NOT JUST the expense, the time and more of having to change your hairstyle and then flip back and forth and back and forth and back. It is a question of whether (again, please read sensitively) WE MUST DO WHATEVER WE CAN FOR HALACHA (Jewish law) EVEN IF IT UNINTENTIONALLY disenfranchises black women. Something about this makes my stomach hurt. It’s…disturbing to me, I’m not even sure how to articulate why. And would the rules be different if the people explaining these laws were themselves black women?

(Update: Some people, not the lovely people that commented, said yes, we must do whatever we can for halacha no matter how it disenfranchises any woman. I was told to “Suck it up!” Oh, thanks. So helpful. Thanks. That was sarcasm, by the way.

A Shabbos spent perusing the latest newsletter from the
JOFA: Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance makes me wonder otherwise. Am I an Orthodox Jewish feminist after all? Just because I think women should have…options? And just because I’m wondering what those options are within the bounds of Jewish law? I mean, why is it that every other curly-haired married woman is STILL being told that she CAN’T use conditioner in her hair to prepare for the mikvah?)
If I brought this issue up with a rabbi (or even most rabbis), he might pass out. I don’t think they’re ready to conceive that Jewish laws around mikvah use might be infringing on the right for a woman to wear her hair any way she damn well pleases. One rabbi probably still has post-traumatic stress disorder from dealing with my many questions about my issues with headcovering.
So, I probably shouldn’t mention to him that maybe, to me at least, this all looks a little bit racist/racial or at the very least, Euro-centric (because how many white European rabbis ever had to deal with women’s hair issues much less “black” hair issues?).
Am I starting a fire where there is no cause to? Sigh. Okay, now you can tell us to shave our heads (not!).
A fan, and friend, Ann Ephrat Lapin, noted on my Facebook page:

“My dad told of the Abayudaya women all having gone out to have corn rows put in prior to their (rabbis’) arrival…then the rabbis having to insist they remove them before immersing. The rabbis felt so bad, they paid for them to get their hair done again after the mikvah.”

So, when your rabbi pays for your hairstylist because of mikvah-related issues, that means you’re “tight,” no?

50 thoughts on “The Mikvah and "Black" Hairstyles

  1. “It is a question of whether (again, please read sensitively) WE MUST DO WHATEVER WE CAN FOR HALACHA (Jewish law) EVEN IF IT UNINTENTIONALLY disenfranchises black women.”

    You make a really great point about how this point of halacha is disenfranchising for particular group of Jewish women – Jewish women who are already struggling for respect and visibility within a community that seems to lack any clue at all about JoC. I laughed when you wrote about how your rabbi would pass out. Yeah, maybe rabbis are not ready to deal with this point – and not even because it is an issue pertaining to disenfranchisement but because it is an issue pertaining to the
    mikveh. Throwing disenfranchisement and cultural issues in there just makes it more terrifying.

    Though, how can they be okay with examining cloths and the fine points of that whole thing, and not want to actually TALK about issues? One seems more personal/immodest than the other, frankly, and it ain't the talking!

    There is a lot about Orthodox Judaism that seems to disenfranchise women of any color. Please note that I am NOT dismissing your main point (just diverging for a second). I actually prefer women's only space in shul, as a feminist and activist within several overlapping communities, I feel that creating safe space for women is important. But it has to be inclusive of ALL women. No, what I mean by that statement is that there seems to be a lack of willingness to hear women's voices overall and I think your very real and nuanced point could get lost in that general reluctance to listen. I wonder if you were to bring this up about the mikvah and women of color, if it would get hand waved away as in, “Yeah, yeah, we know, you women and your issues…” and dismissed. A lot of issues that are not related at all seem to get lumped into this category of “Angry women making noise.” as a way to make them go away. Make it pretty, as you say.

    “Angry women making noise.” plus “Uncomfortable point about inclusiveness and culture and privilege that we don't want to deal with.” plus “OMGTEHMIKVAH and modesty.” all seem to add up to not a lot of fruitful discussion. Maybe women need to have the discussions themselves, reach consensus, and then storm the mikvah with torches and pitchforks and inform the mikvah lady of the changes that need to be made.

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  2. I'm not an expert on the laws of mikva'ot and tevila, but the basic general principle, as far as I know, is:

    Anything that is not part of your body must be removed, especially things that “bother” you, and that a gentile who never goes to mikvah would also want removed. (The technical term for such things is “mehitzah”.)

    For example: if you get ink on you, you have to try to wash it off. But if you work with ink for a living, then you do NOT have to wash it off, because it is presumed you are used to it and are no longer bothered by it.

    Given that hair and its styles are
    (1) Part of your body, and
    (2) Something you do NOT want removed or undone
    it seems clear to me that therefore, cornrows and dreadlocks and such should be no impediment to proper immersion.

    I'm not a rabbi, nor do I really know anything much about the relevant halakhot, but the above is what seems to me based on what little I know.

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  3. Ok, here's what I don't get: Moshe Rabbainu's wife, Zipporah, was said to be dark/Kushite/African, and I know she can't have been the only Jewish woman in the history of Torah observance with African-style hair. In fact, I've even known a couple of Ashkenazi women with the exact same hair curls & texture as Ethiopians (which in my experience is a little different than more Southern African hair like I expect Zippora had.) Anyway, it can't always have been this way–disenfranchsing. No women should be told she has to shave her head or go through physical pain with her hair on a regular basis to fulfill halacha. It's bad enough we have to get bald spots from covering our hair! That is physically & emotionally taxing, to say the least. I really have to wonder if the rabbinical authorities are looking at this situation from a full historical perspective. It can't always have been this way. Is there a rabbi who's going to pay to have a black woman's hair redone after EVERY mikvah dip each month of her life?? I think not. It's time for a real solution.

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  4. At one point before my first marraige i wanted to get hair extensions so that my hair would be nice and long for the wedding. I was told that the knots that they tie in order to attach the hair is a chatzitzah, an impediment, a barrier btw mikvah waters and the hair, and would not be considered acceptable.

    being a very white Jewess with thin hair I am trying to imagine the struggles you have had with your hair, and that others have when their hair doesn't fit the norm.

    i would be very interested to hear what a rabbi would have to say on this topic.

    Kol HaKavod lach Aliza for bringing up this topic.

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  5. With 100% caution and respect, I would wonder whether anyone knows of a real, live woman who _already_has_ dreads, twists, etc. and was ordered tout court to cut them off for the mikveh. There are mainstream poskim who allow dunking with a birth control patch because it's meant to stay on. I would be very surprised if these very same rabbis would not permit dunking with dreads that are already there. See Mikewind Dale's comment. I'm not saying this is a paper tiger, but I would still be curious to hear from an actual person w/preexisting dreads.

    Re: shaving one's head, of course it's a racist response, but it does also have a “purely” misogynist/frummer-than-thou element. Many chasidic groups shave, chasidim are really frum, and frum is good, right? I am not downplaying the racism, just giving it misogynist context.

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  6. There may also be a difference btw. dreads made only of one's own hair vs. braids or twists that include extensions or other fibers. Remember, these battles are fought legalism by legalism…

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  7. Ive noticed often that people in the orthodox Jewish community tend to think in very black and white terms. That is, if you critisize a small aspect of a mitzvah that must mean you hate doing that mitzvah and you feel like it's horrible and will never follow it again!! But really, the fact that you are upset about it just shows that you are human and that you actually have MORE love for the mitzvah because you do it even though it is hard. The world is not black and white, it is many shades of gray.

    so PLEASE keep posting things on your blog whether they may upset people or not. They are really informative and necessary in our community!

    Also, I wonder what was decided for african israeli women and the mikvah. even the fact that youre asked to comb through your hair seems strange to me because whats the point? it curls right back up again.
    so i wonder if the rules apply the same way in a place were there are more african-jewish women…

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  8. Sarah, the last quote in the post, is a real life story of where women were asked to remove their cornrows before entering the mikvah.

    How can we expect that a woman with dreadlocks would be treated any differently? And I have, indeed, spoke to women who have been told by rabbis that they cannot wear dreadlocks to the mikvah.

    What I am hoping to illuminate with this post is that perhaps things would be very different if the people in charge of the mikvah and of the rules surrounding it were black women who know they need conditioner in their hair when they comb it, who know that it is no simple feat to switch out from one hair style to the next from month to month.

    Of course, there maybe a misogynist context to some of this but I don't deal with those issues on this blog as much as I do with race.

    It is one thing to grow up from childhood to expect that you will have to shave your head at one point when you marry (that is one issue) or cover your hair (in a wig, another issue), it is another to be told that the hair on your head or the way you style your hair is so outside the norm that you need to “get rid of it.”

    I find very little difference between the women (yes, it's almost always women, not men) who tell me I need to straighten my hair to conform or tell me to shave my head to conform or to wear a sheitel to conform. They need to understand that it IS very different telling these things to a white woman than to a black, brown or yellow woman.

    A great quote from the “Good Hair” movie which I will mention in an upcoming post says that it's amazing that wearing your hair just the way it grows on your head can be considered so “revolutionary.”

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  9. Sarah, I was told in kallah classes and by rabbis that one could not wear the birth control patch to the mikvah. I was advised that if I was on it, I had to change to a pill.

    As far as I've been told, and from my experience, there is no difference between how you prepare for the mikvah for conversion or during marriage. Oh, except that they charge you MUCH more for conversion than the monthly charge for going when you're married.

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  10. Then these women should go to the rabbis who allow the patch and talk to them. If you are counseling converts, then it might be worth actually getting in touch with those who rule this way. Maybe yoatzot.org can give you some names.

    AS A RULE one wants to avoid shopping for a heter, but if the issur is so fueled by intolerance and ignorance, I say shop away.

    Things would certainly be different if there were more women of color in charge of the mikveh AND just using the mikveh. You yourself could become a mikveh lady. It's not hard and they need people. But you know as well as I that you would be held to a right-wing standard of dress and other observance if you (or anyone) wanted the job. Bleh. Not talking about places like Mayyim Hayyim, etc..

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  11. Here is what I received last year after writing about my difficulties with hair covering to Nishmat:

    “We have some experience with Ethiopian women who learn in Nishmat and asked them how they deal with their hair after marriage. Some chose to cut their hair short (but not actually shave it off). Others chose to chemically straighten their hair. If you are actually able to comb through your hair before tevilah, then it is possible to keep your hair long.

    For the sake of your shalom bayit as well as your self-esteem, we recommend that you let your hair grow back.

    Hair covering presents a challenge to all types of women, with all different types of hair. Many women experience damage and thinning of the hair due to constant covering. Loose cotton scarves or hats should allow for better air circulation. Do not pull your hair back tightly under the haircovering – perhaps keeping it in a loose bun will help keep your back comfortably without damaging it. Remove your headcovering as soon as you get home – it is permissible to uncover your hair at home when men outside the family are not present. Also make an effort to style your hair nicely once in a while – for your sake and your husband's. We hope these suggestions will be helpful in easing your distress.

    Our site's rabbinic supervisor, R. Yehuda Henkin, has written extensively about haircovering. We recommend reading chapter 16 of his book Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women's Issues (Ktav), as well as Understanding Tzniut (Urim Publications), for further discussion on haircovering.

    We also recommend that you read a book called Hide and Seek, published by Urim. It is a collection of essays, primarily by women, discussing their personal hashkafot on hair covering.”

    No offense to the Yoetzet Halacha that wrote this but many, many of parts of this made me roll my eyes. I will let the discerning readers guess what.

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  12. As you can discern from my last comment, a woman with dreads would not be allowed into the mikvah because she must be able to comb through her hair before being allowed to dunk.

    Some issues, Sarah, would be helped if more women of color used the mikvah or were mikvah ladies but in a lot of cases, we would still be consulting rabbis and the standards of halacha (Jewish law) they follow that might be infringing on the right of women of color to wear their hair as they wish.

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  13. I actually learned that you can use the patch. You can take it off before mikvah, scrub the area clean of glue gunk and then put it back on right after you dunk. Ive done this and the 10 minutes that it is not on your body will not reduce its effectiveness.

    Aliza, based on your last post, I still wonder, is it necessary for women with textured hair to comb through it completely? I'm imagining a belly button. You can clean it, but all parts of it may not necessarily be exposed to the mikvah water. That doesnt mean you have to surgically open the belly button to expose it to the water. That is how it naturally is.
    Same with the hair. Like dreads lets say. It can be cleaned, but does that mean that every strand needs to be cut off to be exposed to the water? Thats how it naturally is.
    Rabbis really need to look into the halachos surrounding this more closely.

    Also, as far as straightening hair to be able to brush through it. Wouldnt the act of getting it wet make it poof back to its natural state again, defeating the whole purpose of straightening? Just wondering…

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  14. No, I am not disagreeing with that. Mikveh ladies and (gasp) yoatzot answer to men, many of whom are ashkenazi. Of course the power structure is biased against, or at a minimum terribly unfamiliar with, women of color. My comments all take this as a given.

    But it is a question of incremental gains. If you pursued the patch issue and found an intellectually honest rabbi who permits the patch, then there's your heter for dreads.

    Pursuing the patch and making more headway via that route than by a direct assault on dreads is a TEXTBOOK example of institutional racism, duh. But if one wanted a path, there it is.

    It's a matter for original research on chatzitzah, not something you can take (with any success) to the average rabbi.

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  15. Jalepeno, in the comment where I cut and pasted a letter from Nishmat, they are mentioning hair straightening as making it easier to COVER your hair. I haven't, and I won't, be asking them about mikvah issues unless one of those Ethiopian women who works there will actually be emailing me back personaly. I'd much rather speak to a knowledgeable rabbi or a black woman who knows more about these issues.

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  16. Aliza,
    I'm so glad my mother fwd'd me a link to your site! I read an article by you this summer in LA, visiting my grandfather, and really loved it- and it's from Heaven that I've been connected to you again.
    I couldn't get to your video from your site- could you repost it or something?
    I'm trained as a Yoetzet Halacha, an advisor to women on Taharat HaMishpacha. In my training, we talked about this very issue, as you can tell from the fact that you wrote to Nishmat about this issue yourself. I remember walking away from our discussions about this issue reacting exactly as you have to this issue, and do not feel fully resolved about it.
    But I do have one piece of advice from it that might help a little: This woman who completed our program told us that she spoke with chemists, who told her that ALL shampoos have conditioner in them- even if they don't call themselves a two in one- because otherwise, they would make ALL of our hair a mess, even women with straight hair. In fact, the Talmud and Law Codes list that when a woman is preparing for mikveh, they should only use warm water, and should NOT use cleaning products, since they CAUSE knots. Certainly, their oil products were a problem, but so were their straight up “shampoos”, which seemed to be made out of sodium borate. Nowadays, this is no longer the case- we have shampoos which do NOT cause knots for all women and do NOT leave residue. Therefore, it is just as ok to use a separate conditioner right before mikveh, WITHOUT rinsing it out. You might want to raise this scientific fact with your Rabbi, and mention to him that in Israel and in the United States, many kallah teachers instruct brides TO use conditioner if their hair is even CURLY, since overly knotted hair is more of an issue than a little bit of conditioner.
    Just my two cents. Thank you so much for discussing this crucial issue.

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  17. jalapeno,

    although, I don't want to compare my hair to a bellybutton, I like where you're going with this analogy.

    you are correct, if the purpose is that the mikvah water be able to touch every inch of my hair, then everyone is sadly mistaken because no amount of shampooing and combing is going to make my hair absorb water the same way that straight hair does.

    indeed, the very texture of my hair PREVENTS the mikvah water from getting to every hair strand. my mother-in-law has seen me swim in a pool with my hair uncovered and commented on how my hair defies water absorption.

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  18. By the way, atara, just because hair is curly does not mean that it is knotted. curls and knots are not the same. many people assume that because you can't run your fingers through curly hair that it is “knotted.”

    my hair does not get knots in it unless i play with it or fuss with it. just sleeping on it does not create knots.

    i find that straight-haired people get a lot more knots in their hair. while i, however, do not need to comb knots out of my hair on a daily basis. i don't even have to comb my hair more than once a week.

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  19. Sarah,
    I'm well aware of the distinction. As I wrote, I was bringing up the issue of conditioner for ALL women, not just women with curly hair- many of whom HAVE told me that if not for conditioner, they would NOT be knot free. But of course, there are so many different types of hair, and no two women need the same advice.

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  20. I have never had this problem at the Chabad mikvah. The very friendly mikvah lady always checks for stray hairs, and then asks if I want to do the hair check (YES) or want her to do it. Maybe it has to do with the area you're in? There are a lot of Sfaradim where I live, so presumably the ladies have had more experience with curly hair than on the Upper East Side.

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  21. “I have never had this problem at the Chabad mikvah. The very friendly mikvah lady always checks for stray hairs, and then asks if I want to do the hair check (YES) or want her to do it. Maybe it has to do with the area you're in? There are a lot of Sfaradim where I live, so presumably the ladies have had more experience with curly hair than on the Upper East Side.”

    I always get this comment when I write about racism: “maybe it has to do with the area you're in.”

    It is exasperating. No, people are ignorant everywhere.

    I have had really good experiences with mikvah ladies on the Upper East Side (esp. the Chabad mikvahs), Riverdale, Los Angeles, upstate New York, etc.

    I have also had bad experiences with mikvah ladies in…etc. I can't even tell you where I've had the bad experiences because if I did, I know some of you would decide that neighborhood was racist or tell me how you never had a problem at that mikvah so it must just be ME.

    Yes, hopefully, having more diverse clientèle should help situations with mikvahs but I have seen cases where it does not.

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  22. Wow. Lots of comments on this topic. Here are my 2 cents (or maybe 2 dollars, LOL, because I have a lot to say) for a number of mikveh issues (in fact it was too long so I will have to split it):

    – Hair (and skin) issues:
    My hair is fine and thick and *very* straight. In high school, I used to sleep with wet hair rolled onto foam rollers to try to put some “body” into my hair. But by the end of the school day, there wasn't much curl left. I stopped using curlers, curling irons, and perms or “body waves” after high school. Since then (almost 30 years) I have mostly worn it pulled back into a ponytail: in a French braid to look more dressy or more professional. It is funny to think that that people with curly hair try to straighten it and people with straight hair try to curl it.

    I break fine tooth combs because my hair is thick and long. So I bring my own wide tooth comb to the mikveh. I also bring my own soap and shampoo for sensitive skin. I always use shampoo that has no conditioning agents because those ingredients tend to make my scalp itch. (Like the time I tried a sample shampoo that came in the mail and my scalp itched for over a week after I stopped using it!) I usually use soap or cleansing lotions with moisturizers, but I bring a plain but gentle soap to the mikveh (and lotion to put on my skin *after* I finish using the mikvah).

    When I converted, my hair was waist length. I made sure to get my head well under the surface of the water to get all two feet of the hair underwater too. It swirled in the water above me, so that I had to part a way through the “cloud” of hair with my hands as I surfaced.

    A few weeks after that immersion, I cut a foot of hair off to donate to “Locks of Love” to make wigs for children with hair loss. My hair grows so fast that I can donate a foot every other year which earns me a a free haircut at a local kids' salon. Strangely enough, the mikveh lady seemed to check more carefully for stray hairs when my hair was shorter. But she does not paw through my hair and she only picks up loose hairs that she sees. I think that she may have not examined me as carefully when I converted because she realized that I might be nervous and embarrassed to be examined too closely and she really wants to make women have a nice mikveh experience.

    The Conservative mikveh has been used for quite a number of conversions by the rabbi of a Chicago southside congregation of African-Americans, so I'm sure that mikveh lady knows more than most mikveh ladies about dealing with “nappy hair”.

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  23. – Talking about mikveh:
    I have no idea about the observance levels of “family purity” of members of my observant, but Conservative, minyanim, unlike say Shabbat or kashrut observance. So when an Orthodox friend stated that Conservative Jews don't observe this mitzvah, I could only say that I expect that some members of my minyanim do, but I didn't know for sure. It's not like this topic has ever come up in conversations with my minyan friends. But the mikvah lady of the Conservative Community mikvah told me when I asked that there are indeed a number of non-Orthodox women who use the mikvah for family purity.

    However, an Modern Orthodox woman who was a high school friend of my husband (and whose brother now lives just over block from us) talks quite openly about mikvah use. She once mentioned that her hysterectomy made her husband “the envy of Young Israel” to which I responded with a blank look because I didn't understand what she meant. When she prompted “you know, the mikvah….”, I'm sure I blushed from embarrassment! When she found out that I had converted, she asked me directly if I did just one immersion or more for my conversion. When I told her I did three immersions total for conversion, she said that she had always done three as well.

    Once when I was shopping in a local kosher supermarket, I overhead a snatch of conversation that sounded like it was about mikvah use. I turned around and went to a different aisle because I had no desire to hear more about such a private topic being discussed by total strangers.

    – Mikvah use cost:
    The Conservative mikveh in my area charges $150 for conversion and simply asks for a donation for family purity use. I think that there is also a higher fee for use before marriage. Most women who go monthly pay $18/visit. Given the maintenance costs of the mikveh and the fact that most people who use the mikveh for conversion or before marriage will use the facility only once, I don't think the fee difference is unreasonable. The conversion use fee is less than an observant woman will pay in a year.

    – Conservative convert issue
    Here's my own mikveh “issue”: I converted with a beit din of three male Conservative rabbis. So although there is a mikveh just a few blocks from my house, I don't dare try to use it out of worry that the mikveh lady will question my Jewish status and tell me that I can't use the mikveh because she doesn't think I'm Jewish. Since I'm a Chinese-American, I don't look like a Jew by Birth. My husband says I could just call the mikvah and ask, but I'd rather just go to the Conservative mikveh a few miles away where I will not worry that I'll be judged.

    I assume that the Conservative mikveh is not available on Friday nights because the mikveh lady is observant and lives about 10 miles away. But I'm fine with waiting until motzei Shabbat if that's how the timing works that cycle.

    Sometimes I wonder if it's just crazy for a Conservative convert to even want to observe this mitzvah. On the other hand, ALL my religious compulsions (like keeping kosher) would probably seem crazy to most people who are not Jewishly observant.

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  24. Debbie, I think what you're trying to say is you can commiserate with the issues black women face. However, I am trying to focus in on race and hair in this piece. I also have issues (and my hair is chin length!) with keeping my hair under the water when I dip but I'm not trying to deal with this issue.

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  25. Debbie, $20 is a lot of money for some people. I know a woman who said recently “Thank G-d that I am pregnant because they keep raising the mikvah fees (now $25) and it is a lot.” $200 when I converted for my mikvah fee was an extraordinary amount of money for me. I borrowed the money from someone else. Also, I married soon after…that would have covered my membership for at a mikvah for a year. And please note that as I write this, I know many converts are reading who have paid much more for mikvah fees and even more for other fees related to conversion.

    Debbie, I think that you are right to be concerned that the mikvah lady might look at you strangely because you are Chinese-American. I do not think it is any of her business what kind of conversion you had or how you are Jewish. I do not believe that the mikvah ladies should be asking about a person’s Jewish status based on the racial phenotype. You DO look like a Jew-by-birth. You don’t look like an Eastern European Jew.

    As I’m writing this, I’m wondering how my half-Japanese, half-white friend (her mother is a white Jew) who looks fully Japanese would feel about being asked about her lineage. Or how any (Orthodox) woman of color would feel about routinely being asked about race at the mikvah (though obviously people would be less inclined to question our Jewishness because our conversion is “kosher”…although people have gone as far as to ask—not at the mikvah, at the Shabbos table–which Orthodox rabbi converted me so they could make sure it was really kosher.)

    But in my case, I will say, though I have NEVER been asked about my race at the mikvah, mostly because I imagine they could be telling themselves I am Sephardic or knew better than to ask, I have had mostly tactful insinuations or questions (sometimes starting with a comment on my hair) from mikvah ladies that seemed to probe about how I came by my Jewishness. Thankfully, this usually happened AFTER I was fully clothed and was on my way out—an exit strategy is wonderful—and again, usually when I was at a mikvah I did not use often.

    Mikvahs are open on Friday nights but they are usually open AFTER the mikvah lady has had her meal. You don’t pay on that day. You’re not supposed to postpone going to the mikvah for any reason. I have gone on many, many of the major holidays. For a year, my mikvah day was ALWAYS on Friday night.

    I don’t feel comfortable writing about the mikvah issues of conversion for different denominations. I have read about Reform and Conservative rabbis not being allowed to use Orthodox-run mikvahs for their conversions. This issue, though, is really out of my depth and I am sure others are writing about it so I’ll stick to talking about race through the lens of hair.

    Also, to everyone commenting, I would appreciate if the comments steered back to the topic at hand: the mikvah and “black” hairstyles and “black” hair.

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  26. Actually, I think what I really feel is that what I thought were concerns about my hair were foolish and trivial. I remember reading an article about a woman who was half African American who needed the help of a neighbor who worked for 4 hours to detangle her hair after she was pushed into a swimming pool without a pool cap. She talked about all the worries and issues of dealing with her hair. I had no idea that some people would need to spend so much time and effort on their hair. I'm guessing that other people with straight or merely wavy hair are as clueless as I was.

    But it is unfortunate that once it is brought to the attention of someone like a mikveh lady that they do not care to learn about the situation and try to act in a sensitive and caring way.

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  27. I don't think hair is ever a trivial issue for women, especially at the mikvah and with head coverings, and I think there are many reasons for that. Not just that women have been conditioned to be more concerned with their appearance, especially their hair. I could (and indeed, will) write volumes about being told I wasn't “really female” when I wore my hair short. I mentioned in my piece, “Bagels & Locks” that I was told as a child that “real women have long hair.”

    The presumption we're making, we're hoping and praying, is that mikvah ladies because of the women of all shape and colors that they come in contact with, are sensitive to issues that we know even rabbis, their wives or even Jewish law possibly might not be sensitive to. I don't necessarily blame the mikvah ladies if they're just parroting what they've been told: curly hair is knotty, black girls aren't born Jewish. etc.

    I am as horrified that the mikvah lady made comments about my blond friend's breasts as I am as horrified that the mikvah lady asks if my hair is combed or wet because it is big and kinky and not flat and straight when wet.

    A lot of things come out of ignorance and I think I'm hoping that my blog, like my talks on racism, will build a certain awareness. There is a culture of “straight hair” privilege where everyone knows straight hair gets greasy when unwashed (mine never does) and we see it everywhere on TV but people don't know anything about my hair type and have all sorts of not-so-kind assumptions about it.

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  28. You might write to the Nishmat site about the yo'atzot. The whole idea of the yo'atzot is to be able to assist women more than rabbis can, i.e. because the yo'atzot know more about being a woman than most rabbis do. So if the yo'atzot are ignorant about what it's like to be a non-straight-haired woman, then someone has to set these yo'atzot straight!

    I don't know Rabbi Henkin very well (I met him once for a few minutes, but that's all), but Rabbi David Sperling at Nishmat (he's the major halakha teacher there), I know him extremely well, and trust me, he's definitely the kind who will actually care what you say. So I say: write a letter to Nishmat (tell them one of Rabbi Sperling's students from Machon Meir told you), and give them a piece of your mind. 😀

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  29. The mikveh lady commented on your friend's *breasts*!!???? I was already agast when I imagined the woman was commenting on some more neutral “body part”. That mikveh lady really does need “sensitivity training”. Actually, it sounds like she is just the wrong person for the job if she could even think of making comments like that.

    The only mikveh lady I have ever dealt with is the opposite of that: she is extremely sensitive to the fact that people who use the mikveh may be nervous or embarrassed, and in the case of converts or brides, unsure of what they are supposed to do. Particularly for my conversion visit, she was so careful to let me know what she was going to do and what I should do and how the procedures would protect my modesty, understanding that even if we are both women, most people are not comfortable standing nude in front of someone other than a spouse. I would add that in a similar way, I appreciate that my doctor also shows a real sensitivity to modesty issues, even though she is female and obviously as my doctor, she needs to be able to see all parts of my body. But still, the way these things are handled can make a difference in how a person feels about it.

    The mikveh lady has never seen my breasts because she arranges things so that she only sees me from behind when I am completely uncovered. She checks only those areas that I cannot see and check for myself.

    However, as the attendant of a Conservative mikveh, she sees herself as a teacher and advocate for the mikveh and she deals with more people coming for conversion than women who visit regularly for family purity. (As another poster noted that Mayyim Hayyim would be different.)

    It seems clear to me that the rudeness of the mikveh ladies you describe is “Chillul Hashem”. Many of the women they treat badly now have a negative association with the mikveh. It really makes me sad that these mikveh ladies seem to be conveying the message that Judaism is not suited for people with certain physical characteristics.

    By the way, I do know that visiting the mikveh for family purity is not supposed to be delayed. But as my husband says “Being a Conservative Jew means always having to say you're sorry” (reference to quote in the movie “Love Story”). In this case, I feel that since few Conservative Jewish women ever even use the mikveh for family purity, and since I can't bring myself to even try go to the only mikvah that I could use on a Friday night, I'm willing to compromise on the scheduling.

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  30. HELLO! Learn the gemara. The halacha today is WAY more machmir than necessary. Basically if a woman always wears her hair that way, in cornrows, than IT'S NOT CONSIDERED A CHATZITZA!!!

    Ditto for Nailpolish!

    Point: Women have to start learning the halacha themselves instead of entrusting to male Rabbis.

    (Of course the gemara was male too… but that's another issue)

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  31. An alternate opinion I received via email:

    “This mitzva is more difficult for people with curly hair, but the same halachot apply to all of us. I accept that it is hard not to have a weave, braids…, but that is the halacha. I don't think the standards of “chatzitza” are going to change based on how people like to wear their hair. I don't mean to sound cold; I just think this is the reality.”

    Then why does it sound cold to me?

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  32. I really wish that there could be some serious discussion from rabbeim on this issue. Before I made the decision to convert to Orthodox Judaism, I wore my hair in dreadlocks. Not only did my hair look great, but my scalp was healthier (I have issues with dandruff) and I saved a ton of money. Now I am back on the relaxer, and I feel that my hair and scalp are not in it's ideal state. With my hair like this, I doubt I will have any mikveh issues. My hair gets in water and it gets silky smooth (once it is dry, it is almost impossible to get smooth). However that means a lifetime of being addicted to the “creamy crack”. Yes, I just saw the Good Hair movie, and some of those women had no…and I mean no hairline from the perm burning out their follicles. Not cute.

    It would not surprise me if many of these rabbis do not realize that a dreadlock cannot just be “taken out”. It can be done (I took mine out — and it took 4 months!), but is not feasible. It takes 6 months + to even get your hair to dread!

    Yasher koach Aliza for talking about this. Late the haters keep hating. Without any discussion, everybody thinks things are all hunky-dory.

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  33. Rishona, it is very perplexing to me that as women with a certain hair type our choices after marriage are straighten or wear natural (but short because of issues with thinning, damaged hair, and other issues I've mentioned, etc). And our choices before marriage are the same. If people make comments about my hair peeking out of my head coverings, I can't imagine what they would say about a woman in dreads.

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  34. Aliza, this piece really made me think about some stuff I've always taken for granted. Thank you.

    I'm a mostly Swedish/American convert with a Biblical name, anyway, so I get a lot of “passes” where people assume I'm Jewish from birth. It was hard enough being a convert without being visibly different. I'm really impressed with the way you stick to your commitments and your community in spite of the racism and ignorance that keeps coming at you.

    Also, you're a great writer! 🙂

    I'm a Reconstructionist, so my take on things like this is always, “screw those old white rabbis, they keep pushing cultural bias as halacha!” but I know that's not an option in Orthodoxy. Sounds like you really need to become a Yoetzet or something – although “rebbetzin” becomes almost as authoritatiev, in some communities.

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  35. I should mention I am discussing all this with a Yoetzet Halacha and I hope to get some good feedback. Despite that email from Nishmat which they posted on their website under covering very curly hair, I love being able to ask questions to a Yoetzet Halacha or a Madricha Ruchanit (what my synagogue called Sara Hurwitz before she became a Maharat). Much more fun and helpful than going to a rabbi sometimes. And for certain things, much less embarrassing.

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  36. Tzipporah, I think being a Yoetzet Halacha would be very cool but I'll probably have to settle on being a Rebbetzin. Being a Yoetzet requires actual study and hitting the books. I know many Rebbetzins act in this capacity without the Yoetzet title but I will be well-versed in “I don't know, I'm not the rabbi, ask my husband.” 🙂

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