"The dignity of G‑d lies in hiddenness"—Proverbs 25:2.
"It has been told to you, O man, what is good and what G‑d requires of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk modestly with your G‑d"—Mica 6:8.
A sheitel (Yiddish for wig) is an object of both beauty and controversy. Perhaps more than any other mitzvah that a woman performs, covering the hair best exemplifies the attitude of self-negation as exemplified by the Jews' spontaneous affirmation to G‑d at Sinai, "We will do and we will hear"—maybe especially for the newly observant woman like me.
It never occurred to us that a bride might willingly cover her hair in the fulfillment of a mitzvahMost of my contemporaries knew that traditionally Jewish women had covered their hair after marriage. But sheitels were, in our view, part of the mythology about Jewish life that included the notorious sheet with the hole. We heard stories about Jewish girls having to shave their heads on their wedding day in order to escape the sinister attentions of Christian overlords. It never occurred to us that a bride might willingly cover her hair in the fulfillment of a mitzvah rather than reluctantly, in order to avoid some horror.
It is reported that some of our male forebears tossed their tefillin over the ship's rail as they entered the New York harbor in celebration of their "liberation" from the shtetl. Similarly, we conjectured, some women may have taken the opportunity to jettison their sheitels and scarves. The first sympathetic portrayal I saw of a sheitel-wearing young immigrant woman, in the nostalgic Yiddish-language film "Hester Street," ended with her being persuaded to discard her sheitel, and with it, her "greener" status, thereby becoming a real American.
This image was not challenged by the photograph of my great-grandmother, for whom I am named. In it she sat dour, stolid and somber. The photograph was taken in America, but you would never have known it from her pose and attire. She sat on a velvet-covered horsehair chair, and we joked that her sheitel was horsehair as well. It was voluminous, stiff and combed straight back from her forehead, creating a visible line. Nothing about it suggested human hair.
Chaya Leiba, my great-grandmother, never adjusted to life in her new country and remained the paradigmatic greener. She was remote and distant in her demeanor, as if her personality was a metaphor for her geographical origins. She was, in our lives, incomprehensible, as she was uncomprehending. My grandmother and her sisters did not wear wigs and only covered their heads to bless the Shabbat candles or when they went to synagogue. By my generation, the very idea of a sheitel seemed as antiquated as the black and white photo of Chaya Leiba.
Understandably, the sheitel represented for us a gendered institution, imposed upon women by a human, specifically male power structure, as a daily reminder of women's uncleanness, inferiority, and "otherness." It was a reminder of the ugliness and superstition of shtetl life where women were doubly oppressed. The sheitel was necessary to keep non-Jewish men at bay and to protect Jewish men from temptation. What a message for Jewish girls like me! Nothing suggested that the sheitel had some other rationale in Jewish law and custom that transcended the specific context of shtetl life.
Judaism is back. So is the sheitel. And it isn't your Bubbe's sheitel, either!This view was not only prevalent among my peers, but understandable in light of the fact that few of our elder women relatives could explain the custom in the rational terms that we girls demanded. Most of these women had a strict Jewish training, but not a real Jewish education. Small wonder that we could not understand the sheitel in terms of a mitzvah, and concluded that it was a symbol of women's subjugation, created and perpetuated by men in their attempts to diminish or circumscribe the sexual power of women.
Moreover, why would the sheitel endure in a world where sociologists predicted and demographers graphed the decline toward disappearance of Judaism, and indeed of religion in general? But belying the pundits' predictions, Judaism has not, thank G‑d, vanished. If anything, religion is experiencing a national resurgence. Judaism is back. So is the sheitel. More and more young wives are adopting sheitels. And it isn't your Bubbe's sheitel, either!
Nothing symbolized more potently, both to me and to my relatives and friends, my return to Yiddishkeit than did covering my hair. After all, covering one's hair suddenly one day is read by all as not just a positive embrace of Judaism, but also a clear rejection of one's former values. And there is no hiding the fact. It is absolutely visible and palpable. Of all of the observances that I took upon myself and my children, covering my hair seemed to be the most dramatic repudiation of my prior life and, therefore, raised the most questions, if not outright hostility, among my less observant peers. And there was no explaining it away in terms of vanity; after all, my own luxuriant hair had always been considered an asset unmatched by a succession of, until recently, well, less than flattering sheitels.
Here are several questions that have been posed to me, and I am guessing, at some time, to most of us.
Why would a feminist, a true daughter of the Enlightenment, subject herself to a gendered and antiquated custom?
Why treat hair as erotic at all? And if a man responds to a woman's hair as erotic, isn't that his problem? And shouldn't he just learn to deal with it?
If a wig is intended to conceal a woman's beauty, shouldn't she wear an ugly wig, or better yet, a shmatta (kerchief) or scarf? Why is it that some women wear wigs that are, in fact, nicer and more attractive than their own hair?
If a man responds to a woman's hair as erotic, isn't that his problem?And why restrict covering of the hair to married women. Why not do like the Muslims or the Amish and require all females to cover their hair?
Sheitel or Shmatta?
References to covering the hair are to be found in numerous places, including: Torah (Numbers 5:18), Zohar (III, 126a), various tractates of both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, the Code of Jewish Law, Tosefta, Psalms, anecdotes and commentaries of the sages. The covered versus uncovered head has been a persistent marker of proper behavior on the part of a Jewish woman even though the various references to head coverings provide access to other debates of interest in their own right.
While there remain differing opinions concerning the best possible way for a woman to cover her hair, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, it is actually preferable to wear a wig rather than a scarf or alternative covering (Beautiful Within: Modesty in Conduct and Dress as Taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe). The Rebbe explained this in the context of the Jewish woman's quest for tzniyut (modesty), kedushah (sanctity) and taharah (purity), citing the verse from Psalms 45:14 which says "The entire glory of the king's daughter is within." From Deuteronomy 23:15, "Your camp shall be holy, that He not see in you any immorality and turn away from you," it is derived that the contemporary equivalent of the "camp" is the home and community. Moreover, the woman's inner spiritual quest is aided by and reflected in her clothing and demeanor, of which covering the hair is a part.
The Rebbe stressed that hair covering was not just a lapsed custom, but an actual law (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 75) binding in all times and places regardless of prevailing custom. The Rebbe emphasized that wearing a sheitel was an important aspect of tzniyut, and worked many years to make it a norm of the community. He preferred the sheitel to other forms of covering for several practical reasons. A sheitel stays in place and covers all of the hair. A scarf or kerchief is liable to slip and reveal hair and a hat is customarily removed indoors, making a woman likely to accidentally remove it by force of habit.
In addition, he stressed the positive support for covering one's hair in terms of blessings, as opposed to prohibitions. The Talmudic story is related about Kimchit, who attributed her manifold blessings, including the elevation to the High Priesthood of her seven sons, to the fact that "the rafters of her roof had never seen the plaits of her hair" (Talmud, Yoma 47a). The Rebbe often quoted the teaching of the Zohar where covering the hair is asserted to bring down blessings upon the woman and her family. When the wife covers her hair "they shall be blessed with all blessings, blessings of above and blessings of below, with wealth, with children and grandchildren. "Her children will be superior…her husband will be blessed with spiritual and material blessings, with wealth, children and children's children."
The Erotic and Distracting Nature of a Married Woman's Hair
If a wig is an acceptable, and according to some the preferred covering, then what is it about the woman's own hair that is problematic? Why is a married woman's hair considered alluring or distracting to her husband and to men other than her husband?
There is a special, almost mystical change in the quality of a woman's hair after marriageAnd why, if uncovered hair is considered as "nakedness" and arouses erotic thoughts, don't Jews insist on all girls, as well as women covering their hair? Why not follow the Muslims in mandating a hijab for all females? After all, the rules of tzniyut begin to apply to Jewish girls at the age of three years and certainly to girls after Bat Mitzvah, at twelve years of age. Yet, it is derived that virgins are not obligated to cover their hair; the references in the halachic works are clearly to married women, even women who are elderly or have been divorced or widowed. This suggests that there is a special, almost mystical change in the quality of a woman's hair after marriage that renders it erotic and distracting. After marriage, a woman has changed her status and this is reflected subtly in her hair. All human hair (a man's beard, for instance) possesses special properties. In the case of the wife, her hair is inextricably connected to her beauty and sensuality and takes on changes imperceptibly wrought by her initiation into married life and intimacy. These changes are irreversible regardless of any subsequent changes in her married status.
A sheitel, whether made of another woman's hair or even her own, is considered halachically acceptable. Once separated from its "living source" the hair has no special qualities. Being cut and made into a sheitel neutralizes the sensuality of living human hair. Therefore, it becomes clear why it is a mistaken notion to assume that a woman is obligated to wear a sheitel to conceal her beauty. On the contrary, a woman is permitted, even encouraged to feel and look attractive. If her sheitel happens to be nicer than her own hair, so be it. The purpose of the sheitel is not to conceal a woman's beauty; rather, it is to conceal that special and beautiful change that takes place within a woman after marriage. After marriage, a woman has an increased need for modesty which the sheitel serves.
That the Rebbe not only preferred the wearing of sheitels to scarves and snoods meant that there was no reason to feel vain for acquiring a good quality, flattering sheitel. On the contrary, the Rebbe reportedly enjoined husbands, if they had the means, to allow their wives to buy a suitably beautiful sheitel. Finally, the requirement that a woman wear her sheitel throughout her life lends validation to her sense of continuing femininity (as opposed to the general culture which treats older women as asexual and no longer womanly).
My Journey from Hair to Shmatta to Sheitel
So how, indeed, did an emancipated child of the Enlightenment like me come to adopt a sheitel? Every Ba'al Teshuvah (returnee to observant Judaism) starts out on the path toward greater observance of the mitzvot for reasons and in ways that are personal, though not unique. The path they traverse must necessarily be similar though the order and interval of adoption may vary. Eventually, the 'big ticket' mitzvot: Shabbat, kashrut, and Family Purity are taken on. This accords with the Chabad approach of adding mitzvah upon mitzvah. We are not required to make the all-or-nothing decision to adopt full observance in one grand gesture. My guess is that would be too dramatic a leap for most people. We want to test the waters, and feel that we will have a greater likelihood of success if we climb from level to level gradually. We may even fear that taking on too much too quickly will lead to frustration and then, G‑d forbid, a "flash-in-the-pan" effect where we adopt all and then reject all. This is better known in common parlance as "biting off more than one can chew."
There were enough women in kerchiefs and snoods in the neighborhood so that I did not feel strangeAccordingly, I began to take on mitzvot sequentially in a way that appeared rational, at least to me, though, perhaps irrational to others. For instance, I began to observe the laws of Family Purity and mikvah first, since we were building a family, then kashrut, and finally, became Shabbat observant. Preceding all of this was a lengthy "latent" period in which my children were enrolled in Chabad camps and preschools, and in which we prayed in a Chabad synagogue but did not feel ready to dramatically change our lives. It wasn't that I was resistant to the idea, on the contrary. But in a place like Burlington, Vermont – where there are no Jewish schools and only a handful of observant families, not to mention the fact that we lived a good nine miles from the synagogue – it all seemed impossible.
I realized that trying to completely revamp my children's lives without a dramatic scene shift would have been nearly impossible. You can't just wake up one morning and announce that that what was permitted is suddenly forbidden. This constitutes what children understand on an intuitive level to be an imposition of ex post facto law. My opening came during my sabbatical year. This allowed me to take up a visiting professorship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where I moved to the Westbury Avenue neighborhood of Snowden. In this area, heavily populated by religiously observant Jewish families, it became utterly natural for us to build on the initial steps toward observance that we had already taken in Vermont.
In Montreal I immediately began to cover my hair. This was all well and good for the academic year. I was willing to go to work every day in a kerchief. I remember acquiring my first snoods from a local out-of-the home purveyor. There were enough women in kerchiefs and snoods in the neighborhood so that I did not feel strange. The Metro platforms and my office were more of a challenge, but my little oppositional streak reared up and I stood firm in the face of stares. Anyway, Montreal was delightfully full of women in hijabs and various head-coverings. The moment of truth came in the spring as my son's Bar Mitzvah approached. It was he who suggested that it might be nice if I didn't attend with a shmattah on my head. And ironically, just in case I still didn't believe in Divine providence, my son's Bar Mitzvah portion was Naso, the portion of the Torah which contains the verse upon which the mitzvah of hair covering is based. I had to decide what to do. In all the planning, I had really not given any thought to my hair.
Then began the consultations with friends and finally the decision to purchase a sheitel. With my coterie in tow, I went to the sheitel stylist, tried on a few numbers, and settled on a human hair (low end) sheitel. Reassuringly, when I first wore it out on the street, the neighborhood girls would call across the street, "I like your sheitel." I had passed muster!
The neighborhood girls would call across the street, "I like your sheitel." I had passed muster!Of course there were awkward moments. One particularly poignant one came while stopped at a red light. The woman in the next lane, wearing a scarf, obviously undergoing chemotherapy, looked over and gave me a warm nod of sympathy and solidarity, assuming that my headscarf meant the same as hers. I felt really sheepish. Wearing a sheitel saved me this sort of encounter, but posed its own dilemmas. My children named my sheitel "Tina" after Tina Turner. The realization that my sheitel brought to mind a talented, but notoriously immodest R&B singer was not comforting. I concluded, as do many first-time sheitel buyers, that I had made a mistake. Deciding that Tina was too curly, I went in the opposite direction, and needing to economize, bought a very cheap completely straight sheitel from a novelty store in Montreal for about twenty dollars. My children immediately dubbed this bargain-basement wig "Vashti," after the evil and ugly Persian queen whom Esther replaced in the Purim story. Need I say more? Vashti found her way instantly into the costume basket. It was that or become a nest for the gerbils. Recently, at the suggestion – should I say insistence – of a dear friend, we went together to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to a bona fide sheitel stylist. That was a whole story in itself. But now, I am happy to report, I have a sheitel with which I am truly satisfied. I must have hit the jackpot, because this sheitel has not earned itself a name from my children.
The real moment of truth was as I prepared for reentry into our "natural habitat" in Vermont. I had to decide whether I would revert to my old ways or become the only professor on campus in a sheitel. I decided to stick with the sheitel on the premise that one should not take a step backwards—no retreat! Moreover, I reasoned, if I wanted my children to continue in their observance, it would send a bad message if I dropped the part of observance that was most challenging or inconvenient for me. If my boys were willing to continue to wear kippahs and tzitzit, making themselves visible as Jews, I should be willing to do the same.
Every woman I know has her sheitel "mistakes" in the back of the closet. She also has some funny anecdote involving flying sheitels—wind, ice, capsizing canoes, etc. Mine happened in a pet store and involved a three-foot iguana getting its claws deeply entangled in Tina (don't ask). Extricating the iguana without removing the sheitel was quite a project.
On the positive side, I see that most women do adjust to wearing a sheitel. While some young brides may harbor a touch of regret at hiding their gorgeous locks, it is possible these days to match one's own hair closely, as did my redheaded friend. Donning a sheitel is such a rite of passage that I think most brides do it with very little regret and with a lot of pride and encouragement from women friends and relatives. When I have spoken to women about their feelings and experiences I have been struck by several themes that commonly arise. First and most important, of course, is the sense of kabbalat ol, or willingly taking on the yoke of Torah. As is often noted, the simplest explanation is often the best. In this case, the fact that G‑d has commanded it is sufficient and decisive for the observant, married Jewish woman. Whether it is personally considered convenient or inconvenient would simply not enter in to an observant woman's thinking on the subject. Other justifications or lack of them would be quite beside the point.
The mothers that I know have a strong conviction that wearing a sheitel will bring blessings upon the family. Several references, especially the words of the Zohar concerning the woman who carefully covers her hair "…shall be blessed with all blessings, blessings of above and blessings of below…" attest to the beneficial impact on the family of the woman's covering her hair.
If wearing a sheitel means that I sometimes have to explain its significance to my friends, family, colleagues and students, so be itAnother frequent and least anticipated theme had to do with dignity, not just tzniyut. The idea was repeatedly expressed that a sheitel was like a crown, making its wearer feel like a queen. The very untouchability and immobility of the sheitel was a sort of armor for modesty and regality. This stunningly countered the claim that wearing a sheitel somehow reflected the submissiveness and inferiority of women. On the contrary, the sheitel symbolized, to the women I met, their status and power. They controlled the "how, what, where and when" of being seen by others. The sheitel, like all attributes of modesty in dress and conduct, allows a woman control in each situation. The sheitel, understood in this context, is a power equalizer for women.
And so for me, donning a sheitel represented the seriousness of my commitment to G‑d. That ever-so-slight but constant awareness of the sheitel is a reminder for me in much the same way that tzitzit must be for boys and men.
If wearing a sheitel means that I sometimes have to explain its significance to my friends, family, colleagues and students, so be it. One of the most satisfying outcomes of adopting a sheitel in a largely secular environment like a campus is that it has created many an opening for my Jewish female students. I have been delighted to find that so many of my students who seemed to be committed secularists were just waiting for a role model to give them a sense that one could combine Jewish observance with a life in the world. Do I miss the sensation of the wind lifting my hair off my neck on a hilltop in Vermont? Well….
Wearing a sheitel or hair covering is, in the contemporary, secular world, freighted with meaning by both those who cover and those who do not. It is infused with ideological symbolism, in addition to the obvious religious rationale. Covering the hair signifies boundary-maintenance, a component of identity, resistance to the larger culture and its values, as well as respect for halachah. The sheitel will continue to be a symbol of beauty and controversy, but mostly, it will continue to be a source of blessing.