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February 9, 2017 by Devorie Kreiman
It was a sliver of a moment, one that slipped away before I realized how much it mattered.
It was 9:30 at night. My writing workshop had just ended. I’d read bits from my memoir about loss and soul and faith in God. I was slipping my laptop back into its case, when a few of the women in the group came up to me.
“Are you Hassidic?” “Yes.” I said.
“Don’t Hassidic women cover their hair?”
And all I had to do was say, “Yes. I cover my hair. I’m wearing a wig.”
Instead I smiled without saying anything. The moment passed. We all went home.
It niggled at me — the question and the blank space before my non-answer. I’d let the opportunity go. I’d let the woman who asked the question assume that while I was Hassidic, I didn’t cover my hair. I thought about it all the way home, and then for days afterwards. Why hadn’t I told her that I was wearing a wig?
The wig I’d had on that night was beautifully made — human hair sewn into the cap by hand, a multi-directional part so that the waves fell into layers around my face. It could pass for my own hair. Especially if someone didn’t know that I wore a wig. A wig wearer can recognize another wig wearer, even from across the room, even when she’s wearing a very expensive wig.
Years ago, Ron, a friend of a friend, invited our family to spend an afternoon on his yacht. Our four children were young. They’d never seen a house on the water before. They ran through the bedrooms and bathrooms, explored the adorable compact kitchen, and piled onto the bow to feel the spray of the water. Ron gave each of them a turn at the helm.
My husband and I talked with Ron for hours. He had questions and opinions about God and about Jewish practice. “I admire Judaism,” He told us. “It’s important to raise children with culture and values, but some people take it too far. They are so extreme… I heard that some Orthodox women even wear wigs!”
It had been a lovely day. We were going to disembark soon. I said, “Ron” and when he looked at me, I did that thing that sets my children’s teeth on edge. I pinched the hairs of my wig with my fingers, and without lifting it, I moved my wig back and forth over my scalp. Ron’s eyes got very big. “No… You? You are so normal? No!”
“Oh Yes, Ron.” I said. And then we laughed.
After I did the wig slide, Ron wanted to know more. “Why do you cover your hair?” “Because the Talmud teaches that a woman’s hair is considered suggestive.”
“Why a wig? Why not a kerchief or a hat?”
“Wigs are harder to take off. A woman who is wearing a kerchief or a hat may slip it off if she feels embarrassed by her head covering, but she’s not likely to yank off her wig in public.”
I never struggled with the decision to wear a wig. My mother wears a wig. Her mother wore a wig… and well before my teens, I’d been taught the teachings of the Zohar, “…Her children will be superior… her husband will be blessed with spiritual and material blessings, with wealth, children and children’s children.” When I got engaged, in 1986, my mother took me to the wig maker and ordered two wigs — one synthetic and one human hair. In the Kodak prints under sticky plastic in our old fashioned photo albums, my early wigs puff out stiffly. My wig- maker used to empty cans of hairspray onto my head until the wig was helmet-like and would hold its style if I got caught in a wind or a tornado. My wigs have softened over the years. I no longer wear synthetics or use hairspray. The new wigs have flexible netting, human hair that tumbles naturally, and escalating price tags. I have one wig for rain and exercise — that’s the “okay to ruin wig,” and one “good to go” wig set aside for special events — that’s the wig that helps me pull off the “ready in 30 minutes or less” for fancy occasions. Then there are the everyday wigs — the ones closest to my own hair, but nicer, definitely nicer. I replace my wigs when they become discolored or threaten to unravel — every couple of years.
I’ve grown into my own Orthodoxy. Like the new wigs that look so much better on me now, that fit me so much more comfortably, I’ve grown from the child who did as she was told — children used to in those days — to the woman who does what her God asks of her because
her relationship with her God is ongoing and vital to who she is. God asked me to cover my hair after I got married. God didn’t ask that I look unattractive, just that I make it clear that I’m spoken for, that part of me be kept from the public eye.
So why didn’t I own up to my wig when I was asked about it?
The Code of Jewish Law details Jewish observance from the moment we wake and say the first words of the day — an acknowledgement of the return of our soul, followed by the washing of our hands by the bed— until the final prayer of Shema before going to sleep. In the very first page of the Code of Jewish Law, we are instructed, “not to be embarrassed from those who may mock us.”
I didn’t admit to wearing a wig because I wanted to look “normal,” to be just like the rest of the group — a writer working on her craft, wanting to be heard. The wig could make me stranger than strange. The wig could make me seem repressed, or ugly, or “too Jewish.”
I’d been careful— wearing the same wig week after week. When I switched to another wig, I made sure it was shorter than the first, so it would look like I got a haircut. No one had to know. I could be just like the others— except that I believed in God and wrote about it.
But if I believed that being close to God was my reason for being, then why did I care about looking like everyone else? Why wasn’t I unapologetically me — proud of my observance, and able to answer when asked about it. Because that was what bothered me most — she’d asked. She’d wanted to know.
I wanted to fix it. Delete and redo. I wanted to go back to that woman, and to the other women who’d been listening, and tell them that I wore a wig because that was my way of honoring my marriage and of serving God. But I’d lost the opening. I couldn’t work it into a conversation, “Yes I had a nice weekend, and I’m wearing a wig.”
Instead I stared into the blank space, into the hesitation, and met it head on. I believe. And because I believe, I do. And so, this bewigged woman will step out of her home, out of her synagogue, unafraid, eager even, to let others know what and when and how and why she does what she does — though maybe only when they ask.
Devorie Kreiman, MA ED, lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of the Bas Mitzvah Notebook. Her work has appeared on Narrative.ly. She is a popular public speaker on the power of faith, humor and joy. Devorie is currently working on a memoir.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.