Hair Apparent: Considering Ultra-Orthodoxy at 17

Susan Josephs, as a 17-year old, considers and rejects ultra-Orthodoxy because of—hair! Hair and self-definition.

Susan Josephs. 23. is a staff writer at ^’e»’ York’s Jewish Week. Formerly she was an editorial intern at Ms. magazine, and before that editor-in-chief of U.C.L.A.’s Jewish monthly. Ha’ Am. When Josephs was 17—six short years ago- “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and she—she took the road to the left, and that’s been hairy.

When I was a child, my mother always made me cut my hair short. I have very thick, curly, dark, quintessentially “Jewish” hair. I love my Jewish hair, and I’ve always wanted it long. It was a constant, huge struggle between my mother and me. At 14, I began to grow my hair long, and my mother didn’t interfere.

My hair became an extension of myself—how I was going to establish autonomy in my life. Sometimes when I’m frustrated, when I’m thinking and have a creative idea, I touch my hair—it’s an external thing that’s much more than a physical characteristic to me. Hair means independent thought; it means freedom.

When I graduated from high school in San Diego, I was in the depths of a spiritual quandary. I grew up in an Orthodox family, but went to public high school. I was also very involved in the Orthodox youth organization, N.C.S.Y.

In other words, I was fragmented: In public school 1 was doing theater, I had friends who knew nothing about my life in Judaism. In N.C.S.Y. there was a correct “brand'” of Judaism—the ultimate thing to do was to observe everything halakhically, and to go study for a year in Israel when you finished high school to “find yourself.”

I compromised by going to Brovender’s yeshiva in Jerusalem for a summer. They have the reputation as the yeshiva with the most rigorous study program for women—at that time, they were the only yeshiva teaching Gemorrah to women.

I wanted to figure out who I was. I was very seriously trying to picture myself taking on all the trappings of a Strictly Orthodox Person. There was a lot of social pressure to wear skirts every day. and that was already oppressive to me. But in conversations with other students, it was—”Of course we’ll cover our hair; when you get married you HAVE to cover your hair,” and that’s what really terrified me.

The skirts I was doing. Grappling with the Laws of Purity 1 was doing. But what really struck terror into my heart, what really made me angry, was the thought that I would have to take my hair THAT I LOVE and conceal it. That would mean suffocating. It would mean stripping me of me.

That was my critical watershed point because it was the only thing I knew without question: I would not be covering my hair. From that certainty, I looked at other facets of Orthodoxy.

Since beginning to grow my hair out at 14, my hair has been long. People describe me: “She has this kind of—Hair.” “You can’t miss her. .she’s the woman with the HAIR.” “She has this HAIR.” I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful, but I unquestionably love my long, dark, curly, thick, quintessentially Jewish hair. People tease me, “How come you never want to do anything new to your hair?”

I love it long—the longer it gets, the freer I am.