There was a time when decent women would never willingly appear in public without their heads covered. Until recently, it was a sign of a woman’s standing. Even late into the 20th century, some private girls’ schools mandated that students in uniform wear hats outside campus. The Torah tells of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to the high priest, who uncovered or disheveled her hair. It was a mark of shame to be seen publicly that way.
In Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering, edited by ,Lynne Schreiber (Urim Publications, $24.95), 25 writers, including one husband, explore the conti’oversial subject of Jewish women covering their hair after marriage. Not all Orthodox women who might have covered in the past do so now. The wife of renowned authority Rav J.B. Soleveichik, did not cover her hair, setting a far-reaching precedent.
The book raises questions: What is wrong with hair being seen? Why are married women seen differently than umnarried women? Why do some wear scarves or snoods, some hats, and some wigs? Why do some have hair showing and some have none? Each permutation comes with its own rationale, with groups of followers and rabbinic decisors offering opinions that seem more a matter of social mores than of modesty.
One bride writes of being color-identified for her first wig. “I felt I had been admitted to a new society, and this was my identifying number. I was a Jew, a woman, a lawyer and a kallah (bride), and now I was a four-six.” Another woman, widowed in her thirties with seven children, is halachically obliged to cover her head for the rest of her life so that no potential husband can see her lovely red tresses, and eligible strangers assume she is unavailable. There are stories by wig makers, cancer sufferers, women who have stopped covering their hair altogether and those who have moved to the most stringent coverings.
This challenging and thought-provoking book gives sources both for covering and not covering. The jury seems to come down on the side of covering, especially in synagogue; but in Judaism, that is not necessarily significant to most adherents.
Gael Hammer is a counselor, teacher and writer in Australia.