Last year I attended a class at a yeshiva in a very observant section of Jerusalem. As a married woman, I wore a hat out of respect for the community’s observance. After the class, while waiting several blocks away at a bus stop, I took the hat off. Two male yeshiva students sitting nearby almost passed out. For them, to see a married woman uncover her hair in public was inconceivable. For me, when not in class, it was just a hat.
In Orthodox circles, married women wear scarves, berets, hats, or wigs as a sign of their married status. And yet for me—a non-Orthodox woman grounded in tradition—these coverings were not the solution. I realized I needed something that is consistent with Jewish law, yet does not define me as Orthodox. I needed to find something “in between.”
The Talmud states that “the sight of a woman’s hair constitutes an erotic stimulus,” and “Jewish women, married or not, should not walk in the marketplace with their hair uncovered.” I see covering my head—not my hair—as a sign of Jewish identity, as a symbol of humility in the presence of God. (This tradition for men, and now for many women, is rooted in the clothing of the Temple priesthood.)
I live my life engaged with the Jewish community at work and at home. Everything I do has an aspect of holiness, whether I am listening to phone messages about an upcoming event, talking to a new member of our community, adding a synagogue program to the Community Calendar or leading Torah study. If I were a man, I would wear a kippah while I did all of these things. As a woman, I want to illustrate my connection with holiness on a daily basis. In a time when many Jews’ affiliation with Judaism is considered a cultural one, I want it known that my identity is based on a spiritual connection.
Ten years ago I was asked, for the first time, to be a Torah reader in public. My father gave me his tallit (a prayer shawl) to wear, but I didn’t feel comfortable wearing a kippah, which to me has a stronger gender association than a tallit. Since then, I have read from the Torah in public many times, and I feel “underdressed” in just a tallit. The synagogue I attend is a cross between Conservative and Reform. The men who read Torah wear both a tallit and a kippah, so how, in an egalitarian setting, can a woman not wear both also? And yet I am not interested in claiming the kippah, which to me is a man’s head covering.
What works for me? I choose to wear hand-painted headbands with familiar text passages on them: “la’asok b’divrei Torah” (“to interact with the words of Torah”) or “etz chaim hee” (“it is a tree of life”) or “v’col netivoteha shalom” (“and all Her paths are peace”). The band shows respect for the traditional community yet conveys that I am not traditionally Orthodox; it reclaims the traditional form of showing my married status; it has a clearly identifiable Jewish form; and it covers my head when I read Torah.
Today the lines between the Jewish movements blur in many ways. Some Reform Jews wear kippot and keep a kosher home. In the Orthodox world more and more women are studying texts, a traditionally male domain. I think of myself as part of a growing number of those who return to tradition but need to have it speak to the issues and conditions of the modern world. I am more knowledgeable and involved in more ritual than my parents. Through this process of thinking about head covering, I am taking myself and my family, and perhaps even my community, on a journey of return.
Jamie Hackel Hyams is the Community Programs Director for the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.