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The Shaytl & Susan B. Anthony

In which the author’s mother contemplates casting off her traditional wig. Hair and subjugation.

Mrs. Michaelson was shouting about her wig. It was a hot Baltimore summer afternoon. The temperature was 90, and the humidity was hovering close to 95. The shaytl, she claimed, was heavy and hot and was the cause of her extremely high blood pressure. Susan B. Anthony had freed American women from bondage, but she had not been able to lift the burden from Mrs. Michaelson’s head. The Sanhedrin was too crafty even for Susan B. Anthony. Though she had been able to get the Constitution amended, Susan B. Anthony was unable to stop the Sanhedrin from continuing its subjugation of Jewish women.

Rabbi Michaelson again began his “too late” sermon. “We came to America too late, rehetsn. If we had come when we were younger. I would have shaved my beard. You could have grown your hair. I would have given up my Prince Albert and velvet hat. But now they’ve seen us like this. How can we change? How would I make a living? What would people say?”

In truth, Rabbi Michaelson knew this argument no longer worked with his wife. It used to work before she started Americanization class, and Susan B. Anthony had become her idol. Mrs. Michaelson had changed since she went to school to prepare for the citizenship exam. From a shy retiring woman, she had turned into a confident angry one. She had liked going to class and being away from her housewifely routines. Now, she thought that there was something to life besides husband, children and the shul sisterhood. Besides this, she had scored five points higher on the exam than her husband, and he had had private lessons. How could she score higher? His wife—a woman, who couldn’t even be counted for a minyan.

“I’m burning up,” Mrs. Michaelson continued angrily. “Look how I’m perspiring. And there’s no sense to it. It’s pubic hair that has to be covered up. Only the Sanhedrin would get confused and include all hair—they know it’s not all hair! They use this for suppression, to make women look unattractive, older, unstylish. At least if I could go to New York to Madame Marie’s. Her wigs are lighter, more becoming. Kohlerman’s wigs are the heaviest and make you old before your time.”

“New York? Where would we get the money? Do you understand how much I earn?” Rabbi Michaelson shot back. “Be thankful there is food on the table!”

“There will always be food on the table,” Mrs. Michaelson replied acidly, “because you like to eat. There is always money for what you want. But your wages can never buy what I want.”

The truth, however, was more complicated. Actually, Mrs. Michaelson did accept her husband’s “too late” argument. She also believed that they had arrived in America too late in their lives for things to change drastically for her. But she also felt her husband was overly concerned with “what people would say.” She was sure that the congregation was not preoccupied with the subject of whether their rebetsn showed her own hair or that of the local wigmaker’s. Mrs. Michaelson had had such gorgeous auburn hair, with natural curls. Like the Greenstein girl. Last night at the Greenstein girl’s wedding, Frances walked down the aisle—such a beautiful young girl. After the wedding, in her going-away suit, she had on that frightful shaytl. She looked like a defeated tired old woman, and the look on her face—the eternal ageless suffering of Jewish women was on Frances’ face.

The same thing had happened to her. A lovely young girl had been changed into a matronly woman. But going to Americanization class had filled her with hope. Perhaps something could be retrieved. After all, it had not been easy for Susan B. Anthony either. She had even been arrested.

Mrs. Michaelson went into the kitchen to prepare the four-course dinner that they ate each evening. Even on such a hot day as this, there was an appetizer, soup, main course with side dishes and a dessert. Otherwise her husband would complain.

Rabbi Michaelson came in to supervise. He did like to eat, and he wanted to make sure that there was nothing on the menu that he disliked. He sat down at the kitchen table. The dinner, when Mrs. Michaelson completed the preparations, would suit him admirably. It was dairy: vegetarian chopped liver made out of spinach and eggs, potato soup, baked fish with cucumber salad, and baked apple.

“I used to have such beautiful auburn hair, such wonderful curls—a lot of good they did me,” Mrs. Michaelson sighed.

“Why are we talking about curls?”

“We are talking about curls because that is what attracted you to me, and now that you got me I have to keep them covered especially on days like these, when it’s 90 degrees outside, but it must be 150 in this kitchen.”

“This is history, rebetsn. We had too late a start in America. How can you now take off the wig when there are just ordinary pious Jews whose wives wear wigs? What will these people say if the wife of the rabbi, the head of the whole Vad Ha ‘Rabanim, who is the example for the entire community, would take off her wig?”

“That’s the point! I’ll set the example like Susan B. Anthony. I’ll carry her message. Men their rights and nothing more: women their rights and nothing less.”

“What rights don’t you have that everyone else has?” Rabbi Michaelson snorted. “Susan B. Anthony got women the vote. You can vote in your shaytl.”

“I can vote, but I’m enslaved!”

“What do you mean ‘enslaved?'”

“Look at me!” Mrs. Michaelson shouted suddenly, her anger again flaring. “I look like my grandmother in this wig. Only 37 years old and what am I doing? I’m sweating under a shaytl, cooking this ridiculous hot dinner when everyone knows that today is the day for a cold salad. How come we don’t know about cold salads?”

“Salads are side dishes.”

“Oy, Got in himl, why don’t you free me from this servitude? This kitchen is hot as Gehenna, only I’m sure it’s not as hot there.”

“Out of the way! I’ll cook the dinner,” said Rabbi Michaelson, pushing Mrs. Michaelson from the stove.

‘No, you’ll make a mess, and then I’ll have to stay and swelter even longer, cleaning as well as cooking.”

“You just want to argue! You say you’re enslaved in this kitchen, but when I offer to free you, you come up with objections!”

“That’s because you respond to details rather than the general picture! You just don’t understand what it’s like for me—to come to America, the land of opportunity, and to end up controlled by some ancient group of men who have no relevance to this day and age. I am in the New World. Ha! A lot of good it’s doing me!” She was screaming.

“I’m sick of this!” Rabbi Michaelson banged on the stove top. “If this is a campaign to go around with your head uncovered, you’re wasting your time, rebetsn. The answer is NO! ABSOLUTELY NO! DEFINITELY NO!”

“Sad was the day when I laid eyes on you! Who were you? A starving yeshiva boy? It was I who married beneath me. I who had a family tree of robonim since the 1500s! Who are you to tell me what to do, to be my supervisor, to tell me what is right from wrong?”

“I was a brilliant yeshiva boy who came to the home of a revered rabbi to court his daughter who we all believed wanted a talmid khokhem, who would hold her husband in high esteem and observe all the Jewish laws and customs…”

“That’s the point. Exactly the point,” interjected Mrs. Michaelson. “I do observe the laws and customs. I do respect your learning. But where does it say about a shaytl? Are men so oversexed that the sight of a married woman’s hair would get them excited? Why punish poor women for that?” and she too banged on the stove top.

“All the women in your family wore shaytls, and you should be grateful to me. I rescued you from Hungary, from Oppihide, that tiny town, from the rural life, brought you to a new land, a big city.”

“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. What good is it to be here if everything is the same?

“Everything is better! We have a big house, two bathrooms; we live across from a park. The air is fresh like the country, and we live in the city!”

“BUT I CAN’T BREATHE!”

Mrs. Michaelson hadn’t meant that she actually couldn’t breathe physically, but when Rabbi Michaelson looked at his wife, her face was scarlet, and she was gasping. “Get out of this kitchen,” he screamed. “Go sit out on the porch! I’ll call Dr. Kampleman.”

Rabbi Michaelson rushed to the telephone terribly upset. When his wife’s pressure began to climb, it was dangerous.

Fortunately, Dr. Kampleman was in his office, which was a few doors from the Michaelson house. He came right over. He took Mrs. Michaelson’s blood pressure. It was 220.

“She’ll need complete bed rest,” Dr. Kampleman said. “She’ll have to stay in bed until her pressure goes down.” Rabbi Michaelson helped Mrs. Michaelson upstairs. He had trouble looking at her—he felt guilty. Maybe there was some truth to her complaints about the shaytl. Maybe it was too heavy; maybe it had something to do with blood pressure. Her blood pressure did rise to these dangerous heights, and Dr. Kampleman had warned that high pressure could cause a stroke.

Mrs. Michaelson just lay there. The bedroom was hot, too, but removing her shaytl had helped, and getting out of that kitchen had helped too. She knew she would be in bed for a few days. Her blood pressure went up quickly, but it was hard to bring down.

Rabbi Michaelson came up with some iced tea. Mrs. Michaelson said she felt better. Her head felt much lighter without the wig. “If only I could go to New York—to Madame Marie’s. If I had had a light wig, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Rabbi Michaelson was nervous about his wife’s condition, and he knew he mustn’t upset her. Nevertheless, he lost control.

“I give up!” He started shouting once again. “You want a shaytl from Madame Marie, have one! God knows where I’ll find the money, but go! Go! Call Rifkeh. Stay with them. Go! Go to New York and buy yourself a new wig. Take the train—Go! Here’s the money,” and he opened the dresser drawer where he kept various wallets filled with cash. “Two hundred dollars—Go! And maybe there will be some sholem bayis here! A meal without Susan B. Anthony. That’s all I needed, her and her suffragettes!” Rabbi Michaelson stormed from the room.

Mrs. Michaelson was shocked that her husband had handed over the money. She didn’t wait to discuss it for fear that he would change his mind. She called her sister-in-law, Rivkeh, to say she was coming. She would take the early morning train a week from next Monday. Rivkeh would meet her, and they would go directly to Madame Marie. They would then travel to Brooklyn. She would spend the night, and return to Baltimore the next day.

Mrs. Michaelson recovered in a few days. On the train to New York, she wondered why her husband had given in this time when he had refused so many other times. He must have been moved by her illness. “Maybe I could have gone further; maybe I could have given up the wig altogether,” she thought.

When the train arrived in New York, Rivkeh was waiting. “She’s 38, but she looks 70,” thought Mrs. Michaelson as she waved from the train window. “Madame Marie’s wares aren’t doing her much good.”

The experience at Madame Marie’s was not what Mrs. Michaelson had envisioned. There was a very fancy waiting lounge and display cases, but a wig was a wig—and there was a look about the wigs of the Orthodox women that, no matter what, was always the same. More disappointing, Madame Marie was unable to match Mrs. Michaelson’s natural hair as well as she would have liked. She wanted something more auburn. But they either had flaming red, which she didn’t like at all, or a reddish brown, which couldn’t compare to the natural color of her hair. It just was not like wearing your own hair. There was always that gap, alas, between the wig line and the back of the neck—the gap which revealed that you were wearing a shaytl.

After a number of trials, Mrs. Michaelson chose something. Rivkeh said it was marvelous. Mrs. Michaelson saw that it was an improvement over what she was wearing, but it still made her look just the same as every Orthodox woman in a wig. Hopefully when the wig was made to her head size, it would look better. It had to be made to order, and would be sent to Baltimore in a month.

It was just 3 o’clock, but Mrs. Michaelson decided she was too depressed to face her brother in Brooklyn—he was even more doctrinaire than her husband. She would eat something at Farm Food, and then return home. Though Rivkeh tried to persuade Mrs. Michaelson to stay over, she would not change her mind.

She was not feeling the way she had thought she would. There was no surge of elation. She was soon to be an Orthodox woman of fashion! She would have a custom-made shaytl from New York, from Madame Marie—what she had always said she wanted. But now, it was not what she wanted.

Rabbi Michaelson was delighted to see the taxi that brought Mrs. Michaelson home from the train station a day early. He did not like Mrs. Michaelson to spend the night away from him. He was, however, concerned about Mrs. Michaelson’s quiet sad mood. She explained that she was tired, that it had been a long day, and went to bed.

The next day Mrs. Michaelson served her husband his usual breakfast when he returned from the morning prayers at the synagogue. She cleared and washed the dishes and started to cook the dinner. She cleaned the house, then told her husband that she had some errands downtown. She took the trolley car to Howard and Lexington, crossed the street, and entered Hutzler’s department store.

Going directly to the scarf department, she asked for scarves that could be tied into turbans. She bought six in colors that would match her dresses, dark ones, as her dresses were very conservative. She brought them home and practiced tying turbans, arranging them so a few waves of her hair would show out. She thought this looked much better than a shaytl.

Mrs. Michaelson meant this to be a lighter, more attractive substitute for her old shaytl until the Madame Marie article arrived. In the weeks before her new wig was delivered, Mrs. Michaelson learned that no one paid attention to what she had on her head. Everyone thought that she was wearing a wig under the turban. Her hair grew longer, and little by little she exposed a few more waves. Mrs. Michaelson was feeling better. She had no more headaches, and she was certain that her blood pressure was down.

When the package from Madame Marie’s arrived, Mrs. Michaelson buried it deep in her lingerie drawer. She never took it out. She just kept wearing her turbans. She felt that a tremendous encumbrance had been lifted from her. And this feeling was renewed every time she reached into her drawer for a corset and felt the soft wig there.

Rabbi Michaelson knew that Mrs. Michaelson wasn’t wearing her shaytl. She was keeping her hair covered in public and no one had noticed that her own hair was underneath, so he decided not to mention the subject. She did look much better and was much happier and healthier. He was worried about one thing, though, but hopefully this wouldn’t come up for years, and by then maybe he could persuade his wife to wear her wig again. The cemetery that Rabbi Michaelson was expecting to be buried in when he died was a very Orthodox one where all the most pious Jewish were buried. All the women who were buried there had worn wigs when they were alive. Would Mrs. Michaelson be allowed to be buried beside him if she hadn’t worn a wig in her lifetime? It would be terrible if Mrs. Michaelson couldn’t be beside him.

Rabbi Michaelson knew that he should discuss this with Mrs. Michaelson immediately and try to persuade her to wear her shaytl, but he was so attracted by Mrs. Michaelson’s new look, and he didn’t want to start another fight. Besides, they were still young. He would postpone this worry about cemeteries and eternity. He would wait a while yet before broaching the subject of eternity with Mrs. Michaelson.

Postscript: This is how Mrs. Michaelson’s story would have ended had she lived in the 60s, 70s or 80s. However, this all occurred in the 30s and 40s, just a few decades too early.

What really happened was that Mrs. Michaelson did travel to New York for a shaytl at Madame Marie’s. She bought the turbans, but wore them only at home. Mrs. Michaelson wore her new wig when she went out. She despised it as much as she had the old one and argued furiously with her husband for the rest of her life about its suppressive effects.

She transmitted her feelings about wigs to her three Orthodox daughters. They were “liberated”—none of them ever wore a shaytl. Mrs. Michaelson died in 1955, at age 62, of a stroke caused by extremely high blood pressure. She was my mother.

Irene Glassgold is a learning specialist in a private practice living in Riverdale, NY. She began writing at age 55.