Haircovering

6 years ago tomorrow, I made the decision to begin covering my hair.  It was such a momentous decision to me that I noted it on my calendar the same way I noted the day I decided to convert, birthdays, and anniversaries.  It is a mitzvah for married Jewish women to cover their hair and it’s one of the earlier mitzvahs I took on.  I did take a break from hair covering during my wanderings, but once we came back to the Synagogue, it felt weird not to cover, uncomfortable even though most women do not cover up here.

Part of my reasoning was practical.  In the communities we were interacting with, not having my hair covered kind of made it confusing for people to understand whether or not I was single.  In my community now, where the majority of married women do not cover, I might have waited longer.  Still, I felt drawn to covering my hair in a way I don’t always feel drawn to other mitzvos.  Mr. Safek and I weren’t married at that time, but we were living together as a family.  Our Rabbi agreed that it was a good idea for me to begin covering my hair as soon as I felt ready to do so.

It sometimes surprises me that so many born Jewish women struggle with the mitzvah of covering their hair, mostly because it was something that once I decided to convert, I looked forward to.  To me, besides dressing modestly, Orthodox women had few external signs of their faith.  Hair covering was a visible sign to the world around me of a commitment I’d made, both to Judaism and to the man I loved.  The idea of keeping my hair just for myself and for him also really spoke to me, especially in a world where so little is kept special.

I covered first with scarves called tichels.  I loved that I could mix and match colors and patterns and I felt regal in them, like I was wearing a crown.  However, few women in my community covered with tichels and it was strongly encouraged that I get a wig, called a sheitel.  I struggled with this for a while and wrote about that in another blog post, but eventually, I wanted to fit in with the other Jewish women I knew, so I bought a sheitel.  Now, I cover with a sheitel almost all the time because I like how it allows me to blend in better in the world.  Most non-Jews just assume it’s my hair even though most Jewish people can spot it a mile away.  It also fits in better at work and it fits the customs of my husband’s family and our community so much better.

I remember when we took a break from our conversion path and wandered and I uncovered my hair.  While I think most people would imagine that I’d gleefully tossed off my wig and shook out my mane like a lion, the reality was much more complicated.  I was very sad the first day I didn’t cover my hair.  I felt like I’d lost something very special, a connection to something that I very much mourned losing.  I also felt more vulnerable out in the world, raw and open, which very much fits with kabbalistic ideas about hair being like a receiver for what is around us.  For about 2 years, I’d been sheltered and now I was suddenly uncovered and unprotected.

However, just like I’d gotten so used to covering my hair, I also became used to having it uncovered.  Sensitivity dulled and I no longer felt so raw and vulnerable…until we came back to Orthodox Judaism.

My first time back in an Orthodox shul, I didn’t have my hair covered.  Suddenly, that sensitivity was back.  I felt naked, even though there were only a few women there with their hair covered.  Not long after, something happened at work that shocked me back into covering my hair.  A manager in the company, several levels above me, came to my cube to introduce an intern he was showing around.  As we spoke about a committee that he wanted me to volunteer for, he reached out and playfully tugged at my hair in mock disapproval.  It was like a jolt ran down my body and I suddenly felt so violated, perhaps moreso than if he’d touched my body.  I suddenly realized that I didn’t want just any man to be able to reach out and touch my hair.  I longed for that feeling of security and protection that hair covering had given me.  Perhaps I needed to have that break from covering to realize just how much it meant to me?

So, I put back on my scarves and then got a new sheitel to cover with.  It felt right.  It felt safe and secure and I was proud to so identify myself with Orthodox Jewish women.

It felt like being home again.

I am most content with my hair covered.  As I’ve grown in the mitzvah, it’s gotten to where there are so many facets to it that justify the complications or discomfort it might cause.  I like that when I uncover my hair in private, I do feel that sensitivity, that vulnerability and I feel safe in sharing that with the one closest to me and I like that I feel protected and sheltered when I’m out in the world.  I like that I’m marked and set aside as consecrated both to my beloved and to Hashem.  I’m proud to join a long tradition of women covering their hair.

I am home.

Healing My Relationship With Wigs

Two weeks ago, I got a package in the mail that I had been anxiously awaiting.  I took a deep breath before unwrapping it, nervous, hopeful.  It was like I was carefully measuring hope, not wanting to get TOO hopeful and be disappointed, but still really hoping.

That package was a wig and I have had a complicated relationship with wigs.

When I first took on the mitzvah of hair covering, I actually told my husband, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wear a wig.”  I had good reasons.  In my family, riddled with cancer, a woman wearing a wig meant one thing…death.  I can remember as a very young child walking in my grandfather’s house to my great Aunt Ruth’s room.  There were these little squares of blue and aqua trapped in the linoleum, like a fake version of tiny mosaic tile.  I tried to stomp on them with my hard-soled shoes, the shoes that were supposed to be better for walking and I tugged at my tights and my scratchy Sunday dress.  I loved my Great Aunt Ruth, but then everyone did.  She was a woman who could set anyone at ease and she loved me especially, the only little girl in a family that had once been filled with women.

Those women had been dying off, one after another, each of cancer.  I was too young to know.

When I reached her room, I went to her bed where a white nubby bedspread beckoned.  It felt good to run my hands over those little nubs in their pattern.  There was a sunny window and I moved closer to it, there, on top of a round table was something that frightened me.  A blank face stared back at me, without eyes or color and on top…was my Aunt Ruth’s auburn hair!  I screamed and cried and my mother came to find me and quiet me.

My Great Aunt Ruth died not long after.

During my childhood, I learned to be an expert at how to behave at funerals and it began to seem normal that my Great Aunts and Uncles died.  They seemed so old to me, but now I realize they were my age now or a bit older.  A part of that dying process was the wigs.  They were like a shadow that settled on the dying woman.  I looked at the sheitels Orthodox Jewish women wore and shuddered.

So, I first began covering with scarves.  Colorful tichels seemed to speak so much more of life, of vibrancy.  However, as I moved into an Ashkenazic community, I wanted more and more to fit in…and fitting in meant a sheitel of my own.

My first sheitel was cute, but scratchy and it always seemed to be trying to escape my head.  At a gala, where we were all dressed up, an Israeli woman came up to me and, in characteristically blunt fashion, very pointedly said, “You MUST cut your hair!”  I agreed, partly so she would move on.  (She was a very nice and kind woman and it was good advice, but at times I felt intimidated by her directness!)  My husband, though, didn’t want my thick hair cut short.  I hoped my next sheital would be better, but again, it was a scratchy, head-ache inducing mess.  I covered my hair for 7 years, with a break in the midst of that.  I snuck in my scarves any time I could!

So, I looked down at the box and hoped.  I’d ordered this wig specifically because it had a “large” sized cap.  Would it be large enough?  Would it still fit right?  I’d even compromised on the color and style in order to get this “large” cap.  I took it out, eyeing it skeptically.  Finally, I went and put my hair up.  It’s a process to get it all pinned up properly under a wig.  I usually make two low ponytails, one on either side of my head, near the nape of my neck and just behind my ears, then twist each one, wrapping it up onto my head where I pin it.  Next, I put on a wig cap, which keeps any stray hairs contained, then, finally the wig.

And the wig.

Suddenly, it wasn’t as itchy!  I didn’t feel like I needed to tug it back into place when no one was looking!  It might not be the most stylish look, but it’s so much more comfortable than I thought it would be!

I have worn my new sheitel now for 2 weeks straight, with a brief break to wash it.  I’ve actually chosen it over my scarves.  It’s short and easy and matches anything.  Plus, it fits better with the community our family are part of.  I also like that I blend in more with everyone else and get fewer stares.

I feel like, in some ways, I have finally made peace with that frightened little girl, confronting a wig of death.  Letting go of that association has been part of letting go of so many others and being more open to the possibilities life offers.