Or: How I Came to Shun the Sheitel
Like almost all Orthodox Jewish women I know, I’ve been covering my hair ever since I got married—that’s twenty years now, bli ayin hara (lit. without the evil eye, fig. and there should be many more years). Wearing snoods, hats, etc. around my neighborhood is common practice, but when I show up to a simcha (happy occasion) in a dressy hat, it always elicits the same question, usually asked with a mixture of surprise and grudging admiration:
“Don’t you ever wear a sheitel [wig]?”
“No,” I tell them. “I don’t. Never did, in fact, and probably never will.”
Most of my peers cannot imagine why in the world a married woman would pass up the chance to be able to put on a head of hair that looks every bit as good as her own (better, usually). Doesn’t my husband prefer me in a sheitel? Don’t I feel strange standing out? Don’t I want to look more glamorous?
So now, for the record, I’d like to lay the whole issue to rest by laying out the reasons an otherwise run-of-the-mill frum housewife ended up eschewing the wig despite the fact that it is the norm in my community and despite the fact that it can make a woman look really great.
The Husband’s Say
One of the reasons I don’t wear a wig is the very same reason a lot of women do: the preference of my husband. I know plenty of women whose husbands are much happier seeing them in a wig. But mine happens to be opposed to them because he feels that they have been abused in our generation. So many of the wigs one sees today are clearly antithetical to the whole idea of modesty that wigs are supposed to enforce, what with long flowing tresses, tendrils, fancy braiding and such that are clearly meant to look provocative. So my husband prefers to dispense with them altogether.
My husband has a second good reason to nix the wig; he happens to be Sephardic, and several prominent Sephardic rabbis have ruled that wearing a wig is not a Sephardic custom. In our shul, which attracts a yeshiva-type Sephardic crowd, most of the women who wear wigs top them with a little hat or beret, Chasidic-style, to make it clear there is something covering the hair. One of them told me quite apologetically, “I wanted to cover my hair with only a scarf or beret, but it never looked good on me. My family comes from Egypt, where the Arabs all wore headscarves, so the scarf always felt very Arab to me—like the housemaid. So I finally bought a wig, but I added the hat.”
My husband also grew up in an Arab country, where both Jews and Arabs who were religious covered their heads. But he retains only the fondest memories of the heavily embroidered headscarves his grandmother used to wear. Sightless since young adulthood, she would nevertheless go through the house and make sure the shutters did not let in one ray of sunlight before she combed out her hair and covered it in the morning. Nostalgia for Moroccan customs and for his grandmother’s simple piety fuel my husband’s desire that I cover my hair with fabric rather than a wig.
The Wife’s Say
My own childhood was radically different than my husband’s, growing up as I did in the suburbs of America far from any contact with Torah Yiddishkeit; but in a funny way that also led me to decide that I didn’t wish to wear a wig. Not having merited to grow up observant, I was at least 22 years old before I even heard of the idea that an Orthodox married woman was supposed to cover her head.
Many newcomers to Orthodoxy have a hard time accepting this concept. Somehow, I didn’t. I had never been particularly vain about my hair—in fact, had gone through too many tiresome years of fighting to make it cooperate with the style of the moment, always an uphill battle with the unruly locks I had. And I always had a soft spot for hats and scarves. When I went to learn Torah in Jerusalem, the streets there were filled with women who covered their hair with gauzy, Indian-printed scarves shot with gold or silver threads that glittered like jewels under the Israeli sun. I was entranced. I even bought a few in the hopes that someday I’d be a married lady crowned, like them, with sparkling proof of my modesty. The whole idea seemed both holy and rather romantic at the same time.
Those of us who come to Orthodoxy as adults find ourselves a bit like Alice in Wonderland—wide-eyed, curious, and forever encountering new concepts that strike us as very strange and sometimes hard to understand. So while I didn’t find it strange to have to cover one’s hair for reasons of modesty, I must say that I found the concept of the wig quite bizarre. A woman, in order to be modest and to reserve the full measure of her beauty for her husband, had to cover her hair. . . with more hair? With fake hair, or somebody else’s hair? With hair that looked just like one’s own hair or, as is frequently the case, quite a bit better? So what was the difference?
“It doesn’t matter how the hair is covered,” I was told, “The main thing is for it to be covered.” The spirit of the law seemed to be at best rather irrelevant to the way it was carried out, and at worst, when the wig was long and seductive-looking, even in complete contradiction to the intent of the halacha. If the hair was covered by a wig so natural that even those “in the know” had to look twice to see if the woman’s hair was covered or not, and if she looked twice as alluring in her wig than au natural, then what happened to the concept of saving one’s true beauty for one’s husband?
I just couldn’t make sense of it.
Shortly after I was married, I went to Crown Heights to spend the last days of Sukkot with friends of the family. Walking to shul alone one morning to rejoin my husband, I found myself behind two black girls who were discussing Jewish women’s hair. “Don’t you know, girl,” said the first one, “all those Jewish ladies wear wigs!” “Yeah?” responded the second one incredulously. “No kidding!” “Hey,” said the first one, “didn’t you ever wonder why they all have such nice thick heads of hair after having all those kids?”
Only a non-Jew who’s been living next to Jews for years has any clue how we Jewish ladies manage to have such great-looking hair all the time. We know our hair is covered, but they sure don’t. This saddens me, because it means that an opportunity for kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) has been lost. I want the non-Jew, and the non-religious Jew for that matter, to see that I cover my hair, that I am proud to follow Jewish laws of modesty.
A man has to wear something on his head so that it will be covered when he makes brachot, but Jewish men never wear toupees for that purpose. They wear a kippah, which makes a public statement that the wearer is a yirei shamayim (God fearing). While a woman is more private, and doesn’t need to wear her yiras shamayim as publicly as a man, still it wouldn’t hurt to show plainly that she covers her hair because she respects Jewish law. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the immigrant Pakistani women roam the streets wearing their distinctive tunics, trousers and headscarves with apparent pride. If these non-Jews are proud to dress in a way that bespeaks their cultural and religious traditions, then shouldn’t we Jewish women be that much more proud to cover our heads in ways that announce that we are different and glad that we are? Why aren’t we equally proud to show the world how important tznius (modesty) is to us?
A five dollar headscarf buys a look of kedusha, or holiness for a woman that a five thousand dollar custom sheitel doesn’t even come close to creating. After all, there is no special dignity or mystery about a woman when she wears a wig. The wig says, “Oh, so you can’t see my hair? Well, in case you were wondering, this is what it looks like” (or, more accurately in our day, “what I wish it looked like!”). The headscarf says: “You can’t see my hair and I’m not going to even hint to you what it looks like. I prefer to keep something back from the general public, and share it only with my husband.”
How Did We Get Here?
Sometimes I ask myself how the Jewish community so suddenly took on the practice of wearing wigs, to the point where it has become the unquestioned common practice in the majority of Orthodox circles. If I understand correctly, the wig is a very recent development, a mere blip on the almost-6,000-year-old time line of our history. Only in the past generation or so has the custom sheitel become the sine qua non of every Jewish married woman.
I read once that when wigs were first introduced in Europe, most of the rabbanim were opposed to them. Those that ultimately gave a heter, or dispensation, to wear wigs did so with the stipulation that the wig be clearly identifiable as a wig. Have new heterim been issued since those times to permit wigs that are made of human hair and look completely natural? We still have wigs today that obviously look like wigs, but nobody wants to wear them; what every bride wants these days is the kind of human-hair sheitel that turns mediocre-looking girls into attractive girls and attractive girls into show-stoppers. They cost a fortune, but hey, so do yeshiva tuitions and making simchas, and if you’re going to wear it every day, the average frum lady figures it’s worth it.
Now, it should also be said for the record that today, many women hold professional jobs that require them to look more or less mainstream. In the same way that many men shave their beards for professional reasons, most women in jobs that require them to deal with the larger public feel the necessity of presenting themselves in as neutral a way as possible. In these cases, a wig is unavoidable; I’m sure if I had a fancy Wall Street-type job, I’d have to wear a sheitel too.
Outside and Inside
I strongly suspect that wearing a fabulous sheitel changes not only the way others perceive a Jewish woman, but the way she perceives herself. After all, while the way we dress reflects the way we feel about ourselves, it goes the other way too: the way we dress has an influence on the way we behave and feel. Don’t we all act and feel differently wearing a headscarf and a model’s coat than we do wearing a suit and pearls? A glamorous head of hair makes a woman feel glamorous, and she will carry herself differently because of it. Quite often I have seen women wearing long, expensive wigs tossing their “hair” to make it swirl around their shoulders, or playing with bangs that were designed to fall into the eyes. Those luxurious wigs make their wearers more rather than less conscious of their appearances, and tempt them to draw other’s attention to their lovely heads of hair as well.
A person could argue, of course, that some fancy hats are equally as attention-grabbing as fancy sheitels, and that would be true; any ostentatious clothing goes against the whole idea of modesty. But at least hats have the advantage of making it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the woman’s head is covered. A woman wearing a hat does not parade an alluring head of feminine hair before the general public, which includes many people who do not have a clue that the beautiful hair she is wearing is not her own.
There is an important difference between feeling attractive and good about oneself, which are inner satisfactions, and seeking to be looked at and admired by others (including men not one’s husband). Our focus as Jewish women is supposed to be primarily on our inner selves, and our most important sphere of activity within the four walls of our homes, as opposed to being concentrated on the outside world and preoccupied with getting people to admire the way we look.
Kol kevudah bat melech penimah, the tehillah (psalm) tells us: the glory of the princess resides within. Our most important qualities are the inner ones, our middos, even though our outside appearance should be worthy of the noble character inside.
In today’s climate of materialism and narcissism, it is all the more important to be focused on how we can build up other people rather than worrying about whether or not our looks will compel their admiration. Only a woman who understands that beauty begins from within is a woman who has grasped the true meaning of tznius.
The End Goal
I watch my daughters, who unlike me are lucky enough to grow up religious, eyeing the sheitels of our neighbors and their teachers, wondering what kind they might wear one day. My husband, I’m sure, will try to persuade them not to wear them, but ultimately it’s they and their husbands who will decide. I just hope that, whatever they end up doing, they will choose to cover their hair in ways that reflect the spirit as well as the letter of our halachos of tznius. The end goal is tznius, but ideally the means used to achieve this goal should be consistent with it. Sheitel or snood, let it reflect the values we hold dear for a Jewish woman: simplicity, low-key and unostentatious styles of dress and behavior, a certain degree of emes (truth).
Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She just celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.