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Searching for the Perfect Wig

Other Orthodox women cover their hair with beautiful sheitels. Why does mine make me look like Marge Simpson?

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A wig shop in Bnei Brak. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

During that period, Joanne died. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t hit by a truck or blown up by a terrorist. She got a terrible headache and then she was gone, leaving a husband and three children, the youngest of whom was a girl of 4. My appointment fell right after the shiva week. I canceled. For a time, I forgot about sheitels.

Then, one warm spring day about six months later, when I was highly pregnant and feeling like my body had been taken over by my stomach, I drifted into a downtown Jerusalem sheitel salon. The stylist handed me a catalog full of pictures of the same woman in hundreds of different styles, as if she were preparing to enter a witness protection program. I chose a dark brown pageboy.

After a half hour of sitting still while the stylist snipped and combed the wig that was affixed to my head with an elastic band, I was ready. I thought I looked good; maybe too good? Was I violating the spirit of the modesty laws? The last thing I wanted to be was a head-turner in a sheitel.

But at home, my brand new wig looked as if it was made of molten plastic. I was devastated. Had I been deceived by the salon’s lights? By my faulty eyesight?

“Take it to my girl,” said my sheitel-maven cousin Hedva. Hedva’s “girl,” who happened to be a grown woman, was booked solid.

“I’ll book you with Shula tomorrow. She’s just as good,” the salon receptionist said.

Against my better judgment, I took the appointment.

“The color removes the light from your face,” Shula said while looking at my new purchase, her face set in a frown.

She snipped and teased and combed, turning my light-deflecting pageboy into a light-deflecting pixie.

Back at home, my kids said the short sheitel turned me into an alte bubbe, an old grandma. I was barely 34. I returned the wig to its box and went back to hats and scarves.

On a visit to the United States, my pal Rivi booked me into her own sheitelmacher, Chani, the top stylist at the leading salon, in the sheitel capital of the world: Boro Park, Brooklyn.

“You don’t know what a big favor she is doing by squeezing you in,” Rivi told me with great seriousness.

After a five-hour wait, my turn to see Chani arrived. True to form, she picked out the perfect wig, a short frothy bob that struck the elusive balance between elegance and modesty. I floated out of the salon on a cloud of love for all the other sheitel wearers who crowded the Boro Park streets, all of us sisters under our wigs.

Back home in Jerusalem, I gave my new sheitel to my babysitter’s wayward niece, who claimed to be a beauty school graduate, for a wash. She blow-dried the curls to straw.

Since that time nearly 20 years ago, I’ve worn my way through a dozen or more wigs. I’m still searching for that perfect one.

On my current search I learned about a new innovation in the rapidly evolving world of sheitel technology: a hairpiece that converts a band fall (a wig with a cloth headband replacing the hair in front) into a full wig. Since I already have a band fall, the sheitelmacher suggested this. Priced at $520, as opposed to up to four times that price for a regular wig, it almost seemed like a steal. I ordered one over the telephone sight unseen, but on its Styrofoam wig head, it looked like the front of a Lhasa Apso pup.

On my head, the piece is an 18-year-old’s hair framing my 53-year-old face, like Dorian Grey in reverse. Do I like it? Right after the stylist had finished her work, I did, but once I got home, the combs holding the two halves together popped open, making me look me look like Marge Simpson.

So, I’m back where I started. And as I ponder my options—continue the search for something new, try to fix the damaged wig I already bought, stick it out with my old wig, or go back to scarves and hats—I know one thing: I’m still feeling bad about my sheitel.

***

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lcsterling says:

Please explain this strange custom to me. If you’re wearing a wig, you’re wearing hair. Why not just wear your own?

meqmac says:

Have you thought of looking in non-Jewish wig shops???

As a Christian woman going through chemo and a huge fan of Israel, I can absolutely relate to the column. It gave me a real lift to learn I had something in common with Jewish women.

person63 says:

It is mysterious that it is OK to see another woman’s hair on your head, but not your own hair, particularly if the wig looks natural, but I think the point is that one’s own hair becomes a secret between husband and wife – more about preserving their privacy as a couple than about hair itself. What I find more confusing is when a woman shaves her head, and then wears a wig – at that point, no one is enjoying her hair, and is she going to feel attractive in private?

Does a wig need to look “real” or could it be in an unusual color (pink, blue, green, etc – I’m not trying to be clever, I’m serious – I think it would be fun to wear a colored wig) – ? Do they make white or gray wigs for older women? It occurs to me I have never seen one.

I love this story.

Right– which is why several poskim (arbiters/interpreters of Jewish law) say that wearing a wig does not satisfy the requirement to cover one’s hair. However, most poskim say that what makes hair erotic is its attachment to the head; in fact, some poskim who say that not ALL the hair must be covered say that only the point where it attached to the scalp must be covered. These poskim usually hold that once hair is removed from the scalp, it loses its erotic pull, and some of them even hold that you can wear a wig made of your OWN hair!

The unpopularity of grey or white wigs for older women is probably a result of two things. First, grey or white hair is weaker and drier (which is the same reason it doesn’t take to hair dye the same way younger hair does), so it breaks more easily, and these wigs are so expensive that you wouldn’t want that. Also, think about it– millions of women spend TONS of money dying or highlighting their hair to hide going grey; if you were going to wear a wig every day anyway, why not do the same?

Wigs do not need to look “real” to fulfill the mitzvah: I have a friend who observes this mitzvah very strictly who wore a bright blue wig on Purim. Since kisui rosh (covering the hair/head) makes up a distinct but integral part of the modesty laws of married women, however, it would not be “modest” to attract attention by walking around with neon hair.

Also, as I stated in a comment above, there are actually a few poskim who allow women to wear wigs made of their own hair, holding that it loses its eroticism once it is no longer attached to the scalp. The head-shaving thing is a practical concern: 1.) you won’t accidentally flash someone a few strands of your hair if your wig or hat goes askew, and 2.) when immersing in the mikveh, stray hairs sticking to your neck or back are the top reason an immersion is invalid, so shaving eliminates this issue.

lcsterling says:

I see. Weirder and weirder. Had a friend in L.A. who nearly joined an orthodox community until he learned that their rabbi extended the Sabbath “home” area with blessed string on telephone poles beyond the original area — the extreme bending of laws to suit one’s purpose was the end for him.

That’s called an eruv, and it’s not quite what your friend understood it to be. The law isn’t about extending your “home”– it’s about making your home and the rest of the neighborhood part of the same “domain,” since carrying objects (like books, prayer shawls, or even babies) between domains on Shabbat is forbidden (leaving at least one parent stuck at home with young children, and making things like picnics, sports, or potlucks impossible). Essentially, it marks the Jewish neighborhood as one domain, and it can’t be of an unlimited size. There are many other restrictions (whether major streets can go through it, etc.), but it’s basically saying, “This isn’t public domain! This is still OUR neighborhood.” The string isn’t “blessed” as in “magic” or anything; there’s a blessing for creating an eruv, just as there are blessings for most things in Judaism, including seeing lightning, eating, or hanging mezuzot (boxes containing small prayer scrolls) on doorposts.

The eruv is a bit of Jewish legal fiction that really helps people, and while I know you didn’t mean to offend I’d be careful about calling it “extreme bending of laws to suit one’s purpose,” since Orthodox tradition holds that both the written Torah and the oral Torah (the Talmud) were revealed by G-d to Moses; that is, it’s not bending the rules– it IS the rule. Not my understanding of Jewish law, but it still helps to be respectful. If your friend is/was interested in an Orthodox community, he should definitely discuss concerns like this with the rabbi– there are actually rabbis who hold that an eruv cannot be used, or cannot be used except in case of absolute necessity (like the baby situation).

chayar says:

The Talmud devotes an entire tractate to the eruv. If your friend thinks this is about a particular rabbi bending the law in an extreme manner to suit his purposes, he is misinformed.
P.S. Great piece, Carol.

person63 says:

Thanks for the response.

I have gray hair, which I like, and prefer not to color. I wonder if it would be possible to find a synthetic wig that would not have the problems of wigs made from real hair. (There seems to be not much point in trying to make it look natural. Ma’arit ayin says that we don’t want to appear as if we are not behaving properly, but I am not clear if head covering is part of halakhah, or simply custom.

I had never heard that strands of hair sticking to one’s neck or back is a problem in the mikveh. If one had one’s hair down, naturally it would stick to the entire body when wet. My understanding is that pinning it up would not be an option, because then one would not have full immersion, or be completely undressed.

Shaving then raises the question: If there is no hair to cover, why wear a head covering at all?

I’m absolutely sure that there are synthetic wigs that would avoid the problems of natural grey hair– in fact, I know a cancer patient who wears one. It’s probably just a function of the market– another thing that might limit the supply of natural-looking grey wigs is that many older Orthodox women cover their hair with scarves and/or hats rather than the expensive wigs that require upkeep.

Yes, anything that gets between your skin and the water of the mikveh can be an issue. I should have been clearer: I meant LOOSE hairs, not ones still attached to your head. If you immerse and the head attached to your head adheres to the back of your neck, the immersion is still kosher as long as all the hair went under the water. Since you shower before getting in the mikveh, most loose hairs will come out, but a mikveh attendent usually checks your neck and back to make sure you don’t have any hairs that have fallen out and are clinging onto your skin. Also, hair floats to the top of the water, so you have to be sure to immerse deeply enough that every strand is submerged. It’s not that difficult, but it’s an extra thing to think about.

If there’s no hair to cover, why wear a head covering at all? The simplest and most obvious answer is vanity– the law is not meant to make a woman unattractive, just to save one of her most sensual features for her husband’s eyes only. (If you doubt the sensuality of hair, watch a shampoo commercial!)

Also, there’s significant disagreement about the requirement of “kisui rosh”–”covering the head” is the literal translation, but many translate it as “covering the hair.” I honestly don’t know the halakhah if a woman wanted to be bald and walk around without a head covering, because I’ve never read about anyone desiring to do so. Even if you shaved daily, though, there would still be hair stubble on your head, so I would assume that would need to be covered even if the law doesn’t require the covering of a bald head (which I’m pretty sure it does).

It’s called an eruv and human nature is human nature …..the ability to rationalize is part of all of us.

lcsterling says:

Thanks for the further explanation. I’m still of the camp though that Yeshivas are producing more and more extreme re-interpretations. The wig thing to me is an absurdity. You’re wearing hair. I know that many women shave their heads and then put on a wig. Very arduous and convoluted logic. The Muslims have a simpler solution.

I grew up Catholic and in Florida, and never encountered this custom (or at least never noticed it) until I started dating a New Yorker and spending time in Queens, and I must admit that it was quite bizarre to me at first. But then again, I wore plaid skirts every day for 12 years and was taught by women in black dresses and veils, so I guess it’s what you are used to.

But I must admit that I’m glad to be a confirmed agnostic now.

I actually discuss this at length further down the comments, but in brief: yes, it’s hair (though not always natural hair). However, many rabbis did not understand the hair itself to be erotic, but rather seeing where the hair attaches to the scalp. Thus, some rabbis said only that portion needed to be covered. Other rabbis said that if the hair were removed from the scalp and then made into a wig, it would not be erotic– even if it was the woman’s own hair. And, of course, some rabbis allowed wigs as concessions to a woman’s vanity– and many objected if they were too realistic.

It helps if you have a background in Talmudic logic and interpretation. I know it doesn’t always seem to make sense!

The Muslim laws on hair-covering do seem to be more consistent, but there are still myriad ways that women observe them. Also, a friend of mine observed, “It’s funny that Muslim women cover their hair from puberty onward, even if they’re unmarried. Jewish women leave it uncovered until marriage– seems like a better way to catch a husband.” Food for thought.

lcsterling says:

All of the “laws” come from the same point of origin — the Semitic tribes. The interpretations on both sides of the cataclysmic divide have diverged. I personally find orthodoxy on either side disturbing and dangerous.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Yes, but all law involves interpretation, and all of those codes, secular or religious, can have those interpretations end up in a seemingly absurd place. It comes down to a conscientious interpretation based on the spirit of the law, the letter of it, changing circumstances, rules for precedent and judicial authority. Religious law only seems weird to you because the area it concerns itself with personal lifestyle and religious practice, which of course secular law doesn’t ever touch.

Oy, Carol! I’m sorry that this has been such a struggle for you for so many years. I also didn’t grow up observant, but I’m a big believer in finding a sheitel that makes you look and feel good, so you can perform the mitzvah happily. I think you need to enter the Freeda Wig Makeover contest! They ambushed me a few months ago
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMegqy7886o&list=UURJiZAJgqIE-29sq30m_fvA&index=2&feature=plcp and are going to be ambushing other women in the future (episode 2 is coming out soon) to help them find the perfect wig. You should TOTALLY enter!!

lcsterling says:

Thanks for the reply, but I wasn’t asking to be convinced. I understand the “reasons.” I simply question why women do this to themselves, and why some men require it of them. Religion, in nearly every case, is more about ritual and tradition and, ultimately, community than logic.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Well I find that reply odd, first because the article is full of answers to that question, and second because I’m not sure what you think I was trying to convince you of. In my religious community shaitels were a very rare thing, and while I was aware of people who wore them, it seemed an outlandish thing to have my wife do, and something I’d never do myself if I were a woman. In fact, it seems like you’re answering your own question… so I’m not sure what I should be doing here…

I’m just trying to figure out how “religious” and “vain” are appearing in the same article. I live in Lebanon, famous for women who wear hijabs with catsuits and heels. It’s kinda like they flout the system at the same time they obey it. I’m not hugely into “law” and “dogma” in religion, but I am a fan of the spirit of it — what the soul within does. Just like the catsuit hijabis, I wonder about the sheitel-obsessed.

Rebecca Klempner says:

Saying “women do this to themselves” makes it sound like a punishment, but it’s not. I LOVE covering my hair (although I never wear a sheitel), and many of the reasons are perfectly logical (men treat me more respectfully, my husband is given the privilege of seeing my hair and so feels special, etc.). In case you didn’t notice, this article doesn’t sound that much unlike women talking about the endless search for the perfect swimsuit or color lipstick. It’s more about the psychology of women than about religiosity.

mouskatel says:

An eruv is not an extreme re-interpretations. My modern Orthodox community in CT has had one for at least 30 years and most of the people drive to the Orthodox shul on Shabbat.

mouskatel says:

An eruv is not an extreme re-interpretations. My modern Orthodox community in CT has had one for at least 30 years and most of the people drive to the Orthodox shul on Shabbat.

lcsterling says:

With apologies, clearly I am not a woman. I was painting with a broad brush that included all ritualistic practices within all religions in which women have to cover themselves up “to protect men from themselves.”

lcsterling says:

Comments aren’t always clear, and I am apparently guilty of not being clear here. I was echoing the article’s question, rhetorically asking, “why do it?” In my case, as a man, I can only speak from my experience and observations. Clearly tradition over-rules logic. The continuation of the practice is based on the practice, not a good answer anywhere as to why.

Umish Katani says:

Don’t cover your hair, if your orthodox men cant keep their minds proper, you should not have to suffer under a hot plastic wig to help them keep their rules… Women are equal and let the men wear blinders or blindfolds…. When are you orthodox women going to wake up and see that the world has changed and living in 2500BCE or 1700 CE poland The life style is not real. Modesty is not a wig, long clothes, modesty is a state of mind and it is obvious the “frum” men cant be trusted to keep it in their pants with out making women suffer for their stupidity. PS… same goes for the moslems who force the women into hajibs and other ridiculous outfits…. And you think you are better than them…Ha.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

You know, Sterling, painting with a broad brush is, colloquially, something people try to avoid. The idiom connotes being prejudicial and sounds a little flippant.

So, thanks for clarifying, first of all. I see your question was about wigs in particular, before it was also about eruvs, then about modesty laws in general. Your question at no time was about understanding a woman’s experience, which, you say, is outside your ken, since you’re a man. That seems perfectly fair since it is an article about a woman’s experience. You keep answering the same thing to your own question, that religion is clearly against logic. Somehow particularly facile, um–broad stroke?–is the answer you already have even though you keep asking questions and the nice people here keeping answering you in good faith.

It’s like every question you’ve asked is actually a rhetorical question, and the presence of the ones you’re questioning superfluous.

EvelynKrieger says:

Good explanation. We’d all be better of if we can keep from jumping to conclusions and overgeneralizing about things we know little about.

lcsterling says:

Dear Doctor (what kind, by the way?) you do not know me. You only know a few comments. You do not know what I’ve studied and learned, or what I have struggled with. I am following Tablet because I want to see us move forward and gain back some of the intellectual and artistic glory that was lost. My very personal feelings are that orthodox traditions keep us in the past, and separate from the rest of society. Hence my rhetorical questions.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Sterling, I wasn’t commenting on you, but I’m honestly glad to hear you talk about yourself and what you believe. My name comes from a wonderful short piece of Franz Kafka’s called The New Lawyer (translations of that may vary). If you are interested in Jewish culture, intellectual and artistic glory, I hope you look it up and appreciate that beautiful pithy gem for what it is. Maybe things go according to plan and I don’t wash up, I’ll some day have a doctorate in literature, aat which point I’ll be constantly insisting people not call me doctor.

Rhetorical questions, I’m sure you’re aware, are questions that aren’t meant to be answered. It’s extremely rude to keep demanding questions of people that really have no answer for you, not to mention unfair since from where you stand that makes them trick questions. There is no right answer, yet you persist. Now, there can be no intellectual glory if instead of an honest exchange of ideas we look for confirmation of what we already believe, if before the person speaking with us even says anything we predetermine the failure of their arguments.

The question about orthodoxy and tradition is a very involved one, and falling into that kind of debate usually ends up a zero-sum game. Aside from that not being the kind of game I like to play, it’s a much too involved and broad a conversation for me to deal with. But hey, I do respect the point of view even if I don’t respect the arguments.

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Sterling, I wasn’t commenting on you, but I’m honestly glad to hear you talk about yourself and what you believe. My name comes from a wonderful short piece of Franz Kafka’s called The New Lawyer (translations of that may vary). If you are interested in Jewish culture, intellectual and artistic glory, I hope you look it up and appreciate that beautiful pithy gem for what it is. Maybe things go according to plan and I don’t wash up, I’ll some day have a doctorate in literature, aat which point I’ll be constantly insisting people not call me doctor.

Rhetorical questions, I’m sure you’re aware, are questions that aren’t meant to be answered. It’s extremely rude to keep demanding questions of people that really have no answer for you, not to mention unfair since from where you stand that makes them trick questions. There is no right answer, yet you persist. Now, there can be no intellectual glory if instead of an honest exchange of ideas we look for confirmation of what we already believe, if before the person speaking with us even says anything we predetermine the failure of their arguments.

The question about orthodoxy and tradition is a very involved one, and falling into that kind of debate usually ends up a zero-sum game. Aside from that not being the kind of game I like to play, it’s a much too involved and broad a conversation for me to deal with. But hey, I do respect the point of view even if I don’t respect the arguments.

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Lauren Deutsch says:

it’s an eruv, a physical barrier (not blessed) that encompasses many buildings (home, shuls, etc.) into a single place of dwelling so that certain types of activities may take place within. On the Jewish community building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., there was a red flag flying from atop the parking lot. I thought it meant there was a menstruating woman inside (highly likely), but was told that it meant that the eruv was “broken”, the wire had been breached somewhere and had to be repaired. Problem with these observances is that while they are made to enable people to feel included, they remain barriers to many who feel excluded.

Lauren Deutsch says:

well framed.

Facebook User says:

Okay, so it’s the talmud. Not a particular rabbi, but generations of rabbis bending a bunch of laws and twisting them into a massive socio-legal framework in an extreme manner to suit their purposes.

I don’t enjoy wearing wigs and I wear head scarves while feeling beautiful and fashionable

passionateturban.blogspot.com

I absolutely love your way with words. I enjoyed your story

My grandmother and friends wear gray hair sheitels and they can actually look quite nice.My grandmother says why should she wear a brown sheitel when it is obvious at her age that her hair would be gray/white.

What a pitty that you have not get the satisfied sheitel.

I think you should try Hera’s sheitel, which is European virgin hair Sheitels and has band fall Jewish wigs, which sold very well in USA but Hera is a China company, which website is http://www.herahair.com.

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Searching for the Perfect Wig

Other Orthodox women cover their hair with beautiful sheitels. Why does mine make me look like Marge Simpson?

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