Nine years ago, when I got married, I started to cover my hair. At home I chose comfortable fabric head-coverings. But in public I wore a sheitel, or wig, since wigs were considered de rigueur by most of the women I was becoming friends with in Brooklyn. After only a few years of being Torah observant, I had a sense that a woman’s choice of head-covering was a statement in a language I did not yet speak. So, I stayed bewigged in public with my friends, slipping out of my sheitel and into a headscarf only in the privacy of my own home, much the same way I kicked off my street shoes and slid into slippers.
Because it’s impossible to tell the difference between a good sheitel and real hair, my friends and I didn’t immediately stand out in public as Orthodox women—or even as Jews. But all that changed when I went out with my husband: Standing by his side, I quickly learned that there were risks to looking like a Hasidic Jew.
Taking the subway in New York City with my husband for the first time was like being pushed into a wall of ice. He is a big man—it’s not difficult to see that he once played ice hockey, football, and basketball. He’s also a former trophy-winning martial artist and, though he is really a very gentle, kind-hearted person, his appearance can seem intimidating. And yet, to some subway riders, with his beard, peyos, and yarmulke, he looks like nothing as much as a target.
Because he’d been dressing this way for quite a few years before we got married, he was used to the stares and occasional audible curses. I wasn’t.
“How can you stand this?” I asked.
“Some people are staring—no, glaring—at you. With hatred.”
He shrugged. “People are glaring at that other Orthodox Jewish guy over there, too.”
He was right. They were.
But I was never able to get used to the enormous difference between riding solo and incognito on the subway, looking like any other woman (except that every day is a good hair day when you wear a sheitel) when I was alone, versus traveling with my husband as part of a couple whose garb screamed “Hasidic.”
There were occasional reminders that even among the sophisticated, diversity-loving residents of my hometown, some kinds of diversity are less equal than others. A few years ago, my husband and I were headed to an appointment at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side. I stopped to look in a bookstore window. As we turned around, a sports-jacketed man, sockless, in expensive loafers, took aim and spit a perfect arc of phlegm a couple of inches from my husband’s feet. We just stood there, numb. The spitter smirked and walked away.
And, I’m sorry to say, over time there were several more instances, frequent enough that they now feel ordinary. For example: I wasn’t present, but I was pained to learn about the time when my husband was verbally harassed on the subway by a group of young men. They drew their hands across their necks to mime beheading and spouted slurs. Eventually, they got off the train.
Which is why neither we, nor anyone we knew, was surprised in the least by this recent beating on the street or this Orthodox Jew being harassed and threatened on the subway. We were only surprised that the police were called and were able to get there time to confront the gang. I know a few people—not just Jews—who’ve been verbally harassed on the subway, but usually the troublemaker wanders off on his own, especially if he’s ignored.
Another time, I was with my husband in our local health-food co-op when he was asked for ID. We were paying for our groceries by credit card. I’d been shopping at this store for a few years, and had never been asked for ID, even by the same clerk who was now confronting my husband. My husband, indifferent, pulled out his license, but I questioned the clerk, asking her why she had never asked me for ID but was asking him. She told me, in a monotone, that this was the co-op’s policy. We paid and left, but not before we heard her say to the customer in line behind us: Those people …
Despite the camouflage of my wig, in public with my husband I became one of “those people.” And for quite a while, I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally up to the task.
I still wore a wig in public, still rode the train. Except for the very occasional covert stare—which every subway rider must endure as the price to pay for living in a city where people are too jadedly cosmopolitan to want to appear openly interested in anyone or anything—I felt invisible when I was alone. And I liked it that way.
But over time, the wig began to feel less like sensible camouflage and more like a counterfeit. So, I decided to swap my sheitel for a scarf despite the protests from my friends. (My husband was actually thrilled with my choice; he too, likes the honesty of a scarf or hat and when pressed, also admitted he prefers the way I look in them.)
It was as an outlier that I had decided to become religious, and my personality hasn’t changed all that much. I had always felt that my true self, my soul, was being by buried by living in the anti-religious, liberal milieu where I just about “passed” as an enlightened woman as long as I kept my mouth shut and didn’t disagree with secularism’s worship of myriad truths. And though for most of my life I was unable to articulate why I flinched at what felt to me to be condescension, even intolerance of my sophisticated thinking friends, I did at least know I wasn’t being true to my heart. After years of chasing after meaning, I had nowhere left to search for it except Orthodox Judaism and Chassidus.
Now I wanted to feel comfortable proclaiming my truth—“Here’s a Jewish woman who believes in Torah!”—and to me the wig was a whitewash, another way of passing. Also, I wanted to express solidarity with my visibly religious husband, with religious Jewish women, and with Jews in general. But mainly I was tired of what felt to me like compromise, equivocation—and artifice. I had been covering my hair with hair that looked like my own. A headscarf, unlike a wig, is obvious.
And yet, post-sheitel, I experienced an entirely different kind of reaction in public, one I wasn’t prepared for: Unlike the times I’d ridden the subway with my husband, people didn’t necessarily know I was Jewish—but they made an array of assumptions about me that were by turns innocuous, amusing, and unsettling. Sometimes on the train, I glance up from my book and catch someone quickly looking away. Not all of these looks are negative; in fact, the huge majority of them are blessedly neutral (or vaguely curious or even positive). And admittedly, these covert looks are what bored subway riders do—every New Yorker has experienced them. But since I’ve started to wear a shmatteh, as a friend from London calls headscarves, I feel exposed, different, vulnerable. On the subway, in Manhattan, in my co-op—everywhere—there’s a constant consciousness: I’m representing.
My first and earliest foray into “public scarfing” occurred when I traveled by bus to Ithaca, N.Y., to visit a friend. I wanted to be as comfortable as possible, so I wore a soft but voluminous headscarf and a cotton ankle-length skirt. As I boarded the bus, a woman a few years older than me (a Jewish college professor, I found out later), offered to help me carry my overnight bag. She practically escorted me to a seat and sat down in the aisle across from me. Then she introduced herself and a short while later launched into a confusing apology about American bias against Muslims, assuring me that in her classroom, she told the truth about Palestine. I smiled and reached out my hand to shake hers, telling her that I wasn’t Muslim, but Jewish and I was wearing a head-covering because I was Torah-observant.
She refused my hand and turned away, ignoring me for the rest of the trip.
There have been other occasions where I was mistaken for a religious non-Jew. Practically all the time, the exchange is brief or unimportant, so I don’t bother to correct false perceptions. I, too, have made false assumptions. Still, I feel like a mime on a tightrope; part of me wants to be invisible, unremarkable, yet obviously, since I now wear a headscarf, I want to be able to convey—proudly, without fear— that I’m a religious Jewish woman.
As much as serious-minded people generally dismiss fashion as trite, most agree that clothing has a deep importance in every time and place. In Judaism, wearing (or not wearing) some types of clothing is a mitzvah. Torah tells us the mitzvah of tzitzis, the fringes worn on a four-cornered garment. There’s the puzzling mitzvah to avoid wearing shatnez, a blend of linen and wool, except in the case of the kohen gadol, the high priest, who wore it during the Temple service. According to Jewish law, Jewish men cover their heads, and married Jewish women cover their hair. Both men and women are exhorted to be modestly dressed and cover parts of the body that are considered to be ervah, or nakedness. Perhaps most compelling for me is that the Midrash commends the Jewish slaves in Egypt for refusing to change their Jewish names and Jewish style of dress for Egyptian styles. All of these examples (and there are numerous others) are why, except for my teenage years, I probably had never thought so much about what I wore as when I first became Torah observant. And as it has for most religious Jewish women, choice of head-covering has required serious consideration on my part, not only because it makes a huge difference in how you look, but because within the Orthodox world, it’s a kind of code; it proclaims your community affiliation and religious outlook.
During the beginning of my head-covering experimentation period (which admittedly is ongoing as I enjoy the process), despite the outward change, I wasn’t intellectually or emotionally prepared for being confused, variously, with an Amish person, a new-agey Buddhist, a Hindu, and once in a cosmetics store, where I was chatting with a Muslim clerk, a Muslim.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Greenmarket in Union Square with a friend. She wore a rather hip mitpachat (an Israeli-style tichel) and I, a blue-and-green headscarf. Both of us caught the eye of another woman, wearing a professional suit and a modern-day take on a shpitzel (a silky headwrap named for very-obviously fake silk wiglet that is usually, but not always, worn beneath). Accompanying her was an older woman, who turned out to be her mother, who was not wearing a head-covering at all. We’d never seen each other before, but we all felt comfortable stopping and introducing ourselves, a kind of sisterly reunion amid the squash and turnips. At that moment, the occasional glare on the subway, or even the bigoted comment or two, seemed distant and utterly unimportant.
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