My Fashion Choices—and My Husband’s—Reveal the Risks of Looking Hasidic
How people treat us in public often depends on what we’re wearing on our heads, whether it’s my wig or his yarmulke
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Still cry when you hear ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’? Remember how to Dippity-Do your hair? Take a trip down memory lane, camper.