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Headband Nation

A different kind of head covering—not a kippah, not a ‘sheitel’—gains popularity among non-Orthodox women

Alyx Bernstein
February 03, 2020
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Wearing a headband can signal many things, including marriage, modesty, athletics, or fashion. But recently, among a small but growing group of traditional but egalitarian Jewish women, headbands have become a unique way of expressing both their gender and their Judaism.

As more and more women take on the practice, a community has sprung up among what one wearer, Deborah Sacks Mintz, calls the #HeadbandNation. Lilli Shvartsmann, another headband-wearer I spoke with, describes this community as a “sisterhood,” swapping stories of how they took on the practice and recommending places to shop for headbands: “I do feel connected to people that wear headbands, in that I know they’re thinking about the same things I think about, and trying to create a culture of head coverings that’s not just male head coverings,” she said. “We are taking the custom and making it our own.”

Jewish men have always customarily worn head coverings, today mostly in the form of kippot, or yarmulkes. Kippot serve two purposes: Theologically, they serve as a physical marker of obedience to God; historically, they have become markers of a person’s Judaism to the outside world. This custom also comes from a talmudic story: “Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head.” (BT Kiddushin 31a) Some men wear kippot all day, while others wear them only for prayer, saying blessings, or Jewish learning.

Many Jewish women, especially in Orthodox communities, have also long worn a head covering (mostly starting after marriage), but for a different reason: modesty. The rabbis of the Talmud believed hair to be erotic, and, driven by the social norms of their time, encoded women’s hair coverings as part of Jewish law. These coverings take many forms, including (but not limited to) wigs, scarves, hats, and headbands. Some cover all the hair, while others only cover part.

When second-wave feminism hit the Jewish world, many non-Orthodox women claimed kippot as something that could no longer belong exclusively to men; for these women, head-covering wasn’t an issue of modesty, but rather of egalitarianism. In some Jewish day schools, students were required to wear head coverings, regardless of gender. Many girls would wear kippot, but Amelia Wolf, a native of Portland, Oregon, told me that “some girls would wear a sort of bandanna, especially the girls who wanted to look feminine and more stylish, or the girls who were in Orthodox households who weren’t comfortable with wearing kippot.”

For many women, traditional kippot can often be too masculine. “I already perform gender weirdly, and I don’t need to add to that [by wearing a kippah],” Wolf explained. Many Conservative synagogues, as well as some Reform congregations, offer a different kind of head-covering for women: white, thin, and lacy, more like doilies than men’s kippot. But few women wear these on a daily basis, or outside of the synagogue.

As a teen, while she was living with a host family in Seattle, Hungarian-native Viktoria Bedo attended a Conservative synagogue where “a lot of women wore [doily-style] kippot,” she told me. “The rabbi—a female rabbi—wore a yarmulke, and my host mother wore a yarmulke at shul and at Friday night dinner.”

When Rabbi Sarah Mulhern was a student at Brandeis University, she decided to embrace Jewish observance, including wearing a kippah. “At that point I decided, if I was a guy, I would wear a kippah,” she said. “I didn’t think my Jewish practice should be different because I’m a woman.” In 2008, after she graduated college, Mulhern spent a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, an egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem. She wanted to continue the practice of covering her head, but wanted to present more femininely and “encountered a tremendous amount of street harassment” for wearing her kippah. “I didn’t feel safe,” she said, “and at that point it was easier to wear a headband. I was still doing the mitzvah, but I wasn’t getting harassed.” She later switched to wearing hats instead of headbands, but continued to advocate for women covering their heads—with headbands, hats, or kippot.

The practice of wearing headbands quickly became meaningful for Mulhern and others. When Liza Bernstein arrived at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel, she saw “a ton of amazing women wearing headbands.” She studied a lesson about women’s head coverings compiled by Mulhern, and came out of the session with a commitment to wearing headbands. “I saw strong women identifying with this practice, and I felt empowered that I was doing this minhag in a way that was right for me, not just pretending like I was a man. I really identify with wearing headbands.”

It is hard to generalize what the headbands look like, as there is so much room for creativity. Those who wear them buy from a variety of sources, including secular clothing stores and stores aimed at Orthodox women. The headbands come in all colors and different fabrics. The most common headbands are a few inches wide, but some wear headbands that cover more of their head. Many choose to wear the headbands all day, while others don them only when praying, saying blessings, or learning Jewish texts, just as the custom is with men’s kippot.

Headbands fill the same niche in Jewish practice that kippot do, but without the strong assumption of masculinity that comes with wearing traditional kippot. Many of the women who now wear headbands experimented with kippot and found them uncomfortable or unsatisfactory. Instead, headbands provide a creative, genuine way of expressing Jewish womanhood, though that is not always recognized by those around them.

Shvartsmann started wearing headbands in 2018 while a student at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City, in large part inspired by her conversations with Bernstein. “I love the physical feeling of doing different mitzvot, and a headband is a lot more physical than a kippah. I really notice the difference when I take my headband off.” At egalitarian Jewish institutions like Hadar, the Conservative Yeshiva, Pardes, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, women wearing headbands is a common sight. Shvartsmann, Wolf, and Bedo—all rabbinical students at JTS—wear headbands.

Maya Zinkow took on the practice of wearing headbands during her first year as a rabbinical student at JTS, in 2016. But not long afterward, two male colleagues made joking comments about her headband: “Did you get married since the last time I saw you?” Zinkow found the comments disheartening. This is a common assumption women wearing headbands face, and that can be frustrating, especially if they are looking for a partner. Meanwhile, others, including Wolf, often are asked by other Jews, “Have you become Orthodox?”

Unlike the kippah, which serves as a very public marker of Judaism, headbands are also worn by non-Jewish women. “Some male classmates of mine at JTS were talking about kippot, and what it means to be a representative of the Jewish people out in public,” Zinkow recalled. Her male colleagues explained the pressures of wearing a kippah: “If someone asks for money and you don’t give, everyone is watching you and seeing that you’re Jewish.” Zinkow wishes she had that problem. “All I want is to present myself, uncomplicatedly, as a religious Jewish woman who sees herself obligated in mitzvot,” she said, despite the anti-Semitism that can sometimes come with publicly presenting as Jewish. “I want to present my gender in a way that feels authentic to me and combines with my religious practice in a way that feels holy and affirming.” She hopes that headbands can, one day, fill that niche.

Despite the frustrations, many remain committed to the practice, wearing headbands frequently or every day. Sacks Mintz posted a selfie of her, Zinkow, Bedo, and two others wearing their headbands with the caption “#HeadbandNation at JTS.” The comments are full of people swapping places to buy headbands, sharing selfies of their own, planning their own headband shop, and, as Sacks Mintz commented, bringing together “some of the most amazing women I know.” This community even has members as young as 3. Mulhern has introduced the practice to her daughter, giving her a selection of kippot and headbands to choose from as part of her outfit. Mulhern hopes that her daughter will grow up with head coverings “as just another part of her daily uniform”—as so many Jewish boys do.

Zinkow hopes that this practice will open up a conversation about Jewish practice in general: “There’s an opportunity to play with gender and religious expression that is expansive beyond the way it has been done in our tradition, for people of all genders,” she said. “Can we begin to open up our minds, our hearts, and our spirits, to more gender and religious play in all aspects of our lives? It allows for a more fun, creative Judaism, and I think we need to have an expansive imagination and creativity around this. I think this will lead us to more authentic expression of who we are, trying to live out a religious practice.”

Alyx Bernstein is a student at Barnard College and JTS studying History and Talmud.

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