Navigate to News section

Covering My Black, Jewish Hair

How an adopted ritual helped one convert make peace with her unruly mane

Malynnda Littky
March 09, 2015

Each day this week, the Scroll will be featuring a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post has been commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine.

As a black woman who came of age in the 1990s, I’ve always considered my dislike for my hair a betrayal, akin to a feminist who writes romance novels where the heroines wait passively for rescue by the muscle bound hero. Growing up, the Essence and Ebony magazines that laid dusty and mostly unread in a basket on top of the toilet were filled with photographs of models sporting natural curls that reached gracefully for the sky and articles titled “Love Your Black Hair!” or “Kinky Isn’t Just for the Bedroom!” I heard Whoopi Goldberg tell jokes about a girl who put a skirt on her head to pretend she had long, blond hair, like that was something out of the past, and not what I was doing every night in my very own bedroom.

Mom didn’t truck with all that natural hair love. A nappy head was the enemy to be beaten, starved, and poisoned into submission. The closest thing my mother had to a religious ritual was going to the hair salon. She was best friends with the salon owner, and I learned early that there was to be no mercy. No matter how hard I cried as the lye in the permanent solution fried my scalp, the quest for straight hair—at least temporarily—would not be stopped. As an adult, I’ve only straightened my hair chemically once, and it simultaneously made me feel cheap, dirty, and pretty, like a first time courtesan.

When I met my second husband (my first husband was a computer programmer who barely noticed much in the way of frippery like hairstyles) he praised my “afro,” which in reality was just my natural hair barely contained by a headband. Since I wasn’t trying to become the next Angela Davis, his comment gave me the push I needed to try out braid extensions. I reasoned that this would kill two birds with one stone: first, I’d be able to hide my unruly mane, and second, as braids are an authentic expression of black culture, I could still proclaim pride in my heritage. I left the braiding salon seven hours later and several hundred dollars lighter, and with a distinct feeling that perhaps I couldn’t afford authentic black culture.

Once I decided to convert to Judaism, I learned about the concept of married women covering their hair. I latched onto this immediately. It was an ideal situation; no one would see my hair, and I had the perfect excuse—it’s not that I hate my hair; it’s religion. You understand. I wanted to embrace the ritual, despite having gone through a Conservative conversion process, where none of the other women in synagogue covered their hair unless it was raining. The head of my conversion board even suggested that perhaps I would be more comfortable with an Orthodox conversion, and when I did so a year later, I still believe part of the impetus was to be a part of a community where no one would ask if I had cancer.

For the first 10 years I covered my hair with scarves almost exclusively, with the odd hat thrown in for variety. I didn’t have anything against wigs. My husband was Ashkenazi, and most of the women in the Yeshivish suburban Detroit community we eventually moved to wore them. But I was intimidated by the lush human hair varieties with their huge price tags; I certainly couldn’t afford to spend a month’s rent on something that looked so fragile. Not to mention that I felt incredibly self-conscious walking into the wig shops that served the Jewish community. No chance of finding a wig that would match my natural hair in there!

Even once I moved to Israel, I was apprehensive about discussing my hair options with a professional wig merchant. The prices, while technically lower, were an even bigger percentage of my take-home pay, thanks to Israel’s poor salaries. And the language barrier kept me from expressing exactly what I was looking for. Eventually, I gave up and kept on using wraps and hats. In Jerusalem, this wasn’t such a big deal. But when I got a new job working for a software company in Tel Aviv, my look felt antiquated among my stylish peers.

My new co-workers encouraged me to update my wardrobe, and with that accomplished, to start taking my look more seriously. Around the same time, I found a website that shipped wigs in from China for far less than what they cost in Israel. I chose four or five synthetic wigs, which were both economical and suited me better, since I liked a wig that didn’t look quite so real. This way, I could still openly advertise that I was covering my hair.

I’m still not fond of my own hair. When I needed to get an MRI recently, I threatened the male technician with bodily harm if he didn’t keep his eyes closed while I got in the machine, so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of my uncovered head. For right now, my wigs are a better way for me to show the world how I see myself. In my self-image, I have hair that behaves, that falls in waves around my shoulders, or stays poised perfectly like a cat around my shoulders. Sometimes, my perfect hair is an impish pixie cut that accentuates that I’m about to tell someone to go to hell. All of these things are more me than my puffy, shapeless cloud of hair that refuses to either be still or rise majestically like a skyscraper. And, instead of shameful, I’ve come to view my insistence upon aesthetic self-expression as a form of black pride.

Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a content manager for a software company.