Orthodox girls are raised to be Orthodox women, and Orthodox women get married and, in some circles, cover their hair. Buying a long flowing wig is almost a rite of passage.
I decided to cover my hair because my husband asked me to. His mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law all cover their hair, and in his family covering hair is what you do when you marry. In my family, everyone does something different, and there really is no norm. I spent some time learning about the basis of the tradition. I learned about the story of the ishah sotah, the woman accused of adultery, as well as the talmudic sources in Sotah and the concept of ervah (indecent exposure) in the Zohar. I learned about the difference between dat Yehudit and dat Moshe, one rabbinic and subjective, and one biblical and objective, respectively. Then I decided to try it.
The All-Consuming Wig
For sixteen months I spent most of my time thinking about the wig on my head. I had severe headaches daily. The second I walked through the door at the end of a long day, I tore the wig off my head and threw it onto the nearest piece of furniture. During these sixteen months I began graduate school at New York University and student-taught at a middle school in Manhattan, as well as at a high school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Consequently, I met many new people on a daily basis, none of whom were Jews, let alone Orthodox Jews. Most people I worked with assumed that the wig was my hair. I told a select few and answered their questions about the tradition. They were all respectful in their questioning and seemed to be genuinely interested.
It sounds strange to write now, but the wig was so all-consuming in my mind that the thought of putting it on made me turn down plans with friends. It made me want to never leave the house. It made me never want to have people over. I felt like a fake person hiding under fake hair. Keeping this tradition bothered me so much that it started turning me against keeping other traditions that I love.
It sounds strange to write now, but the wig was so all-consuming in my mind that the thought of putting it on made me turn down plans with friends. It made me want to never leave the house. It made me never want to have people over. I felt like a fake person hiding under fake hair.
I turned to other Jewish women for help but all I could find were women saying how special they felt keeping their hair for their husbands’ eyes only, or how wearing a tichel felt like putting on a crown. When I tried switching to a tichel, I felt ugly. I felt there was no way to look appropriately dressed while wearing a tichel, and I stood out like a sore thumb on the streets and in the public schools of New York City. I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t find a way to make it work. So I gave up.
Explaining My Change to Coworkers and Students
I broke down in tears one night while getting ready to go out with my husband and some friends. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be uncomfortable. I couldn’t feel fake. I just wanted to be myself again, curly hair and all. I didn’t wear a wig that night, and I’ve worn one only a handful of times since then.
Explaining the situation to my family and Jewish friends was easy enough, but I had no way of explaining my hair to my coworkers, my ninth-grade students, and my peers in grad school. How could I explain to 100 thirteen-year-olds why my hair was suddenly light, short, and curly when they knew me only with darker, longer, wavy hair? How could I attempt to describe the tradition of covering hair to ninth graders who had never heard of this practice before? How could I explain to my coworkers that I am still an Orthodox married woman even without a hair covering?
There’s no guidebook for Orthodox women in the workplace, as we are already the odd ones out in the way we dress. We can’t share meals with our colleagues, and we observe different holidays from everyone else. Trying to explain why I took fake hair off my head after wearing fake hair on my head for more than a year was one of the strangest situations I’ve ever been in. I decided that because there was no protocol for this sort of thing, I was just going to be honest.
To my surprise, my ninth graders were very respectful and had so many questions for me about Judaism. My new hair opened up a dialogue about respecting other cultures, learning about other religions, and finding commonalities between people, regardless of religious differences. My coworkers cautiously asked about the reasoning behind my decision to uncover my hair, and we had open discussions about religion, feminism, and Modern Orthodoxy.
Removing a Barrier between Me and Everyone Else
Removing the wig removed the barrier between myself and everyone else that I had felt for so long. I was finally able to exist just as myself. Although uncovering one’s hair is often seen as a step away from Orthodoxy, choosing to uncover my hair had the opposite effect on me. I have never felt this connected to Judaism as a married woman. All the resentment I had built up slowly disappeared, and without the constant pressure, I was finally able to enjoy other traditions, such as hakhnasat orhim (welcoming guests) and hadlakat neirot (lighting candles).
Removing the wig removed the barrier between myself and everyone else that I had felt for so long. I was finally able to exist just as myself. Although uncovering one’s hair is often seen as a step away from Orthodoxy, choosing to uncover my hair had the opposite effect on me.
Learning about the traditions around a woman covering her hair, and making the conscious decision to no longer spend my energy trying to adhere to this custom—which is not a mitzvah—allowed me the clarity to switch my focus and learn to love the Jewish lifestyle again. Not only has the physical weight of the wig been lifted, but the emotional weight of the burden of hiding has finally been lifted as well.
Yafit Fishbach-Rosen is a high school English teacher, world traveler, animal lover, and Torah learner who believes that education can change the world.
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