Uncovering My Hair

19 May

True story:  I cover my hair. Every day. With scarves and sometimes hats, and with hair showing –  definitely more than a “tefach” (the unit of Tamudic measurement, about a fingerbreadth). I’m not covering it for any ‘halachic’ reasons – because there is no mandatory reason stated in the Torah for a married woman to cover her hair.  True story:  I also wear trousers/pants, and I don’t cover my arms to the elbow or up to my collar bone. But I cover my hair, I wear a ‘kisui rosh’.  In Israel this is both normal and irregular.  Good news for me, right?  I get a lot of stares, but I also get relatively few. Women are funny like that. What about men you ask? As if they notice what’s happening on our heads! Brilliantly, it’s always – always – the religious women that stare but don’t ask me anything, and the traditional/interested or secular girls and women who tell me they love it, and also couldn’t care less. Good story:  The other day on the train home, a v.religious looking lady stared at me for a good 10 minutes, obviously trying to figure out what kisui rosh + jeans might = ?  Feeling the glare of her stare I finally looked up from my book, looked at her long skirt and her all-covering blouse, looked her in the eye and smiled at her. I kept smiling, even though she didn’t/wouldn’t initially smile back, and forced her to smile at me.  She gave in.  Who knows what she thought.  There’s a part of me that loves rocking the boat, but these weird encounters are not why I cover my hair.

I don’t belong to a community. I don’t do it because the other girls do, or to fit in, or because my husband – ha! – asked me to. I do it for myself. I made a choice a year ago for quite personal reasons, and I think I was pretty honest with myself when I began – it’s an experiment, I want to make a physical change in my appearance now that I’m married, it’s my daily reminder that I am married (a ring doesn’t do it for me) and I have a kind of vague feeling about the concept of ‘ervah’.  Somewhat similarly to observant Muslim girls and women who cover their hair from when they get their period, Judaism considers hair a little bit different and special after you sleep with your husband (this version of Judaism also assumes that this only takes place after marriage.) Your hair takes on a ‘naked’ but holy quality, and is something to be reserved for your husbands’ eyes only. I could say more on this topic, given that women in adult relationships today who aren’t married are encouraged to go to the mikveh, but nothing is said about hair covering – but I’m going to leave that for another time…

A little bit of this concept speaks to me, but not the  negative idea that is wrung from it like dirty dishwater –  that a married woman’s hair is therefore somehow tainted  and something to be hidden, or that hair covering is a    symbol of subserviance to your partner. None of that is  remotely true in a Jewish context.  Because of the fact that  there’s no specific commandment in the Torah for a  married woman to cover her hair, I won’t delve into the traditions of head shaving in the chassidic community, or the different ways women to choose to cover their hair today, because it seems mostly to be community-dependant and/or individual choice.  There is nothing written anywhere that demands a certain type of covering to take place – ensuing in massive debate over 1) if it isn’t just a bit silly to still be doing this 2) how exactly it should be done.  Seem contradictory? Oh, the Jews with our never ending debates!

The one place we do learn about why a married woman might cover is in the Talmud in Ketubot 72a, which states that the source for this prohibition is from Bamidbar (Numbers) 5:18, which deals with the laws of a ‘sotah’ – a suspected adulteress – and states, “The priest shall stand the woman before God and uncover her hair…”.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki, 1040-1105, author of the primary commentary on the Talmud) provides two explanations for the Talmud’s conclusion. One – from the notion that she is punished midah kneged midah (measure for measure) for exposing her hair to her paramour, we see that exposing her hair is prohibited and, two – from the fact that she exposes her hair we see that under normal conditions a Jewish woman’s hair would be covered.

Dr. Leila Leah Bronner, a professor of Biblical and Jewish studies, also has lots to say on the history of hair covering in Judaism and how it has come to be such a prominent issue for modern, practicing Jews. Dr. Bronner reemphasises the idea that it has largely transpired because of custom.  You can read more from her here: http://bit.ly/lHtRTY. So what do we make of this? As a modern gal who was born Jewish, raised in a mod-ox community but is not at all bothered by what any particular ‘community’ does, when I was trying to make a decision about this issue  – was I supposed to surmise something based on family custom? Intriguing!

Both my mother and my sister are observant, modern-orthodox Jews and neither of them cover their hair. Interestingly, neither did my paternal grandmother, my Bobba, who grew up in Yashinovska, a small town nearBialystok,Poland. You might assume that the old-timers from the shtetl would have all covered up, but no! Seems it wasn’t quite Fiddler on the Roof and they didn’t go around in scarves all the day long. Once she leftPoland, Bobba adopted the western fashion of wearing a hat or scarf in public and at synagogue, but never at home – unless, my Mum notes, the Rabbi were to visit.  My Bobba was from a religious, practicing home. So while she was conscious of the idea, she didn’t feel an obligation to have her hair covered. My maternal grandmother didn’t start off with the custom, although she too grew up in an orthodox home, but began covering her hair later in life. This was a direct result of her eldest daughter becoming superly-duperly religious (note – not my Mum!) and my grandma followed suit.  So if I were to try and find a family custom here, what on earth would be my choice? In the end, happily, my choice was my own – to do my own thing, make it up as I went along, and that has worked until now.

This weekend will be our 1-year wedding anniversary          (woot!) and a year since I began covering my hair with  scarves, and sometimes with hats, and with hair showing.  It’s been a strange year. My husband’s family are not  religious, but took the hair covering with a pinch of salt.  There were some strange remarks way back when, they  may have been concerned we were going to ‘flip out’ i.e. become super religious and stop eating in their house, but when there was no change they realized they’re not bothered at all. And just as another daughter-in-law recently became strictly vegan, they accept that it’s just me, and it’s ok. There was also the time I had my hair fully covered with a scarf, but was wearing jeans, and some dude started talking to me in Arabic. Awesome. Hadn’t considered that one.

But this weekend might also be the weekend I – probably? maybe? – stop covering my hair.  Next week might be the week I start going to the hairdresser again, start caring about how it looks again, put my scarves away somewhere, and probably also lose a little bit of my current identity in the process.  It has been a fascinating experiment, this hair covering lark and I’m so glad I did it –  that I’m still doing it even as I write this. I’m nervous and concerned that if I don’t wear my scarf nobody will ‘know’ what I’m about. I was wracked with the same concerns when I was 16 and dyed my hair purple, got my nose pierced, wore a lot of baggy jeans and hundreds of plastic bracelets on my wrists – because if I didn’t, how would anyone know what kind of ‘me’ I was, what music I liked, or how I was ‘different’?

For a little while now I’ve had the feeling that covering my  hair might be misrepresenting who I am.  Despite the fact that I  don’t do it for anybody else but myself, during this year I  have re-learned that we have responsibilities towards our  community of Jews, whether we like it or not.    Here’s an  example. I have no qualms about meeting a  friend  for a  glass of Limonana in a non-kosher café in Tel  Aviv.  But along comes a Jew who practices his/her religion differently from me, who might glance through the window of that café and spy my – clearly religious – hair covering, and assume that it’s ok to drink there. By the standards they have set for themselves, it’s not.

Let’s be clear – it’s every person’s responsibility in life to not be a total moron.  You really need to find out for yourself if the café is kosher or not, you nudnik! But it doesn’t stop the slight lurch in my stomach when I realise how it looks.  It has also, very occasionally, felt as if I am pretending to be something I’m not.  So it’s coming off, I think, although I’m still undecided, and I’m not sure what I’ll be feeling if I do it – sad? Disappointed? Relieved? Free? Like a different ‘myself’? Who knows – I may need to put it back on again!

Life is full of challenges, some of which we set ourselves, and amongst some other giant ones, this is a teeny but important one. My future kids may not know me with covered hair if I do this now. They may grow up and see women with their hair covered as ‘other’, as not part of their world. If I keep it on, it will be familiar for them, there will be an example of flexibility and compromise right  under their very noses.  Didn’t I imagine having kids who are like “Abba doesn’t wear a kippah, but Mummy covers her hair – that’s how we roll.” ?

The next time you see me, I suppose you’ll know what decision I made. And this is really what I love most about being Jewish;  that if G-d really sees us as His children, He must know He’s doing an awesome job, cos we’re all turning out so wonderfully differently.

Shabbat shalom,



Please leave a reply! Thanks - Dannii x

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