The Woman Behind the Sheitel

This post is part of The Exchange. The opinions expressed by contributors shared on The Exchange do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of CIJA, its staff, or Board of Directors.

This piece is in response to an article written by Miriam Mandel Levi entitled Women Without Hats. Quotes from Miriam’s article appear in italics.

Twenty-three years ago, at the age of forty, I quietly discovered that Judaism belongs to everyone, whether or not one is born into an observant home. It was quite the revelation. Two years later, in May of 1995 I bought my first sheitel. It was one of the only things I did without asking the advice of any of my many mashpiim – mentors. I had learned about the depth of Judaism for two years – how to keep a kosher kitchen, all about Shabbos, the High Holy Days, the inside scoop on Chanukah and Pesach and much more.  One day I woke up – literally – and realized that I felt naked, exposed. I needed to cover my hair.

My husband went with me to the sheitel-macher (wig maker) and gently voiced his opinion: “Please…come out looking the way you went in.” Truth be told, I kind of told him a fib, saying that I would only wear the sheitel on Shabbos and Yom Tov. I knew, however, that once I put it on it was not coming off, but he didn’t need to have all that information right away. Too much too absorb.

How did I feel covering my hair? Liberated. Feminine. Connected to the Divine. Proudly Jewish.

The Elephant in the Room

Before going further, I would like to address the elephant in the room and get it out of the way. Yes, wearing a wig makes me look younger and is far nicer than my own hair. Does this detract from the mitzvah? Not in the least. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

Wearing a wig reminds me on a constant basis, as a kippah reminds a man, that there is a higher source above me. That, although I try to do my best with what is presented before me, after all is said and done, there is a G-d in the world and He is the ultimate controller.

While I do not consider myself a feminist and, frankly, am not fond of the word, I am a strongly believing Jewish woman, neither a push-over nor someone who accepts things blindly. With G-d’s grace I was born a woman not a man and have no desire to do what men do. Lest you think me non-thinking or worse, a Kool-Aid drinker, let me put you at ease. Certain issues in Judaism, such as the Agunah issue, need to be fixed.

I don’t accept things blindly.  I undertake due diligence, ask questions and then come to a conclusion. It did not take long in my journey to discover that the word modesty is very important. And herein lies my difficulty with the article Women Without Hats by Miriam Mandel Levi.

Modesty in Judaism not only refers to the way one dresses but also encompasses our overall being – inside and out – including covering one’s hair. Cherry-picking which mitzvoth we like, are comfortable with, or find understandable is very troubling. In His wisdom, G-d gave human beings, over any of His other creations, the ability to choose.

…Some of the Jewish laws I kept made sense, others didn’t; some were easy to uphold, others challenging. Yet they were all part of this way of life I had chosen, a set of values and traditions which linked me to a people and a historical chain going back 4,000 years. The hat on my head was truly a small price to pay to be part of this grand heritage.

Jewish women of this generation are not only part of a historical chain, we are the link in that chain, inextricably connected to the generations who came before us. We are also role-models for the women and girls in our families. As a grandmother, I clearly understand that what I do plays a key role in the eyes of my grandchildren who watch and absorb everything.

Personally, not wearing makeup on Shabbos, and Yom Tov is particularly difficult, especially when we have a three-day holiday. Do I put on makeup? No because it’s not an option within the laws of Judaism. It states very clearly not to use cream or anything of the sort on certain days.

Covering my hair falls into the same category. Some days it’s harder than others. While I am not in any way negating the hardship many women have with this mitzvah, nonetheless it was given to Jewish women and we have adhered to it for thousands of years. Who wants to be the one to break the link? Who wants to be the one to tell their daughter or granddaughter that, while the other mitzvahs I understand and can do, this one is hard and so I’ve stopped doing it.

…But I’m no longer sure that Orthodoxy is an all-or-nothing life choice. Observance is a continuum on which we each locate ourselves.

As we are each wired differently and have our own distinct likes and dislikes, Miriam is correct in saying that we must find our own comfort zone. Our environment plays a huge role in what determines our choice. Those with whom we surround ourselves also play a role in our choices.

Where I beg to differ is whether Orthodoxy is an all-or-nothing life choice.  What we do with the gift of choice is truly what free choice is about:

This is why G-d declares1, “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life.”

Indeed, Freedom of Choice isn’t a quality natural to most of creation. If a human was like the rest of creation, he would be compelled to behave according to his nature – a nature which is formed through a combination of genetics and life experiences. But humans are different. G-d tells every person, “no matter your nature, upbringing, and intelligence, no matter how many hard knocks you may have experienced, I guarantee you the ability to choose to behave as saintly as Moses.”

And the same is also true in the reverse: even one who has been raised by righteous parents and is naturally disposed to doing that which is right has the ability to choose evil, to stray from G-d’s ways.2

During the Holocaust it didn’t matter if one were observant, assimilated, or a non-believer. Whether a woman covered her hair or not. What set us apart from everyone else was the fact that we were Jewish. Period. Nothing has changed since then.

And so, Judaism is not a life choice, it is our essence. It is who we are. No matter where we are on the continuum.

Aside from writing, Miriam and I share something very special: we are both passionate about our Judaism. Her article flows from a place within her that is soft and soulful.  She thought hard and long about her decision. It did not come lightly. I look at our differences as a positive discussion on our ability as a people to disagree, yet be united.

  1. Deuteronomy 30:19
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