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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Yom Tov/Shabbos Schmooze: Tichels, Sheitels, & Snoods, Oh My!

I recently finished giving Shaindy her first bath and it was utterly terrifying. I mean, watching her under the faucet for the first time literally put the fear of G-d in me. Shaindy is not my child nor is she my pet. She is my sheitel (Yiddish: wig). Yes, I named it. I felt that would help us develop a better rapport after a rather rocky beginning to our relationship. But I would say that washing my sheitel for the first time bore a striking resemblance to what I'd imagine many parents feel when bathing their newborn baby. First, you spend way too much money on some fancy shampoo that promises no tears (and whether that promise is delivered in the end is between me, my sheitel and my upstairs bathroom, thank you very much). As you're hovered over the tub covered in more water than if you were actually in it, you think to yourself how amazingly incredible this new responsibility is. This fragile and invaluable item in your hands is, after all, just the strikingly-more-expensive-than-you'd-ever-imagined result of the commitment of two people in love.

You see, in Orthodox Judaism, after a woman is married she can begin to fulfill the mitzvah of covering her hair. On a very basic level, this practice is done out of modesty. On a deeper and more spiritual level, however, a woman covers her hair after marriage to signify attaining a new spiritual level and special connection to G-d as well as to honor her new and special connection to her husband. Her actual hair becomes something reserved for only her husband and perhaps immediate family to see*. While many have the misconception that modesty in this practice refers to a woman covering up her physical beauty in an effort to appear less attractive to the opposite sex, it is not at all about this. For many women, myself included, covering our hair with wigs, scarves, snoods, berets, and hats of all kinds makes us feel very beautiful and can look stunningly attractive. Today's sheitels are a far cry from the heavy and artificial looking wigs our bubbies and zaftas sported. Most people cannot even tell that a woman wearing a sheitel is not walking around in her very own hair. Some people then argue, well how can that be modest? What if a woman looks more attractive in her sheitel than she did before?! And wouldn't covering her hair in an exquisitely tied tichel make her more noticeable to society than if she simply sported her natural locks? This is in and of itself evidence that the mitzvah's main purpose is not to hide the outer qualities of the woman, but rather to bring out the beauty of her inner spiritual qualities and personality. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself encouraged women to wear a sheitel outside of the house so that they may feel more comfortable within society and also supported women in keeping their own natural hair at a manageable length underneath that would still allow them to feel beautiful and attractive toward their husbands. Although it is not my personal minhag (custom), it is the practice in some other communities for women to shave their hair after marriage and I am sure this is something that feels meaningful and special to them.

*There are many varieties of practice around the mitzvah of women's hair covering that are unique to different communities and individuals. There is a wide breadth of halacha (Jewish law) governing this mitzvah that I am ill-equipped to adequately explain, though I encourage continued learning from reliable sources, and competent rabbis and rebbetzins.

So back to Shaindy... Before I was married, I spent more time than I'd like to admit prancing around alone in my apartment in my new sheitel, practicing tying a tichel and trying on different hats, berets, and snoods. In fact, I spent more time doing this than I did wearing my wedding gown! I dragged my then fiance, my mother and my aunt to a hat shop in Queens, NY. My cousin came all the way from Israel into my smelly, flooded apartment in Albany, NY with a bag full of brand new tichels and berets she shlepped in her suitcase overseas and tolerated the swamp-like stench just to show me how to tie a rectangular scarf. These were joyous times, don't get me wrong! But there were fears and tears as well. My best friend from Spokane, WA was in Crown Heights visiting her parents when I traveled in to purchase my sheitel. She happily joined me on the excursion, bringing along her 4 year old son. Shortly after the sheitel-macher  (wig stylist) placed what would eventually become Shaindy onto my head and little Moishy* (name altered to protect the innocent) ran out of mischief to make in a women's hair salon, he asked in a sudden panic "Mommy, where is Michal?!" Amused, but now slightly panicked myself, I responded from under 2 feet of someone else's hair, "I'm right here, Moishy. Do I look different in a sheitel?"

When we got back to my friend's parents' home, Shaindy in tow, her husband was sitting at the computer busily working. Without really looking up but knowing in a wise, husbandly way that he should say something, he said, "Wow! Your new sheitel looks great!" I wasn't wearing my new sheitel yet. It was wrapped in a plastic zip-loc inside tissue paper in the bottom of a paper shopping bag. I was, in fact, still sporting my own graying, frizzy, lopsided bun. Oy! And then, I went to put Shaindy on for the first time by myself. Disaster. Utter disaster. It was crooked. The sticky July heat had half the hairs sticking to my neck. And I had a huge sheitel bump in the back from that graying, frizzy, lopsided bun underneath. I cried. My friend gave me a much needed hug, some woman to woman advice, support and humor. Like many other things in life, this would take practice and getting used to. The week before my wedding I began to have those wedding-jittery nightmares. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning drenched in a cold sweat after dreaming that despite continued efforts to fit all of my hair inside a new beret, huge chunks and wisps kept flying out of the top, the sides, the bottom, you name it... I reached for the still-uncovered graying lopsided bun atop my soon-to-be-married head, took a sip of water and drifted back to sleep...

Two nights after our wedding, my new husband and I showed up almost an hour late to our sheva brachos dinner at my grandmother's shul. We mentioned the trouble we'd had getting out of the parking lot we were sardine-packed into in Brooklyn and then getting stuck in traffic. We did not mention the tearful temper tantrum I had when I couldn't get my sheitel on the way I liked and the combs were literally pulling my hair out of my temples. In the end, my husband made me smile, laugh, and promised we'd take a trip to a sheitelmacher the next day to get help. I pulled it together, we both looked stunning and the evening was wonderful. The next day, I walked into a Boro Park based salon and explained my teary predicament. I was sent by a lady upstairs to see a lady who knew a lady who could help. In no time at all and only $10 poorer, I left with a stretchy little headband that could hold my sheitel in place and hold my marriage together all while positioning the combs so that my hair wouldn't rip out! There were no more sheitel tears until we got home to Williamsburg and were preparing to travel into Norfolk for Shabbos when I realized I'd accidentally left this amazing little bit of elastic in the rental car we'd driven and returned that morning. Needless to say, I now have a new headband that was rush-delivered by as well as a couple of back-ups just in case.

I have also developed a few new quirks. I have mitzvah-induced paranoia. I am constantly asking my husband if any hair is visible from the back or falling out of my tichel. It's not that I really think anyone is staring at the neck hairs under my beret or measuring the wisps of side curls flying out from my snood. Perhaps it's more that I feel the weight and beauty of fulfilling this mitzvah and with that, the responsibility and desire to do it correctly or at least as best as I am able. It doesn't come without practice, trial and error, and of course, a sense of humor. I set a precedent early on to only walk around our house with my hair uncovered upstairs so that I would not accidentally walk outside or be seen should someone come to the door looking au natural.  A couple of weeks ago after a long and sweaty evening of moving stuff around the house, I decided to let my locks hang out for a bit while we watched a movie. Afterward, as we were preparing to go upstairs for bed, I remembered trash was being picked up the next morning, and offered to take out the kitchen garbage. Midway down our front walkway, I dropped that Glad bag like a hot potato and froze like a deer in the headlights as I frantically, albeit ineffectively used my two hands to cover up my exposed hair. Quite mortified, I ran into the house and my husband carried the trash the last few steps to the curb.

We don't live in an Orthodox neighborhood nor are there any other Orthodox Jews that we know of in our area. I try not to feel self conscious when I am walking around town in my snoods and berets or running in a tichel. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, really, but on some level I am aware that I stick out like a sore thumb. It's pointless to worry or wonder what other people think if they even think anything at all. My husband once apologized to me for the fact that I have to cover my hair now. I thought this was very sweet, but in complete honesty, fulfilling this mitzvah brings me great joy! I love wearing my berets and hats and tying my tichels and sporting my snoods. I love styling my sheitel in different ways and sporting a hairdo after three days of yuntiv that isn't drenched in the schmutz and schvitz of not being able to wash your hair. I beamed the first time a woman and now good friend of mine in our community came up to introduce herself and her daughter. She said her daughter was so excited to meet me and had a way of spotting a new kallah (bride) from a mile away. And then I laughed as I said, "perhaps she seeks out the young woman who still looks awkward and uncomfortable in her new sheitel." I got a kick out of sitting at a yuntiv meal at a table mostly full of men when a more senior member of the gang piped up and said to a sheitel-sporting me, "You've been brushing that chunk of hair away from your face all day, why don't you just pin it back already?" Immediately and seemingly in unison, at least half a dozen younger male members of the table told him in a tone that denoted both sincere familiarity and pending doom to keep his mouth shut and go back to enjoying his cholent. 

Yes, there are many moments of laughter, and some more poignant ones as well. I was walking out of a public restroom in a local WalMart just as a Muslim woman walked in. I flashed an awkwardly large smile in her direction merely because I felt a surprising sense of camaraderie with this woman I didn't even know whose religious views don't match my own. Yet I perceived she must on some level experience a similar feeling when walking around Williamsburg, VA with a head covering on even if we do cover our hair for different reasons. I wonder if people look at me and think, G-d forbid, that I have cancer? I wonder if I'll ever hear a child ask too loudly about the lady over there in the funny looking hat? I wonder how you explain to your new employer that the carefully coiffed modern hairstyle you sported in your interview could actually come off and wind up on the floor if pulled on hard enough by an excited toddler? And still, matching a beret or scarf to my outfit or picking out a sparkly little barrette to pin back that little chunk of sheitel-hair that tickles the side of my face brings me such joy and excitement! It is a means to tap into that beautiful and deepening connection with G-d that is enhanced now by my growing and loving connection to my husband. It is a connection between me and so many other women in my generation and even more women in generations before mine. And as for the trials and tribulations along the way? It's nothing to split follicles about! I just need to grin and hair it! And with that, I wish family and friends a Good Yom Tov and Good Shabbos!
Having a little bit of fun sporting a College of William & Mary sheitel

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