Saturday, January 1, 2011

Getting Comfortable with the Cover Up

My Personal Journey to Hair Covering

The decision to cover my hair after getting married wasn't a difficult one for me, however it was once a very foreign concept. I grew up in a Conservative shul (synagogue) where the majority of the women wore those little lace doilys. Some wore them when they entered the shul, some only when in the sanctuary for davening (praying), and some only when they were called on to the bimah (platform) for an honor such as saying the Torah blessings or opening the ark.

I arrived at the University of Maryland in August of 2003 and immediately got very involved with Hillel (Jewish Student group) and Chabad (another Jewish student group) on campus. I went to Hillel every Friday night for services followed by half an hour of socializing with my friends before walking the 1 1/2 miles to Chabad for dinner. For the first semester every time I saw the Rebbitzin (Rabbi's wife) I was amazed...4 kids running around, serving dinner to 100+ students and every hair on her head was always in place, perfectly coiffed and I constantly wondered how she did it. I started getting to really know the family and befriend their kids. I began to spend more time there on Shabbos afternoon playing with the kids, and I started to help cook for Shabbos dinner the night before with the rebbitzin and other students. I began to realize that most of the time that I was seeing the rebbitzin not on Friday night in her Shabbos best, but in everyday casual clothes and her hair was covered. Finally I felt that we were close enough and I decided to work up the courage to ask her about it.

She told me that according to Jewish law, once a woman gets married she covers her hair as a sign of marriage. The rebbitzin very delicately explained that there were many different reasons for the law and numerous interpretations of this law and because of that, many different practices on how to actually fulfill it. I learned that some women only cover their head, some cover most of their hair with hats, scarves etc., and that some women cover all or most of their hair with wigs. She told me that it was the Chabad custom to cover all of one's hair with a wig. She even went so far as to say that in her own personal fulfillment of the law, that not even the walls of her house saw her hair - she kept it covered all day and night. She explained that religious Judaism views a married woman's hair as very sensual and therefore becomes, upon marriage, something to be shared between the husband and the wife.

I remember being shocked that she was wearing a wig - someone else's hair!!! - on her head! The only time I remember seeing people wear wigs was either on Halloween (and then they looked fake and were bright colors and totally obvious) or when people were going through chemotherapy and again, they were very obviously wigs. I had never in my life seen a wig look so natural and so beautiful. It began to make sense why she always looked so put together when I saw her on Friday nights. I started to always stare at it when she would wear it and even though I am sure she knew, she was so nice and sweet and never made me feel bad for staring. It was amazing to me how no matter how hard I looked, that I could not distinguish that it was a wig!

After getting over the initial shock of the wig and getting used to seeing her with or without it, I pretty much lost interest. It was something that I never thought in a million years would apply to me; I was looking for a nice Conservative boy, and I assumed that I would do something similar to what my mom did once I was married. It wasn't until I was becoming more religious in the beginning of my Junior year that I became more interested in the topic of hair covering all together. Not that I was jumping the gun - I didn't have a boyfriend and I wasn't looking to get married yet, but I started to become fascinated with the topic and wanted more information. She recommended that I read the book Hide and Seek, telling me that not only would it talk about the laws of hair covering, but that the 2nd half of the book was testimonals of the different ways women covered their hair and how they felt about it. I read the book cover to cover and was amazed at the women who took on this seemingly incredible mitzvah and how they did it - from shaving their heads after their wedding and donning a wig, to covering their hair one way and deciding later to do it another, to the women who covered and then many years later stopped and vice versa.

At this point, I wasn't really ready to make a decision about what I wanted to do, but when I met D in March 2007 and we became serious soon after, I began to really think about it. I was a bit freaked out by the thought of a wig but I had sometimes (in the privacy of my own room in the apartment that I shared with 3 other girls) put a scarf on my head and examined myself in the mirror. That was also a bit weird to look at, but much less so than the thought of a wig -- or so I thought.

As D and I became more serious and decided that we were going to get married, I began to think more and more about my impending hair covering decision. By this point, other friends of mine had gotten married and covered their in different ways. Several of my friends were wearing different kind of wigs and just seeing them go about their daily life with a wig started to change mind. A few months before D and I got engaged my parents came to visit me. Since D and I were sure at that point that we were getting married, I began to talk to my parents more about the logistics. In a conversation that weekend, I happened to bring up the idea of a sheital (wig) --not necessarily for me, but the idea of a sheital being a potential hair covering option for some-- and my mom spontaneously burst into tears! I was shocked! I didn't know how they were going to react, but I definitely didn't see tears as an option. After about 20 minutes my mom calmed down and we were able to have a calm discussion about the options. I know why she was so uncomfortable - it was such a foreign concept for her. She didn't understand how her daughter could even be considering a wig. She thought that I had gone off the deep end! Also, in her mind, wigs were ugly and obvious and she thought that I would look like a freak. I decided not to bring up the subject again until things blew over.

D and I got engaged in July of 2008 and decided that we would get married the next July (2009) and the wedding planning started immediately. I began to really think more and more about my hair-covering decision. I realized that I was leaning more and more toward wigs and decided to talk to D about my feelings about it and for him to weigh in on the subject. I was a bit nervous about what D would say for a few reasons. First, neither his mom, nor both his grandmothers wore wigs, or even daily hair coverings for that matter; all of them really only covered their hair in shul or to light shabbos candles. Secondly, I had a few married friends whose husbands were really opinionated about the matter to the point that my friends felt pressured to do what their husbands wanted at the expense of their own feelings. Thankfully, D's only opinion was that I should do something that I would be comfortable with and that he would support whatever decision that I make. I felt so lucky and it really felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders on the matter. Now all I had to figure out was what I was going to be comfortable with in my daily married life??

Shortly after the conversation that D and I had regarding my hair covering decision, I made up my mind. I was ready to take the 'wig plunge'. I decided that I wanted to get 2 different kinds. I wanted a headband fall for 'everyday' ease and a full sheital for Shabbos, weddings and other special occasions. Since we weren't getting married for almost a year, D and I decided to wait a few months before looking into purchasing the wigs. When the time came to look into different wig distributors we wanted to make sure that we did our homework and were getting the best deal for our money. For those of you who don't know, wigs can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $3,000+. It all depends on the quality of the hair (synthetic, human, dyed, virgin, etc.), length of hair, color etc. I first went with a coworker who had been wearing wigs since she got married 7 years before. She knew exactly what to ask for and gave me invaluable advice which I still give to friends to this day. The first time I tried one on was really a shock to me. I looked in the mirror and really didn't recognize the person staring back at me. The sheitalmacher (person who either makes/sells wigs) told me that because I was trying on wigs that weren't cut (or pre-cut with no particular person in mind) that they would look a bit weird on. She said that once I had one cut the way I wanted my hair to look and one that was fit to my head a bit better, that it would look and feel more natural.

Once I got more comfortable trying the wigs on and knew what to look and ask for, D and I went together to do the research. I felt that it was really important that D help me make this decision since even though ultimately I had to decided which wig felt the best, I was going to be wearing these wigs all the time and D should like the way I look in them. I also really value his opinion about what I look good in/what is flattering. D and I went to 4 or 5 wig sales in Chicago and decided to purchase from the last one we went to. In March, a wig store in Chicago had a woman come in from Brooklyn to sell her wigs for a couple days for a Pre-Pesach (Passover) sale, and not only were the wigs gorgeous, the prices were really great. I decided on a full sheital and the woman agreed to make a headband fall for me since she didn't have one there in my color and the length that I wanted.

I put the wigs on their styrofoam heads on my top closet shelf in my apartment to wait the few months until I would need to wear them. Everyday when I opened my closet to get dressed in the morning, there they were, literally staring back at me. I was getting more and more excited to get married, and in turn, cover my hair. During Pesach 3 months before our wedding, I told D that I was so excited to cover my hair. He was really shocked to hear this from me and asked me why. I told him that after all of the reading about hair covering and thinking about my personal decision, that I felt that it was such a beautiful concept. I was excited to have a 'secret' with D, to have no one but him see my hair after our wedding. I was excited for it to feel special that he was the only one to see me in my most 'natural' state. Also, on a purely vain level, I was excited to be able to have my hair look good anytime of day, to not have to worry about waking up, showering, and doing my hair every morning. I was excited to have a good hair day on Jewish holidays where you aren't allowed to shower and use hair styling tools. I have nice hair, but it's not amazing. Its fine and if I don't wash it everyday, it gets oily. Its wavy, but not uniformly. If I straighten it on Friday before Shabbos, when I wake up on Saturday it's not straight anymore from sleeping on it. Sure, I could wear it curly or straight, but in the end, I wasn't so attached to it.

Well the wedding came and went, and I woke up on Monday morning, the day after our wedding, in our hotel room in downtown Chicago and began to get dressed to meet my family for brunch. I put on my clothes and then for the first time (other than just trying it on to get the feel for it and learn how to put it on), I put on my fall and layered it with a hat. We went to brunch with my parents, and to this day, I am still not sure if my mom knew that I was wearing a wig. All of my wigs look similar to my hair - dark brown, long, and can be worn curled or straight.

It's been over a year since we got married and I started wearing wigs...and I still love it every day. I wear my wigs almost everyday, and about 4 months ago I bought a 3rd wig. The new one is called a hat fall. It is a wig that is meant to be worn with a hat or scarf or some other type of hair covering. It is missing hair in a 'U' shape from the hairline to the crown. I wear mine with all types of hats and usually wear scarves ties like a pirate to cover the 'missing' part of hair. In terms of my mom coming to terms with my 'cover up', she is amazing. It took her a little while to get used to it, but she is very supportive and I think that most of her reservations came from not understanding why I wanted to wear wigs, and the fact that she sees that they can be beautiful and natural looking. I know that not everyone feels the same as I do about hair covering, and I have a lot of friends who hate it and only do it for their husbands, their families, or communal pressure, and so I consider myself lucky to have found such meaning in a very personal, yet very public practice.

I am not so naive to think that at some point in my life my feelings toward hair covering won't change and I might want to do something different. When people find out that I cover my hair or they ask how I came to my decision, I tell them that this is what I do for now. Not that I am planning on changing how I cover my hair, but who's to say how I will feel 5, 10, 15 years down the road. I might want to change how I cover my hair, I might not...but I realize that it is my decision and I am lucky enough to have a husband who supports my decision unconditionally.


Chaviva said...

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with the world wide web :) Your decision is one you made with intention and honesty, and that is what matters!

Alex Aviva said...

Thank you very much Ally for sharing this with us. I think your kavannah is beautiful and inspiring. :) Keep it up!

Shey said...

Thank you for writing this post, last time when you mentioned about the wigs and left the links I read them because it's very interesting but I rather read your thoughts about it, there are so many versions out there. When I started following Nina's blog she mentioned the wig, I was shocked because hers also looks like her natural hair and I never knew Jewish married women wore wigs. I kind of understand the reasons behind it because at the church where I went before women covered their hair with those lace doilies when we were in the temple, some women used hats and wore them all the time and they never cut their hair, so there are a bit of similarities. I admire that you follow you convictions to hear and let me tell you, I wish I didn't have to worry about bad hair days! =D
You look beautiful with your wigs, they look like your natural hair.

Rivster said...

What a journey. Thank you for sharing it and inspiring others.

Katy-Anne said...

I might could see why someone feels the need to cover with a scarf or veil etc.

But the whole wig thing seems grossly inconsistent. You say it's because your own hair is sensual, and yet you said you choose wigs that look like your own hair, so what's the point? Also, is another woman's hair somehow less sensual than yours? Making it ok to wear another woman's hair? What makes your hair so fabulous that it's sensual and the wigs aren't?

Just curious. If I knew you covered with a scarf or veil for these reasons I'd think it not necessary, but not really a big deal either way. But the wig thing is so inconsistent it's not even funny.

Mrs. Marcus said...

Thanks for sharing your story. It was interesting to read. As always, I love your honesty.

Suzette said...

I think it's great that your husband supports your decision, and I respect your stand on the matter even though it's never been a personal conviction for me. Keep on standing for what you believe in! Thanks for sharing your story; I've actually been curious about the meaning behind head coverings for quite some time now. It's always fun to read about how someone got from where they were to where they are now! :)

Umm Amirah said...

Great story.
Thanks so much for sharing cuz I loved it!!

Life with Kaishon said...

This was interesting. I am visiting via Modesty is Pretty. So nice to meet you. One of my best friends is Jewish and I love learning about his religion. Fascinating.

And PS I love your New Years outfit :) Smashing!

Rochel said...

Beautifully written. I remember thinking that covering my hair would be no big deal. I planned to use sheitlach as a way to avoid bad hair days. Tichels were to be a new accessory. Then I got engaged and went to the sheitl macher for the first time. She was wonderful, sensitive, and patient with all of my many question. Even still, by the time I walked out I was so overwhelmed. I wear my sheitl every day and still don't really recognize myself in it (although it looks so much like my real hair that my brother didn't realize it wasn't). Your post reminds me of all the reasons I choose to cover my hair. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

How interesting that Katy-anne, who isn't Jewish, was the only commenter to touch on the incongruity of wearing a wig: if you're doing it to be modest and cover your hair (rather than as a sign of marriage, which is the reason I wear something on my head), it makes more sense to cover any hair that's on your head and not just your own. Using a wig was originally permitted by rabbis who felt that more women would cover if they could wear wigs. But - especially with the gorgeous wigs available today - it certainly doesn't comply with any Jewish laws. Katy-Anne, you have a good head for Talmud :-)

Chaviva said...

Okay, y'all. She was telling her personally journey, not talking halakot. If you want that, please go to my blog (here are the posts, darlin'!) and read up on why wigs are okay.

Part I: Cover your hair: Why?

Part II: Cover your hair: Leprous Plague?

And leave the girl alone :)