Sheitels -- Hair to Stay?

pic from
Below is the article on the subject I published a few years ago,
“The Advent of the American Sheitel.” Queens College Journal of Jewish Studies. Vol. VI (Spring 2004) 93-101.

The Advent of the American Sheitel.
For Jews who wish to be accepted as Americans rather than viewed as different, the right look is essential. Particularly for women, fashioning oneself into the American mold calls for attaining the correct female form. As Susan Weidman Schneider writes in Jewish and Female, “Assimilation for Jewish women has often meant trying to change the way we look,” as the fall prey to the “’straightening’ syndrome. They follow the dictates “straighten your hair, your teeth, your body, you nose, your house,” so that you may achieve “’acceptability’” (Schneider 245).
 In American society, the evident ethnicity of hair covering was unacceptable, so the modern minded discarded the sheitels (wigs) that were traditionally worn by married women. However, in recent years, the sheitel has reemerged, simultaneously fulfilling the practice of hair-covering that has been restored by religiously educated young women, as well as serving as a means of achieving the American look their grandmothers desired. In appearance, style, and texture, the modern sheitel is often closer to the American ideal than the Jewish hair it conceals. Paradoxically, the sheitel, which in America was viewed as anachronism, a vestige of old world Orthodoxy, has become an accessory to the American standard of beautiful hair.
Jewish women who strive to achieve an appearance that would render them acceptable to their host society become particularly preoccupied with the beauty standard, taking their beauty cues from their gentile counterparts whose features are considered preferable to Jewish ones. The assumption is that the ideal female form is incarnated by the shiksa who is unburdened by a “Jewish nose” or “Jewish hair.” Jews have internalized the critical bias and find fault with their own appearance. “You look like a shiksa” is, the ultimate tribute to a Jewish girl’s looks, for it signifies that she has achieved parity with those who set the beauty standard. Even when a Jewish woman’s attractiveness is regarded as surpassing that of her counterparts, as was the case with Bess Myerson, she is described in terms that suggest a Jewish difference. In describing the Jewish Miss America of 1945, the newspapers characterized her as an “’Oriental beauty.’” The qualifier, “’Oriental,’” Susan Dworkin explains, “was then an accepted euphemism for ‘Semitic’” (153). Though her acclaimed good looks were chosen to represent America, her noted Jewishness would still mark her as foreign.
Though Americans are proud of the nation’s diversity, their reaction to styles of dress that that deviate from their expectations expose their own preconceptions. In Generation Without Memory, Anne Roiphe offers a representative misreading of the purpose of married women’s wearing sheitels. She erroneously asserts, “A married woman’s hair was cut and she wore the sheitel.” On the basis of the first part, she isinuates parallels to the Nazi’s practice of shaving their inmates’ heads “as part of their assault on their individuality ” and to the French shaving the hair of women “to humiliate women who had cooperated with the Germans after the war.” In light of those events, Roiphe sees the “Jewish tradition” as “an expression of the community dislike of the female,” through an act that renders her “a mutilated being, not whole.” She adds the ironic observations that “Jews, of course, are a people very concerned with the head, and instead of education the Jewish woman got a wig for her head” (Roiphe 201).
Roiphe’s analysis presents common misconceptions about the role of sheitels. The underlying misunderstanding is the equation of the Jewish tradition of a woman covering her hair upon marriage with the forced shearing of her locks. There is no real requirement for a married woman to keep her hair short, though many choose to for convenience. Only a miniscule percentage of Jews, those who belong to particular Hasidic sects, carry out a custom of married women shaving their hair. It is not a mainstream practice at all and has even been criticized by some authorities. The second mistaken assumption is that all married women wore sheitels, which Roiphe seems to regard as the female consolation for lack of education. The sheitel was not in fact so established as the predominant hair covering. Indeed, some halchic authorities frown upon wigs as hair covering, which are generally not considered acceptable in Sephardic circles and not adequate without another covering in some Hasidic groups. The ramification of Roiphe’s equation of the hair covering with disfigurement is that only married women would be subject to this rite of subjugation. Should the reader infer that single women with their long hair visible and intact felt more “whole” than their married counterparts and that they were able to escape the consequences of the purported “community dislike”? If the situation was as Roiphe postulates it to be, women could have saved their status by refusing to marry. Certainly, that was not the case.
Though it may signal her otherness to the larger society, a Jewish woman’s hair covering serves only to telegraph her married status, not a gender specific deficiency. In fact, observant Jewish men are expected to keep a covering on their heads of sorts. Though the purpose is not that of hair-covering, the yarmulkas men wear also sets them apart from a society that does not think of religious accessories as streetwear. Speaking of her own resolve to cover her hair as part of the “’package deal’” of accepting halacha, Susan M. Zakar, a convert to Judaism observes, “We live in a society where neither men nor women cover their heads. Wearing hats or wigs or yarmulkas sets us apart and makes us feel different”(Zakar and Kaufmann 228-229). Jew whose desire is to blend in to their host societies do not wish to feel different; they want to feel like Americans and to look like them.
The Jewish women who immigrated to America sought to adapt to the new world. In analyzing the view of the Jewish immigrant woman in The Jewish Woman in America, Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michael assert : “Shedding their wigs became for women, as trimming their beards was for men, the outward symbol of concession to American godlessness” (205). However, as generations of women who identified as Modern Orthodox would attest, the concession was not to “godlessness” but to blending in as Americans. In writing about why her grandmother eschews headcovering, Vanessa Ochs recounts a story that matches that “of so many Jewish immigrants: ‘When my mother came to America, her sister who was already here told her, ‘In America you don’t need to wear a sheitl [wig] to be frum [religious]’” (Ochs 226). She did not suggest that her sister give up on being frum, only on the sheitel.. The shedding of the wig did not signal shedding religion but embracing an American identity. Thus began the American tradition of Jewish women keeping their hair uncovered even while continuing to adhere to the practices of Orthodoxy.
What is true for modern day America was also true for Europe under the sway of the Enlightenment. The influence of the secular world encroached on the Jews who ventured from the insularity of their barricaded communities. Consequently, some Eastern European women chose to become modern by adopting contemporary styles of dress and disdaining traditional head coverings. Evidently, they were not in the minority. In the classic guide to Jewish law, Aruch Hashulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein bewailed that as all protest has been ineffective in preventing the expanse of “the plague of married women going about with their hair like the maidens.” As a result, he ruefully concludes, “it is now permissible for us [men] to pray and make benedictions facing their uncovered heads, for now that a majority go about thus, their hair could be considered like the [usually] exposed parts of the body” [my translation from Hebrew original] (Orach Chaim 75:7)
The exposure gained momentum as Jews came in droves to America. Though many Jewish women would have conformed to the style of dress prescribed by religion within the communities that remained insulated from the growing wave of secularism in their native land, in this country, there was no shelter from the western influence. Once they came to the New World, women who sought acceptance discarded their greenhorn garb, which included the married woman’s hair covering. Just as much as the babushka, wearing the stiff, unnatural looking sheitel would have stigmatized a woman as still of the old country. Thus in recalling 1930’s New York, Ruchoma Shain, explains, “In those days, wigs were not worn by young women.” She was an exception among American Orthodox Jews in her compliance with covering her hair upon her marriage. Nevertheless, she did not take to wearing a sheitel. “Wigs, worn only by elderly women, had no real hair style and were all alike” (Shain 206). Even a woman as religiously committed as Ruchoma Shain did not want to be so fashion backward as to appear in a dowdy sheitel that smacked of the old world and old women.
For those who felt less encumbered by the dictates of Jewish law, the general progression of Jewish women in twentieth-century America could be generalized as a tendency to discard religious restrictions of dress and hair covering that called attention to difference. Even when immigrants retained their traditional hair covering, as some elderly ones did, their daughters would not. In the photograph collection of Hasia R. Diner and Beryl Liff Benderly’s Her Works Praise Her, next to the picture of the Ukrainian immigrant whose hair is covered by a hat is the caption: “She, unlike any of her daughters, kept her hair covered in accordance with Jewish laws of modesty for married women.” Her daughters, growing up in the early part of the twentieth century renounced the religious restriction as a result of having internalized the American standard for a woman’s appearance.
The practice of hair covering was abandoned even by women who remained fully committed to Orthodox Judaism. Though they cleaved to traditional restrictions mandated by Sabbath observance and kosher dietary restrictions, they did not want religion to leave an imprint on the appearance they presented to the world at large. As they viewed themselves as Americans, they wanted their semblance to register their similarity to other residents of their chosen homeland. Consequently, many Jewish women who espoused the classification “modern,” even while maintaining their orthodoxy, would not accede to laws of dress that obligate concealing their arms, legs, and, certainly not their hair. As a result, hair covering became the exception rather than the rule in Orthodox circles. This state of events prompted Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, writing in New York in 1959, that, “lamentably, at the time, most women – even those who adhere to the Torah – flout this precept” [my translation from Hebrew original] (Even Haezer 114, p. 271).
A few decades later, however, this trend saw a reversal. Whereas the sequence of events had each succeeding generation becoming freer from religious restriction than its predecessor, and daughters generally kept less covered than their mothers, a new phenomenon emerged: daughters of women who did not cover their hair resolved to do so. This phenomenon is unquestionably the outgrowth of advances in Jewish education for girls, which develops greater awareness of and devotion to halacha (Jewish law). Religious commitment rooted in learning is undeniably the primary impetus to girls’ determination to adhere to a halachic dress code that their mothers and grandmothers had repudiated as outdated. That is not to say, though, that these women are stepping back in time. Just as the Orthodox consumer is not content with gefilte fish and syrupy spirits but demands the experience of gourmet food, from sushi to the sophisticated taste of award winning wines “that just happen to be kosher,” the purveyor of sheitels seeks hair that conforms to society’s reigning beauty standard. Consequently, today’s young married woman whose hair is covered by a sheitel does not resemble her great-grandmother. A glimpse of her would not convince you that the smartly cut or flowing, soft locks you see on her head are not her own. The wig would not be conspicuously stiff or teased. In addition to the silky hair in a natural-looking color blend, the wig is likely to feature a part that reveals a white scalp or be brushed back from the hairline in a way that hitherto wigs were not able to duplicate. Rather than branding her as different, today’s sheitels grant the women who wear them the confidence of having perfect hair that looks like they have spent a fortune on it – because they have.
Wigs have come a long way in quality, style, and price. In Holy Days, Lis Harris enters the world of a Lubavitcher woman who regularly wears wigs. “The wigs cost from sixty to seventy dollars, Sheina said, and some had to brought in about every four months for recombing” (141). This was written in 1986, back in the days when women were generally content with synthetic or human hair blend wigs, and only those with sizable disposable incomes could aspire to a custom made sheitel that blends undyed hair to an exact color match and fit. Today sixty to seventy dollars does not even cover the cost of cutting a new wig, which is usually $100 or more, though that is often included in the purchase price of the wig. The low end price of wigs is just above $200 for synthetic hair wigs. The price rises according to how much human hair is mixed and the grade of the hair. Between what is labeled simply “human” and the premium European are the grades of “Cyber hair” or Y2K hair,” or some other such terms that connotes high tech while denoting higher quality than standard human hair. It is telling that the terms adopted, while in fact completely irrelevant to hair, associate the sheitel with technological advancement. Thus the link between the sheitel and the outmoded dowdiness of the shtetl is decidedly severed as the updated wig is correlated to the celebration of progress in modern America. If the hair is not described in some way, it is likely of Indian or Asian origin. The key difference among these is texture. The most choice wigs feature the silkiest textured hair and command the highest prices. What is termed “European hair” fetches higher prices, starting at about $600. Women pay up to $2500 and more for a top of the line, custom made, European hair wig. As the term “custom” became the equivalent of grade, there are “semi-customs” wigs that are not customized at all but of superior quality that go for about $750-$1200.
Though such high prices would presumably deter women of limited means from purchasing these sheitels, the contrary is true. “Everyone gets a custom,” remarked a friend a few years ago when I expressed surprise that a mutual friend who was trained n frugality was buying one. Obviously, that generalization is not wholly accurate, but it does touch on the escalation in expectations for those who wear sheitels. The sheitels, expensive as they are, do not constitute a once in a lifetime purchase. The more frugal may only buy one upon their marriage, but those who are more inclined to spending actually own several. One woman featured in a Jewish newspaper is described as possessing “three custom wigs in her wardrobe” (Miller 11). While catalog wigs designed for women who have lost their hair or as fashion accessories are priced as low as forty dollars, the Orthodox woman who covers her hair with a sheitel generally disdains the cheap wigs.
Even in the Northern New Jersey suburb that is widely perceived as a non-materialistic community, where I lived for seven years, women who did not enjoy high incomes, and some whose children’s tuition were offset by scholarship, spent upwards of $600 for a wig. When one woman in my town got the idea to offer the significantly cheaper Paula Young wigs for sale in her home, she found no customers. Hair is one area where the women refused to cut corners. While some contend that custom wigs last substantially longer than the cheaper wigs, as a sheitel macher admitted, they only sustain their good looks if they are maintained with wash and sets every couple months at $20-$50 a pop. Indeed, some of the New Jersey women would regularly drive out to New York to obtain the services of sheitel machers they considered superior to the ones available locally. Women are not paying thousand for the value of durability so much as for the look. One woman’s wig was so much admired by an acquaintance of hers that the woman made an appointment to discuss the purchase of the wig that would cost over $1000. The woman was not Jewish and so had no concern for hair covering, but she appreciated the high-priced wig as a means of achieving instant perfect hair.
Though ardently pursued by many women, perfect hair achieved via a sheitel is not perfectly acceptable according to some authorities. While some take the position that so long as hair is covered, the fact that the covering looks like natural hair does not matter, the more right-wing authorities find that problematic. The Dei’a Vedibur website, which is oriented toward the more right-leaning members of the Orthodox Jewish community, devoted two issues to covering in April 2002 to “The Importance of Sheitels in Our Troubled Times.” The article, written by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk, the author of a book on the laws of modest dress, opens as follows: “This article is an S.O.S. call (Save Our Sheitels) before things become even worse.” The crisis is due to women wearing wigs that look so natural that they constitute a “mockery” of covering hair. The rest of the first installment of the article is devoted to detailing the “number of purposeful ploys” designed to make the hair of the sheitel appear as real as “the woman’s own hair.”
Those features are what have contributed to the escalating cost of sheitels as well as their recently extended popularity. Sheitels used to be the sole province of the strictly Orthodox woman, who dutifully covered all of her hair, in contrast to those of more modern affiliation, who generally opted for the partial covering of hats (particularly when attending synagogue services) if anything at all.[i]. Now many of the latter category would at least own a fall, even if not a full sheitel. Even those who do not have compunctions about leaving their own hair exposed often opt for falls even under hats, to give the appearance of elegantly styled hair. While the sheitel is valued in proportion to its simulation of natural hair and appreciated as a beauty enhancer, the justification for the extravagant expense is the religious obligation for hair covering. I heard an engaged young woman tell her friend that though she did not intend to cover her hair upon marriage, she decided to purchase a sheitel prior to her marriage, that is while her mother was willing to pay for it. Though the bride could justify the expense of a sheitel for her mother on the basis of religious necessity, in fact she viewed it as an optional accessory, rather than a burdensome obligation.
Truly, wearing a sheitel today does not require sacrificing American norms of appearance. In the past, I could nearly always discern if a woman’s coiffure was her own or a wig on the basis of the hairline combined with some height that natural hair does not normally possess. However, today’s more advanced (and proportionally more expensive) sheitels erase those differences. Indeed, only the woman’s sheitel macher and those who know her to cover her hair would recognize her hairstyle as a wig. I was hit by this state of events last year. The first time I walked into a local Orthodox synagogue with a predominantly twenty-something crowd, I was surprised to notice neither hats nor sheitels on most of the women. I puzzled over this at first, for I knew that the married women present would not dream of entering a synagogue with no head covering at all, even if they do not normally cover their hair. The only possible conclusion was that the married women were in fact wearing wigs or falls, but of such a caliber that they could not be distinguished from natural hair, even by someone as used to seeing sheitels as myself.
Though such natural-looking wigs were available years ago, they were considered an extravagance reserved for the affluent. I recall that a few days after my cousin’s wedding, his wife’s sister told of her mother telling the new bride to put on her wig when it came time to leave the room. The women who listened were amused by the point that the bride had been wearing her long, straight blond wig the whole time, and even her mother could not tell it was not her own hair. As that occurred about a dozen years ago, such quality in a sheitel was still remarkable. Today, however, it is common. The indistinguishable wig that Rabbi Falk denounces is exactly what much of the client base for sheitels demands. Accordingly, some women opt for a fall rather than a full wig in order to avoid the recognizable front styling of a sheitel. To cover the line of demarcation, they wear a headband. Those who still want to keep their own hair covered put the headband very far forward to cover their own hairline as well as that of the fall; others let their own hairline peek out. However, some women eschew the headband and achieve a completely natural by brushing some of their own hair over the fronts of the falls. Authorities even more lenient than Rabbi Falk consider that practice to be a violation of the law of hair-covering. The fact that women who are not conscientious about keeping their hair covered according to legal authorities do don sheitels attests to the fact that contemporary wigs are not viewed as a mere vestige of religious ritual but as a crowning touch to a fashion forward chic look.
Sheitel machers subscribe not only to wig catalogues, but to salon magazines for direction in the latest trends in styling. The manufacturers of the wigs are also attuned to popular culture and bestow names on their styles that evoke the cachet of high tech or the glamour of popular celebrities. In addition to a modern looking cut, the sheitels feature advances in construction that give them a very natural look. Consequently, a woman walking out with her sheitel done would look just like one who just had her own hair done in the salon. The wig may in fact have been set in a salon exclusively for wigs or in a regular hair salon, for many now offer wig services to serve their Orthodox clientele after their marriages. The advantage of wigs in that respect is that they can be taken off for washing and left at the salon to be retrieved in its freshly set glory. Fashionable women who are accustomed to salon styling for a smart look are unwilling to compromise on the hairstyle they wear, even when it is detachable.
Far from differentiating the Jewish woman’s appearance from those around her, the modern sheitel becomes a means of blending in by concealing her Jewish hair under a fashionably sleek style that looks perfectly natural. Though generally new brides seek to match their own hair in their choice of sheitel, the wig styling offers the hair women wish to have and may have forced on their own hair, that is smooth, silky, straight hair, sometimes a few shades lighter or redder than their natural color. Indeed, the sheitel -- with built in perfect, shiksa straight hair – offers the ultimate solution for those who find themselves disadvantaged by their natural Jewish hair genes. Even women who may not have capitulated to the “straightening syndrome” with respect to their own hair before marriage find that the sheitel grants them the desirable type of hair that would be the pride of anyone born with the endowment of beauty ascribed to the shiksa. Thus the modern sheitel, while still signifying an Orthodox Jewish woman’s capitulation to halachic tradition, now allows her to appropriate the hair that is sought after by the fashionable world around her, which may have been unattainable in her natural hair with Jewish attributes. Ironically, it is the sheitel, spurned by generations of Jewish women as an object that downgraded their American status, that emerges as the central means of attaining the hair essential to American beauty.

Works Cited

Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America. New York: The Dial Press, 1976.
Diner, Hasia R., and Beryl Lieff Benderly. Her Works Praise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Dworkin, Susan. Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story. New York: Newmarket Press, 1987.
Epstein, Yechiel, Michel. Aruch Hashulchan. Warsaw: Lauw, nd.
Falk, Pesach Eliyahu. “The Importance of Sheitels in our Troubled Times.” Part I.: De’ahVedibur: Information and Insight. 17 April 2002. 1 January 2004. chareidi/archives5762/achrei/ osheitel1.htm .
---.,“The Importance of Sheitels in our Troubled Times.” Part II.: De’ahVedibur: Information and Insight. 24 April 2002. 1 January 2004. http://www.shemayisrael .com/chareidi/archives5762/emor/EM62osheitel2.htm
Feinstein, Moshe. Even Hazezer: Iggros Moshe, New York: Moriah Offset Co., 1961.
Harris, Lis. Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company,1986.
Miller, Rochelle Maruch. “Bad Hair Days.” 5 Towns Jewish Times. 22 August 2003, 1, 10-11.
Ochs, Vanessa L. Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Sacred. San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
Roiphe, Anne Generation Without Memory: A Jewish Journey in Christian America. New York: The Linden Press/ Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Schneider, Susan Weidman. Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today. NY; Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Shain, Ruchoma. All for the Boss. Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1984.
Zakar, Susan M., and Dovid Y.B. Kaufmann. Judaism Online: Confronting Spirituality on the Internet. Northvale and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1998.

[i] In fact the division of the practice confers a political edge on a woman’s choice of hair covering much like a man’s choice of material and color for his skullcap conveys his affiliation on the spectrum of Orthodoxy.


Anonymous said…
excellent points and the details are more specific than somewhere else, thanks.

- Joe
Jeannie said…
Good post! Learned much from this article.

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