Sunday, November 30, 2008

in time of famine

Last year, I grappled with the question of Yitzchak and Rivka not abstaining from marital relations during a famine when Yosef is said to have done so. Alas the KallahMagazine blog posts of last year have been obliterated from existence. But the Divrei Chaim did pick up on the issue, as you can see here: http://divreichaim.blogspot.com/2007/11/status-of-avos-as-bnei-noach-or.html
During this year's layning of Parashas Toldos, I thought of another possible explanation, though it would have to rely on the principle of events presented out of strict chronological order. During the famine, Yitzchak and his family travel to Gerrar, as Hashem told him not to leave Eretz Yisrael. Just like his father had, Yitzchak tells the people of the region that his good-looking wife is his sister. The difference is that whereas Sarah was instantly taken for the king -- both in Egypt and in Gerrar -- this king is more cautious. He allows many days to pass and seems to keep the purported brother and sister under observation until he espies behavior between the two that indicates they were not in fact siblings. : "vehinei Yitzchak metzachek es Rifka ishto" (26:8). This leads to Avimelech's "Gotcha" charge of Yitzchak. But the king accepts Yitzchak's explanation of his actions and lends his protection to the couple by decreeing death on anyone who dare touch them (26:9-11).
It is the following verse that relates Yitzchak's successful harvest. So I would venture to say that given the fact that much time is said to have lapsed before Yitzchak dared to be intimate with his wife, it may have occurred only after his harvest. The blessing evidenced by the abundance of wheat that he reaped may have indicated to him that they were no longer in the midst of famine and so that it was permissible to resume marital relations, particularly as he had not yet fulfilled pirya verivya with no daughters.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Are worms worth it?

I know someone who has made a point of arriving at Kmart at 6 AM the day after Thanksgiving for the Early Bird Black Friday specials. As I have pointed out to him, though, the toys, etc., stay on sale for weeks following. For example, the kitchen set toy he lugged home in the dawn's early light was still around for pretty much the same price after that day. Nevertheless, people allow themselves to whipped into a frenzy of shopping. I just received an email from Kohl's informing me that the store will open at 4 AM. That's right, you can get up at 3 in the morning to be among the first at the store. But why should you, when the early bird specials are available until 1 PM? I suppose that they would like to make it seem that the best bargains will be snatched right away. But, in fact, the store has been promoting holiday shopping for the past several weeks already with the holiday decorations on display and the music of the season piping into shoppers' ears.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rivka and Yitzchak

The second patriarch and matriarch are the couple of choice for those with an inclination to the right. A shadchan is entrusted with making the match for the young couple. The bride leaves her home to join her husband where he resides. The husband marries the young woman chosen for him;he comes to love her after marriage. Rivka proves to be the docile ideal who covers hides behind her scarf when she first sees her intended and seems to keep herself under wraps, as well, avoiding any direct confrontation with her husband. Unlike Sarah, she does not tell her husband directly what she thinks should be done about the differences between their two sons. Instead, she has to orchestrate a rather elaborate ruse to get Yitzchak to utter the blessing for Yaakov. (The only time we see her speaking directly to Yitzchak is when she seeks a way to get Yaakov out of Esav's reach and so declares that her younger son must go abroad to find his wife, so that not all their daughters-in-law will be like the wives chosen by their eldest.)

It seems to me that Rivka saw herself on such unequal footing with her husband from the first time she laid eyes on him that she could never be as open with him as Sarah and Rachel are able to be with their husbands. Chazal's assumption of a 37 year age gap between them would also fit well with the uneven position between them. She may have felt that she simply could not contradict someone so senior even when she was certain that she was correct in her perception of her two sons. While Sarah's prophetically inspired vision was ratified as possessing greater clarity than her husband's by none other than G-d himself, Rivka did not have such a guarantee. When she went to seek an answer to the troubling effect she experienced in pregnancy, she did not get it directly but through the intermediary of Shem and Ever(Beraishis Rabba ). So she could not claim greater prophetic prowess than her husband.

Yet we know from the narrative of what the king espied (26:8) that there was an intimacy between the two maintained many years into their marriage. So their relationship was a success for them. However, that does not mean it is the ultimate mold for all marriages. We don't know how Avraham came to marry Sarah, but given their proximity of family, it is unlikely that the match was determined by a go-between. Certainly, Yaakov's choice of wife was his own, and the Torah clearly states that he felt love for her before he married her. There is also his marriage to Leah to consider. Perhaps I will get to that in a future post.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Not Negotiable

This past Shabbos, Rabbi Friedman spoke about the episdoe of Avraham's purchase of maaras hamchpela from Ephron. Chazal are critical of Ephron who was a big talker -- saying "you want the field, take it; I give it to you as a gift" -- who didn't even do a little, for when it came down to the actual sale, he exacted a high price. Now if Avraham knew that the price was a high, why did he not bargain it down? (One would think that bargaining would have ensued no matter what price was quoted.) It is possible that Avraham could have obtained the property at a cheaper price. But in this case, he did not want the seller to have any regrets about the sale that would reslt in his claiming to have been forced into the transaction. Rabbi Friedman pointed out that Avraham was avoiding a situation in which the seller may have any negative feeling about the deal by paying the full asking price. There are situations in which the impression one is making is of far greater value than the money in question.

My note on this is that it is very true. Some people just seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to hearing a price quote of saying, "You have to do better than that for me." or "That's too high; I never pay that much." or "What is the best you can do for me?" or just an offer of about half the price quoted. In the book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen G. Bloom, one of the things that really alienates the neighborhood merchants of Postville is the Chassdim's haggling. They are highly offended by the insinuation inherent in the attempt to beat the price down that their pricing is not fair to begin with and generally refuse to enter inito such negotations. The Jews in a strange land would have made a much better impression by paying the listed price rather than by reinforcing negative stereotypes in their attemtp to save a couple of dollars on a pair of shoes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Marriage of Avraham and Sarah

From the glimpses we have of the relationships of the Avos and Immahos related in the Torah, it is clear that one size does not fit all as the model of marriage.

Sarah is very direct with Avraham. She tells him what she wants him to do, complains about situations she does not like, and takes action openly. She does not resort to going behind her husband's back to convince him to do what she wants by having someone else tell him to do so, as some people today suggest in their marriage advice. Would anyone say that there was a lack of Shalom Bayis between Avraham and Sarah because she was not passive and indirect? That would be a most ludicrous assertion.

First, Sarah tell her husband to take Hagar as a wife. Then when Hagar treats her with less regard, Sarah complains to Avraham who assures her that she is still mistress over the maid. It is notable that Avraham does not exclaim at Sarah complaining about a situation that she brought about herself by coming up with the plan for him to marry Hagar so that she can have his child. He does not respond with a "What do you want from me? This is what you said you wanted!" Rather, he says to do what she sees fit.

After Yitzchak is born, and Sarah perceives Yishmael as a threat to her son, she tells Avraham to send him and his mother away. While Avraham may ahve felt reluctant to do so, Hashem assures him that he should listen to his wife. Interesting, that Sarah, like Rivka, prove more perceptive about the danger one brother poses to the other than their fathers are. But while Rivka feels she has to resort to some subtefuge in order to protect her son, Sarah is confident enough to tell her husband directly.

I would think that Sarah saw herself as more her husband's equal. There are a number of possible reasons for this. They were of the same family and may have grown up together. Also they only had 10 years between them, which was a very minor age difference -- as opposed to the 37 year age difference posited for Yitzchak and his wife. Lastly, Sarah's personality comes across as more assertive than Rivka's. Women who exhibit such different personalities and backgrounds would not fit the same mold for a marriage relationship.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Well, this one takes the cake

In the course of calling up potential advertisers, I encounter a lot of excuses fornot being able to discuss the matter at the time. Some are mazel tovs. Three people I called last week had babies of their own or grandchildren. Today's excuse was not something you would wish mazel tov for, but it certainly is too original to be made up. The person I called today said that it was not a good time because he was on his way to prison. Not, mind you, that he had just been arrested. Rather, he was going to see a friend there. But still, the "can't talk now, on my way to jail" certainly tops my list for a call deferred.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Do the ends justify the means?

This post is not my usual sort of thing. It is a reaction to the article in this week's Jewish Star, "Obscene billboard still in plain sight on Rockaway Turnpike" by Michael Orbach. I've seen the billboard in question while driving past. I actually would call it a sign because it is posted over the building of the "gentlemen's club" it is meant to advertise. The woman who is pictured in this sign is very provocatively clad. Is this something I find personally offensive? Yes. But I find quite a number of public displays personally offensive. For example, I find many of the images flashed on the TV screen in my gym's machine room equally offensive with women clad just about the same way dancing or otherwise displaying themselves on what I assume is the MTV channel. I alsofind some of the lyrics of the music pumped over the speakers offensive. And this is the gym that caters to the frum women in the area!
But what I consider inappropriate, morally degenerate, exploitive of women, etc. is likely not obscene in a legal sense. Defining obscenity is actually not so simple. In the course of teaching rhetoric, I've read some arguments on just that question with regard to curtailing free speech. While those opposed argue on the grounds of the proximity of a family neighborhood, I don't know if that will hold, as such a legal consideration should have prevented such an establishment from being set up in the first place. (BTW I noticed on camp visiting day that there was more than one such place in the country just down the road from some Hasidic bungalow communities, though their signs didn't show any flesh.)

And here we come to the question of the means proposed to bring about the end of the sign:
"If the billboard is not removed, Davis said, she would consider other ways to persuade the owner to do so, such as videotaping patrons entering the club and
posting the videos on Youtube."

I quoted that directly so that I would not in any way distort what was proposed. There is something very dishonorable about that proposal in my view, and just the picture it conjures up of someone lying in wait outside such a seedy place to catch people on video in order to attempt to publicly humiliate them does not sit right with me. Again, I want to emphasize that I do not approve of this club, its ad, or its devaluation of women and moral values. But the people protesting now didn't mind the club's presence only the stark reminder of it in the sign.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Force of Habit and Fear

Today is Veterans Day -- a legal holiday on a Federal level. That means that banks are closed, district school buses are not running (though my children have school today) and that meters are NOT in effect. While the good people of Cedarhurst must be well aware of the first two items on the list, they show themselves to have forgotten the day with respect to the last item. On Central Avenue I took note and saw not a single meter without time on it. In the parking lot between Spruce and Washington the results were mixed with a few fed meters among the unfed. But the people parking on Central have been so trained by the sight of relentless metermaids (and one man) and the tickets slapped on the windshield the instant a meter runs out that they are afraid to risk parking without depositing their quarters.

I would guess that the group think effect is at work here. Someone may park and rejoice upon exit at being able to keep the quarter within his/her own possession. But then the parker will notice that both the car in front and the car in back show time on the meter. This will make the person doubt his/her own assumption about free parking today.

Beware of schoolbus drivers

Yesterday I took the Defensive Driving Course offered through AARP. No, I am not yet over 50, but the course is open to all area residents at my local library. For an investment of $10 and one day (which was actually shorter due to our early dismissal), I qualify for significant savings on my auto insurance. I took the same class through the same venue 3 years ago, so it was time to renew. The essence of each class is the same, but the video presentation and text get modified slightly, and each instructor puts his (each time I've taken this class, the instructor was male) own spin on things.

What this instructor alerted us to was something that sounds like a scheme cooked up between school bus drivers and police officers who wish to increase their ticket distribution. The law in NY is that drivers must stop 20 feet back from school buses with flashing lights, even on the other side of a divided highway. The law also allows the driver to pass if after passing the driver waves him/her on. However, how do you prove that the driver waved you on? That's how a number of people he has heard of found themselves trapped. They would stop behind the school bus and then proceed after being waved on. Just after that they would be pulled over by a policeman and ticketed. In at least one case, after the driver insisted the busdriver had waved her on, the busdriver was called over and flatly denied it. So she was stuck with the ticket, the fine, and points.

One more thing to beware of, if you permit children to ride unfastened, you can get a ticket which carries 3 points for EACH child. That is how one woman found herself with 5 tickets and 15 points on her license. A license could be suspended for 11, though the judge allowed her to keep it. But think of the impact on the auto insurance rates! She took the defensive driving class to reduce her points, but each class only reduces 4, and I don't believe you can just sit in class after class until you've knocked down all 15.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Barbie as the anti-ideal

I just came across this article on Aish.com: http://www.aish.com/societyWork/women/Banishing_Barbie.asp
Unfortunately, the author is no longer accessible. But it is interesting to see her take and the defenses of allowing children to play with the dolls that follow. Now it is true, that Barbie is not an icon of tznius, nor is her body type one that is within the realm of possibility for most people. But do toys shape our self-image, or are they tools for imaginative play? I recently passed on my daughters' Barbie dolls to my niece because they never were very enamored of this type doll, and even my youngest clings only to a single baby doll. My sister's reaction was that her daughter would like them, but she was concerned about their presence with her teen boys.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sheitels -- Hair to Stay?


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. http://www.shemayisrael.com/ 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.

When your budget limits beer can someone else pick up the tab for champagne?

See the discussion that ensued at http://orthonomics.blogspot.com/2008/11/hachnasat-bar-mitzvah-bochur-friend.html
which includes the post "Don't Mind the Budget Gap"

My take on ayin hara

In Parashas Lech Lecha, according to Rashi 16:5, we see the effect of ayin hara. After Hagar conceives, she loses her regard for Sarah. Sarah is very upset by the situation and comes down hard on her maid, who, consequently flees. She is then told by Divine messenger to return to her mistress and take whatever Sarah wishes to dole out to her. She is also assured that she will be pregnant. Rashi explains that Sarah had put ayin hara on her, which caused her to miscarry the first pregnancy. So what did Sarah do here? Did she make a voodoo doll of Hagar and stick her with pins? Did she cast a spell? Did she utter a curse? I don't think any of those actions can be ascribed to Sarah Immeinu.

What I think happened is that once Hagar ceased to treated Sarah with the respect she deserved, she became subject to strict judgment. Sarah's thought about her own ill treatment due to Hagar's lording it over her would have made an impression in the Heavenly court. That would have sufficed to arouse the din. The judgment would probably have been that Hagar does not deserve to hold a pregnancy that gives her a false sense of superiority, but it would be the fact that Sarah felt how wronged she was that provoked the retribution.. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that she really wished that Hagar would miscarry; after all, it was Sarah's idea that her husband take on Hagar in order to have children. Rather it is the impact of having wronged the tzadekes that brought about an act of judgment against Hagar. And it would seem that the judgment would remove protection from a situation that is in itself dangerous. Pregnancies are prone to miscarry. Hagar's actions caused her to lose the protection from the danger that was natural to her condition.

Today is the yatzheit of Rachel Immeinu, according to what has been popularized in the past few year. (I never heard of it as an even when I was a child, though my daughters' school now makes a bit of a to-do over the day. I have not yet ascertained how this date was derived. Perhaps there is some record of the birth dates of each of the shvatim.) Given that Rachel died after giving birth to Binyamin, his birth date would give us the day of her death. Her death was precipitated, according to Chaza by Yaakov’s declaring a curse on whoever stole his father-in-law’s Teraphim. Obviously, Yaakov had no wish for his beloved wife to die; nevertheless, the force of din set by his declaration was enough to cause her death when she was in the precarious situation of childbirth.


Another parallel is to be found in the story of R. Rechumi’s failure to return home to his wife, related in Ketubot 62b. His wife was so grieved by the delay that she cried. Subsequently, the roof he was sitting on collapsed, and he was killed
. Apparently, her tears had great effect here. But did his death bring her comfort? I highly doubt that. Rather, what it demonstrates is that din, or Divine Judgment, is a mighty force. The wife’s tears evoked the power of din on her husband. Consequently, when he was in a sitting on the roof, he did not merit to be protected from the natural vulnerability of his position and so was killed as the roof collapsed.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Are you prepared to make a judgment?

"'It drives me mad to hear people say: 'Don't be judgmental.' That's moral philosophy at the level of an Australian soap opera. If people weren't judgmental, how could we possibly have a moral viewpoint in society? We wouldn't have the first clue where we were. All rational discourse about what we should do would grind to a half. No, whtever you do, don't fall that weak-minded nonsense about not being judgmental. Don't be excessively judgmental, if you like, but always -- always -- be prepared to make a judgment. Otherwise you'll go through life not really knowing what you mean."

The little tirade above are the words spoken by a fictional Scottish woman in her early 60's in Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith. New York: Anchor Books, 2006. p. 49.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

On promoting shidduchim

"I think it's our duty -- everyone's duty -- to fix up; single women and single men, preferably for purposes of matrimony. We who actually know them surely are better than those computer dating services at figuring out their potential compatibility, plus it's exceedingly unlikely that any person we fix up is going to turn out to be a serial killer. .. we shouldn't be discouraged by matchmaking failures or even by matchmaking catastrophes. For eventually, like me, you may after many misses make the perfect match, turning two people -- two stranger who wouldn't have met if we had minded our own business -- into one quite happily married couple."
from Judith Viorst in Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days. New York: Free Press 2007 p. 64

Advice for parents and in-law

from Judith Viorst in Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days. New York: Free Press 2007. p. 54

These are the statements she had to tell herself while her son, daughter-in-law and their 3 children stayed with them for 3 months
"Don't judge, advise, or criticize.
Respect their boundaries and choices.
Accept who they are."

As for the person your child has married,
"when a friend once said to me, 'What am I going to do? I really don't like the woman my son has married,' I a -- a great believer in family intactness -- had only one answer to offer: 'Learn to like her.'"