The rebbetzin wears a wig. In some Jewish circles, this would be a completely unremarkable statement of fact. Of course the rebbetzin wears a wig—what’s a rebbetzin without a sheitel? For me, despite the occasional extravagant hat (a collection of which I am also hoping to build in the coming months), covering my head in accordance with the dictates on female modesty is not part of my usual practice. Ironic then, that my chemo-induced hair loss has occasioned an exploration into the world of faux locks--a new foray, not without it’s whimsy, as well as its absurdities.
In Nathan Englander’s short-story collection For The Relief of Unbearable Urges, there is an incredible story called simply “The Wig.” Its protagonist, Nechama, is not merely a wig maker, but the “best of the sheitel machers.” Orthodox women come from far and wide to experience her custom designs: “They circle the globe to see Ruchama, because they are trapped in their modesty and want to feel, even as illusion, the simple pleasure of wind in their hair.”
Of these many fervent devotees is Nava, an Orthodox woman who pushes the boundaries of modesty and wants a “more contemporary look.” She further consults a top wig stylist, who suggests buying four different wigs at four different lengths to “mock the natural process of growth…wig by wig, reclaiming freedom.”
This illusion of the natural has no price for these women. A secular woman going bald from menopause who hocks an anniversary necklace from her husband to pay for her wig states boldly, “No bargains. I want it to feel so horribly overpriced that I’ll be convinced it’s good.” For her, the wig brings the immediate sensation of having her life, youth, and desirability back.
Nechama herself mourns for her own lost hair—cut off for her wedding. She surreptiously pays a delivery man with a spectacular mane to cut it off and with it she contrives a masterpiece for herself—a perfectly gorgeous wig that will stop traffic. For her, in creating it and wearing it she momentarily transcends the years passed and the frustrations of her marriage.
These characters’ longing for the best wig—their conviction that the false hair will restore youth, seductiveness, pleasure—is ironic and even subversive, considering that in the Orthodox world wigs are meant to hide the sensual lure of a married woman’s tresses. Here the artifice approaches too closely the real thing. This problematic dilemma was not lost on the rabbis of our tradition, for whom wigs, especially those made from human hair, have been hotly contested over the centuries.
The injunction to cover one’s hair is not explicitly stated in the Torah; it does not number among the 613 mitzvot. In the Talmud, the rabbis derive this aspect of female modesty inversely from a case of a woman accused of adultery (Numbers 5:18): since the adulteress has her hair undone around her in order to humiliate her, the logic goes that the modest woman must have her hair covered at all times in public. Hair is seen, as in the Songs of Songs in a more laudatory way, as an aspect of the erotic, and is counted by the rabbis as a form of nakedness.
As a good article in My Jewish Learning on this background notes, the practice of women covering their hair was widespread in the biblical Middle East, as it was in the Christian Middle Ages, and this law has derived as much potency from custom as from any definitive Biblical sources.
When wigs first came widely into fashion in Europe, particularly in France in the 1600s and Jewish women began to don them, most rabbis condemned the practice, holding that it was too close to real hair, that these women would be mistaken for going about with uncovered heads, or—and this one is my favorite--that perhaps it was permissible only if it was made very clear that the hair was fake! Others demurred, holding that the sensual potency only held in the case of a woman’s natural hair, and that wigs were acceptable.
Wigs are uncanny in so many ways. In chemo land, you can get a prescription for a wig as a “prosthesis,” as though it is a body part like a mechanical arm for an Iraq War vet. Yet it’s a prosthesis that doesn’t function—or functions only aesthetically. If you are buying a wig made of human hair, as all the best sheitels are, it is almost closer to a form of organ donation. This hair grew on someone else’s head; it has a history. In Englander’s story, Nechama and her assistant imagine the past of the women who donate their braids, positing what would have enticed them to cut them off; “Women with choices leave their hair to be swept off salon floors,” the assistant concludes.
And we recall the wig scandal of 2004, when an Orthodox rabbi uncovered that hair imported from India for use in wigs had been shorn in the course of Hindu religious ceremonies and was therefore tainted by idol worship and unkosher. Revealing the history of this hair set off wig-burnings throughout Williamsburg and Borough Park.
Like the rabbis who are split between the veil and the wig as appropriate head coverings, the chemo babes definitely fall into two schools (or maybe three now that I think of it): the wig wearers, the head coverers, the bald-and-flaunt-it. Me, I am down to try a variety of things, and I have made my pilgrimages to the sheitel machers. And by this I don’t mean the shops on Haight, the drag queen emporiums, or the wondrous selection of the Fillmore Beauty Supply—all these places offer synthetic do’s in every color of the rainbow and they do not bat a rhinestone-studded fake eyelash at anything you want to try. I love those places, but they are not the sheitel machers I’m talking about. For those, you need an appointment, a prescription, and really detailed directions to their unmarked locations.
The sheitel machers are fixated on creating the illusion of “what you looked like before,” of restoring to you the natural sensation of real hair, of regaining an integral part of your identity. To one, I kept saying, “no, you don’t understand, I’m cutting it off and dying it platinum blonde in two days—no one is going to think this is my real hair!” He insisted, “with all the other changes, you’ll want to look in the mirror and look like yourself.” I replied that to me, the whole interest of wearing wigs is to look like somebody else, to try on other looks, to at least have some fun with it. He was having none of it. The same was true of my wig guide in Beverly Hills. They both stressed the craft (and the labor)—“each strand is individually knotted one by one”—and the origin of the hair—“pure Russian hair, top quality!” In the end, I realized that the fantasy of authenticity is essential to them, to the mission and the “art” of what they are doing. I stopped protesting and let them make me look like me (sort of).
But that didn’t mean I didn’t also buy some fun and cheap synthetic wigs for going out and having fun! For me, like hats, there should be different ones for different occasions. So don’t be surprised when you see me in red one day, blond the next. And I’m happy to talk about it, and envision the history and personality of each—no one should assume this is an awkward topic. This rebbetzin doesn’t wear a wig—she wears WIGS, many of them, and I’ll satisfy the rabbi’s dictum that they will be clearly and patently fake.