By Harriet P. Gross
The book is so fascinating, I’ve kept it out of its Tycher Library home far too long — long enough to read it three times. It’s called “Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering,” and it’s basically a collection of personal essays by an assortment of those who do cover, in an assortment of ways, with some stage-setting history and commentary by author Lynne Schreiber.
Do you believe the old truism that a Jewish woman covers her hair in order to save its “glory” for her husband’s eyes only? Leah Shein (pseudonym of a Chassidic mother of 10) blows that theory out of the water.
“I shaved my head the morning after my wedding,” she says, “and I shave it again every month before I go to the mikvah. This is what we Satmar women do, from generation to generation.”
There are several methods by which a woman can observe the mitzvah of kitsui (hair covering), totally or partially, after marriage. She may choose a sheitel (wig), or a tichel (scarf), or a turban, or a hat or some combination of the above. She may let a fringe of bangs (real or artificial) show in the front, or a bit of a ponytail in the back.
Much will depend on the culture and practice of the group to which she belongs; if she doesn’t cover in a way that meets its standards, there may be accompanying doubt about how religiously she observes other mitzvot — maybe her home isn’t kosher enough for her peers to eat in, so they won’t take a chance.
The ultra-frum Satmar woman wears scarves only, never a wig, which might appear — especially if it’s made from her own hair — real, and so would raise question about whether she was really covered or going the forbidden “au naturel” route.
Rabbis have long debated the issue of what covering is required, but since most believe that kitsui is not a law ordained at Sinai, there’s a lot of latitude. Some women cover all the time, some only when they leave their homes, some in their homes but just in the presence of non-family visitors. Some may cover wherever there might be any man, but will uncover when among women only.
Social factors are usually the determiners, for the kind and place of covering are both public and personal matters.
One woman, not originally from a covering milieu, married into such a group, and in the dozen years since, says the practice has become a part of her, yet something she never takes for granted.
“It’s created for me a new self-image,” she says. “It’s another step forward toward the ideal of a perfected personality.”
There have been times in history when most women, not just Jews, covered their hair in many cultures. (This might be a good day to see, or re-see, the film “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” which provides a fine glimpse of how Europeans covered back in the 1600s.) It’s a sort of paradox that when Jewish women once covered to look no different from everyone else, today’s coverers are making strong statements about which among a number of groups claims their primary allegiance.
I also have before me the statements of two women — one an Arab, one from India — who have chosen to cover with the traditional Muslim hijab.
“I do this out of liberation, not repression,” says one. “I make it impossible for people to judge me by the way I look — a fundamental aspect of female empowerment.” Says the other: “In a society that embraces uncovering, how can it be oppressive if I decide to cover up? I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern, to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women.”
So, here’s a thought: Maybe the daughters of Isaac and Ishmael share some basic beliefs in the matter of covered-hair modesty?