Watching the dancing at the wedding and quite happy conceding to the younger generation as they swirl around. The men and women are separated by a mechitsa (a movable barrier) and we feel comfortable with the separation, this is how it has always been. There are professors and techies and doctors and teachers in the crowd, top professionals in one of the most advanced countries in the world. And yet we opt to follow the old traditions, through conviction, not coercion. Through free choice and with love.
For the past few years I have been a Facebook friend with an English teacher from a small town in Norway. (It’s a long story how we started!) We follow each other’s lives through pictures and greetings. Standing there in the wedding hall, I wondered what Janne would have thought watching the guests. The separate dancing and the ultra-fashionable but modest dresses, and the head coverings. Especially the head coverings.
Most of the married women wear something on their head. The most observant wear wigs, often luxurious long pieces that look like natural hair, but more attractive. Some ladies wear two to three scarves woven together in an elaborate protuberance which rise Maggie-Simpson-like to a tower which could be accentuated with a bo-bo — a small sponge pad — within. (In fact, you can watch tutorials on different styles of scarf tying on YouTube.) For others a single simple scarf would do. Hats vary from beanies to buckets, baseball caps to berets. Snoods and brims go in and out of fashion. Current at the moment are ribbons, ornately decorated and worn Alice-in-Wonderland mode. Very few of the married women have absolutely nothing on their heads, and the whole display got me pondering.
A few days later, I sent an email to 30 of my friends, asking them why they wore head coverings. All those asked are religious, keeping Shabbat and Kosher and full Jewish lives. But their head-covering habits range across the spectrum, from nothing at all to full wigs at all times. And the responses were surprising.
A very small number wrote that it was a requirement of Jewish law. To them the answer was obvious. One wrote, “I hate covering my hair but see it as a mitzvah just like any other. (I wouldn’t eat on Yom Kippur even if I hated fasting).” All the others had different rationales.
The most common was identification with the community. Not only because “everyone else does” or “I would feel uncomfortable not covering my hair” (both of which were answers), but because they want to make a statement. “I am observant and proud of it.” A woman wearing a headscarf gets treated differently, with care and less familiarity. The attendant in the dress store will pick out ‘suitable’ clothes to show her, and she will not be invited to Friday night parties at work.
Another major motive is a statement of “I am a married woman now.” It’s not only a “Keep Off” signal but also a status symbol, worn with pride. The ribbon wearers all come in to this category. Beautiful girls, their hair glossy and flowing, yet displaying the “I am committed to someone” emblem. The rabbis might frown at the minimalistic covering but their message is clear and steadfast.
Quite a few friends wrote that they didn’t cover their hair straight away after marriage, some waited many years before making the decision. One wrote she did it because her husband wanted her to. But she, as well as many others, wrote that she is pleased she did and “have never regretted it.”
And those who do not wear any head gear unless in synagogue usually follow their mother’s custom. The previous generations in Europe and the US just didn’t do it. As one friend wrote, “My grandmothers, mother and aunts did not cover their hair. My sisters also did not. It seemed to me more like a fad than a deep modesty thing.” Some ladies claimed that they had tried it briefly but found they got headaches or felt restricted. And they did not like being categorized!
One response from a deeply religious lady was “…..not to get too philosophical, but don’t we have characters and assumptions built up in our tight-knit society, some things very admirable and some things totally contemptuous and fake?! And there surely is a big stress on the externals/superficials like dress, which I think is getting to me a bit ….” Wow, I didn’t expect that! Is she hoping to find a correlation between external trappings and righteous behaviour? Does a hat on your head make you a better person?
I watch the women dancing at the wedding. I am acquainted with many of them and I know them as wonderful, decent, honest people, who are involved in charitable works and community efforts. They would give you the shirts off their backs if you needed them. The shirts – yes. The hats off their heads – that’s something else entirely.