Gila Berkowitz

Talking Heads

In Israel headgear tells you volumes about a person’s cultural and religious opinions. In this post we examine women’s headdress and hair styles. Another time we’ll give men their due.

Since ancient times married Jewish women covered their hair, but for most of the 20th century most Modern Orthodox/National Religious women did not do so. Today it is mostly the older women of this demographic who wear their hair naturally, sometimes undyed and dour, in the old pioneering look also common to elderly kibbutzniks, but more often (as is the case with the kibbutz women) attractively coiffed.

The most popular head covering of the Orthodox woman is the scarf and its many variations. Few wear the older look of a triangle knotted at the nape. Fewer still wear the Sephardic version with ends brought up and tied on top of the head. Instead, one or more scarves are artfully arranged to form a headwrap or a turban. Like so many popular styles in this social group, the look originated in Judea and Samaria, i.e. “settler chic.” It’s got a mystic, vaguely Biblical appearance but unlike veils, it doesn’t get in the way of daily activity. It is a confident, bold look. There’s enough flexibility to appear as a simple, cool kerchief tied around the head or an elaborate turban composed of swathes of fabric in rich brocades and glittering metallics. At its best it evokes Nefertiti, at its worst, Marge Simpson. Velvet bands are sold to keep the scarves from sliding down the head. Poufs of airy material, “bobos,” give an impression of massive amounts of hair beneath, but without the weight of real or artificial hair. Even with these devices the angle and mass of some of these ‘dos defy gravity.

The wrap/turban pleases a surprisingly wide swathe of the population. It can be worn to cover every last hair, meeting the needs of ultra-Orthodox women not averse to color and flair. It can also serve as an embellished headband covering little of the hair but calling out the woman’s social leanings and marital status. The scarf is worn by Ashkenazi and Sephardic women alike. It is especially important to the latter as the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, major halakhic arbiter for Sephardic Jewry, eschewed wigs.

Which brings us to the most storied of Jewish women’s headgear. Wigs—sheitels—are much less common in Israel than in Orthodox communities of the Diaspora. There are several reasons. Whether made of real or faux hair, they are generally much warmer than other head coverings. The most right-wing of the religious consider them brazen; the more modern consider them excessive in their coverage. They are also expensive and require regular upkeep.

The wig does have its place on Israeli heads. Older women have long favored them, as practical solutions for graying and thinning hair. Stylish foreign visitors have evoked some interest, particularly in the headband wig, popular with the youngest married women. Wigs are sometimes favored by business women who seek a professional, unobtrusive look. The headband wig and the professional image are personified by television personality and Orthodox sweetheart Sivan Rahav-Meir.

The wig is worn by some segments of Hassidim. There it is always short and partially covered by either a small kerchief or a pillbox hat, called a “billy,” which means potty in Hungarian. Others cover their shorn (not shaven) heads with a brown silk strip called a “shpitzel.” This is meant to evoke hair yet insure that no one, no matter how naïve or nasty, will actually mistake it for hair. In any event only a small patch of the shpitzel shows beneath a head-framing roll to hold a silk scarf in place. These scarves can be quite costly and even couture designed. The most pious, however, wear black snood/berets and/or a black matte kerchiefs, as charmless as vacuum bags.

The unmarried also have distinctive hairstyles. In some ultra-Orthodox circles girls don’t cut their hair until their weddings. They wear the hair either in a low ponytail or a single braid, never loose. If you see a Hareidi toddler with adorable curls it is probably a boy.

Hats have never gone entirely out of fashion in the religious community. However, as Orthodoxy has turned rightward it is mainly the hats that offer full coverage of the hair that have had staying power. The bucket hat is a favorite with lecturers and educators, as it indicates serious purpose.

Fifty years ago an Arab woman in hijab was a photo-op. Urban women wouldn’t dream of being mistaken for a village peasant or Bedouin. Today the hijab headdress is the rule for all but young girls. It denotes nationalist identification at least as much as religious devoutness. There is hijab and then there’s hijab. One is a simple covering of two or three pieces, another a complicated pinning that requires You-Tube tutorials to master. Often the scarf echoes what is below it—a voluminous kerchief over a figure-obscuring robe or a colorful, tight cover of head and neck above a slinky tunic and skinny jeans. The latter look also makes a dramatic frame for exotic makeup. The more extreme niqab—a facial veil that leaves only the eyes exposed—isa rarity seen only among the most remote Bedouins.

The late Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami claimed that modern hijab in western Asia was deliberately based on the habits of Catholic nuns. He named the designer as Musa al-Sadr, an influential Lebanese Shiite cleric of the seventies.

Secular Israelis can also speak through head coverings or un-coverings. The fads and fashions of the West resonate in Israel. Nothing looks more radical than a clean-shaven head, and there are mullets, Goth spikes and Rasta braids on the fringes of secular society.

If there is one look that distinguishes Israeli heads from those in similar developed countries it is that Israeli hair and headdresses are more wild. Does that say something about politics? Society? Religion? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just the gusts in the hills and the sea breezes on the coast.

Next post: From man-buns to shtreimels, Israeli men get their turn.

About the Author
Gila Berkowitz was born in Haifa and received a B.A. from the Hebrew University. The daughter of survivors, she grew up in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. Her curiosity is so intense and her interests so broad that friends have dubbed her "the walking Wikipedia." She has been a news reporter in Israel as well as a science writer here and abroad. She taught journalism at Stanford University and has written best-selling novels. Two of these novels are about women in the Holocaust, "The Ugly Sister" and the forthcoming "Your Sister's Blood."-- as victims and survivors, heroes and perpetrators -- books based on real events and people.
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