For twenty of the twenty-two years that I was married, I shaved my head. I hadn’t intended to shave off my hair.
Unlike my stricter Hasidic female married relatives who shaved their heads when they got married, my mother always kept her hair covered with a short modest wig. At night, she wore a kerchief when I was young, and later when styles changed, a turban. I expected to do the same.
I knew she did not shave her head because every now and then I would see little tufts of hair sticking out from under her wig or turban, in front of her ears and near her neckline.
The day I decided to shave my head, my husband and I were back from Israel, visiting my parents’ home for Pesach, the Passover holiday.
“I see your hair showing, cover it now.”
I heard my husband Moshe’s voice hurtling at me from a distance.
I was 19 years old, my daughter was six months old, and there was another baby on the way, my growing belly showing evidence of new life. I pulled my velour turban down roughly, its edges forming a frame around my eyebrows and neck, willing it to stay in place so I would be left alone. A mere five minutes later, I felt the heat of Moshe’s eyes on my neck as I realised my short curly hair had escaped once again.
My big curly hair had always been an issue.
When I was nine years old, I began receiving seventy-five cents for allowance each Sunday and began saving up the money to buy myself little trinkets. When I was eleven years old, a lively and curious preteen, I saved up enough money to buy myself a pair of small blue ponytail holders shaped like Crayola crayons. They were attached to a thick blue rubber band which was thick enough to hold all of my hair in a stylish high-side ponytail. As a tall awkward preteen, with arms and legs that were always in the wrong place and buck teeth that felt too big to be mine, wearing my hair in the latest fashion felt feminine and pretty.
But by the time I was thirteen years old, my ponytail had been cut off and I sported a short curly pixie cut, as evidenced by my elementary school graduation pictures. I don’t remember getting that haircut. It is one of those painful childhood memories that I quickly deposited in the deep recesses of my brain, never to uncover again. I do remember my mother complaining about how unruly my long hair curly was and how much easier it was to manage it once it was cut short. I was mortified that I now had a boy’s hairstyle, as my ponytail holders lay forlorn and unused. Fearful of speaking up and being shamed for wanting my hair to be pretty; a mere frivolity, I kept quiet. Instead of feeling free and feminine I now felt ugly and awkward.
Even though my hair was always covered now, it was still a problem. I couldn’t bear to have Moshe keep telling me what to do with it, so I ran up the stairs to my parents’ bathroom and grabbed my father’s haircut machine, the one he used to cut my brother’s hair, and rushed down to the basement bathroom, calling my younger sister to help me.
“Please just cut off my hair please, all of it. It keeps on coming out and is so uncomfortable. I want to be done with it for once and for all.”
I didn’t dare mention to her, nor to anyone else, that I was tired of Moshe telling me to cover my hair. That it was easier for me to cut off my hair than to deal with Moshe’s harassment. That it was easier for me to cut off parts of myself than to stand up for myself.
I laughed through the experience as little clumps of hair fell off my head and onto the garbage bag laid out on the floor. It felt nervously exhilarating to cut off parts of myself to accommodate my husband.
Maybe this would be the start of a new beginning?
Might Moshe now smile when he looked at me?
Who knows what might happen?
I continued to cut off my hair in a ritualised manner. This ritual moved with me from our first apartment in Israel to our rented homes in Monsey, NY, until we settled into our own home, with its large marble countertop in the master bathroom.
I would smooth a garbage bag into the bathroom sink, take out the heavy black and silver haircut machine from under the sink, unwrap it from its plastic cover, and lay it on the counter. Inhaling deeply, I would hold my breath and bend my head down into the sink and start cutting off my short hair with quick and deft up and down motions, leaving a narrow strip of hair on top of my head and near my ears as an anchor for my wig clips, ensuring that my wig would stay in place.
The loud whirl of the machine would make mowing sounds on my prickly head. I kept my eyes shut tight until I finished. Lifting my head carefully I would gaze into the mirror to inspect my work. Inevitably, some longer hairs remained which I would deftly remove by taking the machine and pressing the sharp steel blade firmly against my scalp. Once I was done and my head bare, I would put the turban back on my head, wrap the hair carefully and deposit it in the garbage, putting the ritual out of my mind until next month, when I would repeat it again.
Since I was a young child, the importance of dressing modestly was constantly emphasised. My mother would dress me in long skirts from the age of three and my elbows were always covered. As I got older, the colours of my clothing became more subdued, to ensure that I would not attract a man’s attention.
There were many rules:
- Skirts had to be four inches below the knees;
- Necklines were fitted to come up tightly against my neck;
- Blouses and dresses were required to be loose enough not to show signs of my growing breasts.
It was a given that I would cover my hair as a married woman and I thought nothing of it.
It was all I ever knew.
In Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish all-girls school, we studied the Old Testament in its original Hebrew. When I was in grade five, we spent many weeks studying the High Priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem. The teacher brought in a coffee table-sized full-colour picture book with drawings of the High Priest’s clothing. We memorised the names of the numerous special garments and the rituals he performed on the holiest of days, Yom Kippur.
“It was a tremendous privilege to have a family member who was a high priest. Only one person in the entire generation was chosen to fulfil this unique and important role and remained in that position until he died”.
The lesson continued as the teacher began to quote various biblical and Talmudic sources.
“And there was one woman who was so righteous that she was blessed that all of her sons became high priests, every single one of her sons became a high priest.”
The teacher leaned over her desk, stopped her lesson and gazed at all of us closely, emphasising her next words.
“It was this woman’s modesty that brought her this incredible blessing. The Talmud states that the “boards of the ceiling of her house never saw her hair”. When she would wash her hair, she would enclose herself in layers of fabric to ensure that she remained modest always.”
“You see, girls, the most important role of the woman is to be modest. That is where all the blessing in the home comes from.”
The memories of this teaching would come to mind frequently and I felt righteous doing my husband’s will. I did not consider the possibility of ending this ritual, even once I started going to college and working out of the house.
“Your wig always looks so good, it looks like part of your head. How do you make it look so perfect?” my coworker asked me casually as she passed my desk.
“ I shave my head, that’s why.”
Her mouth dropped…
“You do that, I can’t believe it. You go to college and are so successful here. You just seem different.”
She couldn’t have known how afraid I was to speak up at home. Moshe almost never saw my shaven head as I always kept the baldness covered. Once, however, he came into the bathroom without knocking and saw me standing in front of the mirror, my shaven head naked and exposed.
“Wow, you look just like a Nazi survivor, like the people from the concentration camps.”
He abruptly walked out of the room, as I stood there bewildered, quickly covering my shame with the turban that lay at my side. Though I never discussed this incident with him, I never forget what happened and its memory served as a reminder that perhaps shaving my head was important to Moshe for reasons that went beyond the religious obligation.
By the time my marriage ended, I was forty years old and sported a short pixie cut. I kept my hair covered but I had stopped shaving my head. It began as a silent revolution to the ongoing intimidation in my marriage. It felt good to say no and ignore Moshe’s pleas that I shave my head.
It is my hair.
I have a right to do with it what I want.
I am no longer cutting off parts of myself for others. I am finally standing up for myself and reclaiming my femininity and independence.
Feeling the chilly December New York breeze tickle my scalp, for the first time in decades felt both exhilarating and terrifying. Several years had passed since I had last shaved my head and my hair had grown to shoulder length. I was in Manhattan, away from my home in Brooklyn, far from the prying eyes of neighbours and friends.
I was walking down 42nd Ave heading towards a Broadway show, floating above the sidewalk, my big curly disobedient hair dancing freely in the wind. Passerby’s on the sidewalks walked and talked, taxicabs and buses on the street drove and honked going about their day. But for me, it was a monumental day.
I had reclaimed myself and my power.
When I was a nine-year-old girl the class right after recess was called “Novi”. During these daily classes, we studied the Jewish Prophets in ancient times in the original Hebrew texts. One of my favourite stories was the story of Samson, a Nazarite, and judge appointed by God to lead the Jewish people. Samson was known as the strongest warrior in his generation and fought the Philistines valiantly. The secret to his strength, which he later revealed to his Philistine mistress, was his long, uncut hair. To avenge the murder of her people, when Samson was in a deep sleep she cut his hair, which took away his superpowers. Later, in a fit of desperation, determined to defeat the Philistines despite his loss, he pulled down the pillars of a building where many Philistines had gathered and he died in the rubble of the building together with them.
Was the tradition of cutting off Hasidic women’s hair a way to take away their superpowers?
Did my mother cut off my hair in an attempt to silence my burgeoning femininity?
Was Moshe’s determination that I shave my head an attempt to keep me obedient and compliant?
I will never know the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that growing my hair has given me back my innate curiosity and courage. My life is unruly and complicated now as I navigate it without the strict rules of my upbringing, but as I continue trusting my intuition and inner feminine knowing, I experience deep inner joy and freedom.
I now no longer cut off parts of myself to please others and I stand up for what is important to me.