I remember the first time I felt the cold, prickly air on my newly shaved head. I remember looking in the mirror. I remember staring at the pile of auburn hair in the vanity sink of the cozy basement apartment I now shared with my husband of less than a day. I remember my mother gathering the hair into a garbage bag and disposing of it, unaffectedly. I remember placing the new wig on my bare head and fussing over the few stray hairs the shaytl makher, or wig stylist, forgot to spray into place.
The morning after my wedding, three months after my 18th birthday, my mother shaved my head, and I felt absolutely nothing. Was I supposed to feel sad at this loss? Was I supposed to feel violated? I did not. Married women shave their heads because Hashem and the rebbe command them to do so. According to the Talmud, a woman’s uncovered hair is equivalent to physical nudity. Hasidic rabbis have taken this a step further, requiring women to shave their heads to ensure that not a single hair is seen. For Satmar women like me, it is a grave sin not to shave. You would not be buried in the Satmar beys-hakhayim, and if that weren’t serious enough, you would also put your children, live and unborn, at imminent risk of terrible diseases.
The Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, famously gave emotional, tear-jerking speeches against married women growing their own hair. “Jewish daughters, our mothers and fathers gave up their lives to our Father in Heaven for the sanctity of His name, but you, their daughters, don’t want to give up even a few hairs?” he asked in a speech on Yom Kippur eve in 1951, according to “The Rebbe,” a 2010 biography by Dovid Meisels. “What does Hashem Yisbarach (God) ask of us? A few hairs! Because of a few hairs you are making yourselves lose both worlds. Jewish daughters, shave your hair and give honor to the Torah.”
The last time I buzzed off my hair — exactly five years ago — was nothing like that first time. The anniversary marks a pivotal juncture in my life, a point of momentous change that led me on a path to a new life. The day before that final shave, on an unusually warm October night, my husband and I sat at an oblong wooden table in a side room of the main Satmar synagogue, in the upstate New York village of Kiryas Joel. At the table were eight middle-aged men in black hats and suits; they sported long gray-and-white beards. I sat with my trembling hands folded on my lap and adjusted my long black skirt — part of the uber-modest ensemble I had carefully chosen hours before — for the umpteenth time, and awaited the storm.