We ladies of the tribe always have had a tangled, knotty relationship with our hair. We’ve ironed, moussed, gelled and blow-dried it into submission. We’ve slept with it rolled on little pink sponges and wrapped around giant metal juice cans. While the dominant culture deified the pristine blond Breck girls of the ’50s and ’60s, commodified the stick-straight hippie hair on those endlessly multiplying Faberge Organics models (“and they told two friends, and so on…”) and salivated over Kate Moss’s sleek, slippery, pale-brown curtain of the heroin-chic early ’90s, we Jews struggled both physically and psychologically with our frizzy, unruly locks.
Two years ago, the Forward wrote about Japanese straightening, aka thermal reconditioning, a treatment that flattened unruly locks permanently. Sure, it took hours and cost about a thousand bucks, but it was all the rage back in the long-ago days of Murakami bags, Justin Guarini and Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” now nearly lost to the dim recesses of memory. Japanese straightening was the only thing that kicked the kink for good, and back then, dead-straight hair was the look to have. But today, I’m noticing way fewer pin-straight hairstyles on the streets of New York and in fashion magazines.
Ludmilla Suvorova, top stylist for the super-swanky Oscar Blandi Salon in New York City (and a Russian Jew who grew up in Israel), confirmed my theory that Japanese straightening’s heyday is past. “I never liked it,” she sniffed. “People are realizing it is too expensive, damages the hair and ruins its flexibility. And that flat-ironed look is pretty on a 12-year-old, not a 40-year-old. More sexy, soft, natural, feminine looks are in right now.” Besides, she added, harsh chemical straightening is never a wise choice for women with tight curls. “If you do it, it’s going to be a misery your whole life,” she warned direly. “It will look like the sponge you use to clean the oven.”
Yikes. Why would we work so hard and risk so much for a bunch of dead, keratinized protein fibers? “Our hair relates to the larger questions of who we are,” answered Shuly Rubin Schwartz, associate professor of American Jewish history at The Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also dean of the seminary’s Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies. Schwartz, an expert on Jewish women’s studies, asked: “When we want straight hair, are we denying who we are as Jewish women? Think of the ethnic stereotypes that go with dark, thick, curly hair. It’s ‘unruly,’ ‘unmanageable,’ ‘uncontrolled.’” And indeed, the stereotypes of Jewish women, as seen in ancient antisemitic portraits and in modern-day JAP jokes, portray a woman who is uncontrollable and animalistic. The JAP straightens her hair and is a sexual tease; she can disguise herself and hide her nature with manicures and designer clothes, but she can’t fundamentally change the selfish, unmanageable, id-driven person she is.
Jewish women’s desire to look like Miss Waspy Wasperton is relatively recent. Back when most American Jews lived in urban ethnic enclaves like Manhattan’s Lower East Side, there was little pressure to keep up with the goyim, coiffurishly speaking. “But when Jews moved out into the suburbs,” said Schwartz, author of the recently published “The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life” (New York University Press), “they were very aware of being the minority, and wanted to blend or fit and feel accepted.” Bring on the flat iron.
Of course, curls are always welcome on little kids; they look angelic rather than uncivilized. Perhaps we see children’s untamed hair as a sign of sweet, Rousseau-esque noble savagery, as opposed to a symbol of scary, untamed sexual man-eater-ness in adult women. For whatever reason, Maxine’s wild mass of ringlets gets her a lot of attention. Strangers coo and point and reach out to ruffle her head. And Josie, whose bobbed hair has just a bit of wave, notices. She wants in. She draws pictures of herself with long curly hair (often standing next to Max, a round blob sporting a wad of firmly scribbled, straight, back-and-forth lines on the top of her head). When someone compliments Max’s locks, Josie bellows, “Both of us have adorable hair!” I tell her cheerfully, “You have lovely wavy hair like Mommy, and Max has lovely curly hair like Daddy!” but she knows which kid really found the afikomen when it comes to hair. (Hm, can I trademark “coiffikomen”?)
So Josie’s eyes lit up when I recited the old nursery rhyme “There was a little girl, and she had a little curl.” “And when Max is bad, she’s horrid?” Josie asked with delight. Presumably she thinks that straighter hair confers mystical powers of better behavior. In any case, I predict that at some point in the future, Max will covet Josie’s lighter, straighter hair while Josie continues to kvetch about people oohing and ahing over Max’s dark curls.
To some degree, we all just want what the other gal has. For a while, many otherwise sensible people sported poodle perms (thanks, Star-Is-Born-era Barbra!), even the goyim. Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” made big dark hair with loose curls the look that every wispy blond mall-rat coveted. (“Mommy, I want to look like a prostitute plying her trade on Hollywood Boulevard!”) But even if you’re lucky enough to have the natural hair color and texture that are trendy at any given moment, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to make them work for you. I remember standing in front of my bathroom mirror in the late 1970s, desperately trying to create curvy “wings” on either side of my face, like Jaclyn Smith in “Charlie’s Angels.” My hair was dark and wavy like the actress’s, yet when I tried
to cop her look, my wings came out utterly lopsided, and one always had a strange, tumorlike lump. My shoulder would ache from holding up that militaristic ’70s Conair blow-dryer; at some point, I’d invariably get the round brush so completely tangled in my tresses, I’d start thinking I’d have to chop it out with a machete.
Nowadays, though, no single star or style
seems to hold cultural dominion. The ever-chic singer-actress Beyoncé Knowles sometimes sports a severe Grace-Kelly-like updo, sometimes a big ’70s-style natural, sometimes a kicky ponytail, sometimes loose waves. Fashion is equally all over the place; my super-chic friend Cynthia Cohen, who runs fashion shoots for magazines and swanky department stores, rattles off the current trends: Victorian, boho, ’80s-flashback, white lace and eyelet. All these styles look wrong with lank, straight hair.
Sure, everybody knows that fashion, like history, is cyclical. Or maybe it’s a Hegelian dialectic of change through thesis, antithesis, then synthesis. Or maybe it’s just insane — like the current revival of leggings. In any case, wavy hair was not in, and now it is. But some experts, at least, think that waves and curls now transcend trends.
Ouidad (one name, like Cher), Lebanon-born owner of an eponymous Manhattan salon specializing in curly hair, and creator of a national line of products for curly hair, is among them. “For the last 24 years I’ve lived and breathed curly hair,” she said. “But until recently, most stylists didn’t know what to do with curly hair. Now they’re starting to open up to it. We need to understand that curly hair is not a problem; it’s a gift! Most Mediterranean, black and Spanish cultures are embracing their ethnicity and who they are. The United States has been slower to embrace that. But it’s happening.”
I hope she’s right. I hope we can learn to love our natural texture, whatever it is. I hope we come to see “Jewish hair” as desirable. But I hope if we want to experiment with blow-outs and temporary straightening techniques, no one will call us traitors to our people. And I hope Josie doesn’t take it on herself to give her little sister a haircut.
Write to Marjorie at email@example.com.