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Modesty and the Sexy Sheitel

Walk down Cedar Lane in the heavily Orthodox enclave of Teaneck, N.J. and she beckons you to come hither — with her long, luxurious locks and feathery bangs coquettishly hiding her eyes. This is seduction on the street or, rather, in the shop window. The mannequins in the wig shop have some of the sexiest hair in Bergen County, N.J.

Made with the finest European hair, these wigs can create the alluring new you for a few thousand dollars. According to its brochure, the shop promises to “make you feel beautiful and confident, whether your needs are medical, religious or fashion.”

Say again? Beautiful and confident are important considerations for women enduring chemo and other medical treatments. But do they belong in the same sentence as “religious”?

If women are supposed to cover their heads, and if this has something to do with modesty, these wigs defeat the purpose. After all, isn’t a wig like this akin to showing your own hair — only better, because chances are that the wig is at least as lovely as the hair God gave you?

Wigs used to be conspicuous because they were obviously wigs: oddly fitting, poorly cut and apparently artificial. These days, what often is conspicuous is that modern Orthodox women are stunning head-turners.

Of course, the observant community is not monolithic. Many Orthodox women do not cover their hair, except for a hat worn in shul. For those who routinely cover their hair, there is no agreement on the proper head covering: a scarf, snood, hat or wig. In Sephardi communities, wigs generally aren’t worn. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe instructed his followers to wear sheitels. (A few years ago, Chabad had a fundraiser and the raffle prize was a “fabulous sheitel.”)

A few Orthodox rabbis I know throw up their hands at the mention of wigs. Yes, women should cover their hair, they say. Technically, the wig covers their hair. But many of the manes fall into a loophole so they are, as one rabbi said, “improper with the Torah’s permission” — fulfilling the letter of the law while defeating its spirit.

If there is a backlash against sensuous wigs, it apparently hasn’t hit the modern Orthodox communities. These wigs may even be good business for hat makers. Rabbis who are uncomfortable with these tresses can always tell women to wear a hat over their wigs — even though the point is to cover your hair, not your wig. (This may be the reason there is a hat store adjacent to the wig shop in Teaneck.)

While some women in certain Haredi communities may wear straw-like sheitels, they are as likely to wear a tichel (scarf), leaving the wig debate for others.

One of the great authorities I have found is Barbara Bensoussan, an observant Jewish mother and one-time English instructor who lives in Brooklyn. A few years ago, she wrote “Flipped Over the Wig, or How I Came to Shun the Sheitel” for an Orthodox Union publication. She manages to be dignified and funny in writing about why she doesn’t wear a wig, and in asking the essential questions that skewer some sheitel lore.

A woman, in order to be modest and to reserve the full measure of her beauty for her husband, had to cover her hair… with more hair? With fake hair, or somebody else’s hair? With hair that looked just like one’s own hair or, as is frequently the case, quite a bit better? So what was the difference?

When a man has to cover his head, he doesn’t produce a toupee, says Bensoussan, who has written a novel “A New Song” (Targum Press).

She is a wise woman who can discuss the kashrut of wigs (meaning the appropriate cut, length and style — not the controversial prohibition against hair from India).

We wouldn’t suggest that Jewish women should strive to look frumpy to demonstrate frumkeit. But it seems hypocritical to spend thousands of dollars to buy beauty in order to display modesty.

And yet, as we finish our conversation on one of the most humid days of summer, and I am struggling to control my graying frizzy hair, Bensoussan makes a very good point: “You never have a bad hair day if you have a gorgeous wig.”

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