Digital flyers were recently sent among the Orthodox community’s wig makers. The senders’ names were kept anonymous.
“Dear Jewish women,” the flyer’s message screamed in all-caps. “How badly are you trying to look like a prostitute? How important is it for you to slap G-d in the face?!”
The flyer featured a collage of images of young Orthodox women in voluminous, long wigs — in keeping with Orthodox Halacha, which requires women to cover their heads after marriage.
“These pictures were taken from Shaitel Macher [wig maker] Instagram accounts,” the flyer explained. “They proudly display them in the public domain. These are all married women, each and every one of them. They are parading our streets with their heads held high. Look outside: Our streets are full of them.”
This is the frum version of “slut shaming”: Woman, your rabbinically mandated headcovering is really “asking for it.” So tone it down.
Hair is “the glory of a woman, the splendor and beauty of her feminine physique,” the flyer warned. “Upon marriage, a woman adorns herself with a crown that conceals this beauty from any men other than her husband. She displays her attractiveness to the one and only male that matters in her life. And guards herself from being appealing & desirable to ‘other men.’ This is the key to success in her marriage.”
Another flyer: “Dear Shaitel Macher: Thank you for being instrumental in making our Bais Yaakov girls look & act like prostitutes upon marriage.”
This latest campaign is nothing new. Long or stylish wigs have long been a point of contention in the ultra-Orthodox community, with a new fatwa issued every year or so by various leaders.
Earlier this past summer, a group of rabbis in Israel compared long, “loose-flowing wigs” to “meat cooked in milk”.
In Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, mothers of students in a local school were notified that “long shaitels,” along with other immodesty infractions, would not be tolerated.
In May 2014, Lakewood’s rabbis called for a gathering of female educators to encourage them to inspire other women to wear shorter wigs out of modesty.
Consider the cultish Yosef Mizrachi’s video lecture on the subject. “Women will go that low, all these fancy long wigs, puffy, all kinds of hair, tons of perfume, high heels,” he describes with his characteristic gestures. “Girls that got the best education, this is how you dress…. Please don’t ever fall into that trap.”
But what is it that these nameless campaigners are so upset about? Why is the wig such a contentious subject? Are those full manes of Russian glossy hair, graced with some highlights and perhaps bangs, too, so truly provocative? Is it the sheitel itself, its many trendy styles, or the way it’s become a booming business endeavor for entrepreneurial women in the Orthodox community?
The irony of women being shamed for following communal dictations, to the letter of the law if not in its spirit, is probably lost on most of those on the inside. Because the wig has become so status quo, a uniform staple expected of women across gradations of Orthodoxy, that few would ever imagine an alternative.
So on one hand, we women are being told to cover our heads out of modesty — but according to someone else’s terms, not our own. And the moment we adjust the covering to meet our sartorial senses, to perhaps ease the burden of head-covering, we are once again out of bounds. We are caught between a rock and hard place, constantly, pressured to cover more, speak softer, step lighter: Welcome to the life of the Orthodox Jewish woman.
But I don’t think the root problem here is the wig itself.
The keywords in this campaign are, to my mind, “public domain.”
It’s not about the wig color or the length. Because God knows we will always be pressured to be more modest, cut it shorter, make it less trendy, add a hat on top, take it off and just wear a scarf, etc.
But this campaign is about something much deeper — it is a terrible discomfort with women stepping into the public light. Empowered women, with voices, and faces, and, yes, beautiful hair, can threaten the power dynamic that has long been the norm in our community.
It’s no coincidence that those who started this most recent campaign against stylish wigs chose to use Instagram screenshots. As I’ve written before, Instagram (as well as Facebook, to an extent) has become a potent tool for ultra-Orthodox women, who are creating their own platforms and building virtual communities as well as followings.
The internet has provided an uncensored, unmoored territory, beyond the reins of skittish editors of local Orthodox magazines and newspapers, for women to express themselves in totality — their spiritual selves, their silly selves, their vain selves. Moments in the office, doing carpool, grabbing coffee, cooking late on Thursday nights: Every snapshot is a way of telling a story, sharing a moment in the midst of what can be lonely and exhausting motherhood. And yes, often those moments are coupled with a stylish wig. Because why should a woman who is trying to juggle the demands of a patriarchal tradition (which she cherishes) and the allure of modern fashion have to sacrifice beauty on the altar of some sort of monastic martyrdom? Their online profiles are steadily gaining followings, of both Orthodox men and women — and these pulpits allow them to speak out about issues that they may never have touched had they not had this independent space.
And the community’s extremists are not only getting nervous; they’re taking note, and ready to wage war.
Adina Miles, an Orthodox social media figure known as Flatbush Girl, posted an Instagram story with a rather dramatic retellling of Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came for the Socialists”:
“First they came for women in magazines,
and I did not speak out
Because I was not personally offended.
Then they came for hair length in Bais Yaakov,
and I did not speak out
Because my daughter was in a different school.
Then they came for women on social media
and I did not speak out
Because I don’t take selfies.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
And she may be right. It’s not just the long blond tresses that we’re hunted for.
This is just the beginning. It’s our very existence in the public sphere alone.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.