Rochel*, an educator and mother of three in Passaic, needed a new sheitel. The one she had bought over a year ago was already worn out, the hair was falling out, and she wanted something she could wear both to school and around her kitchen.
But when Rochel went to a local Jewish sheitel shop, “I saw crazy prices — $1100, $1200,” she told me. Like many young Orthodox women — including myself — she had shelled out that much (at minimum) when she first started covering her hair after marriage, but now, several children later, that price seemed out of reach.
Then Rochel remembered having seen a friend post on Facebook about purchasing a natural-looking wig from a woman named Cindy, based in Shengdao, China, and asked for her number. “It’s bizarre. You’re Whatsapping with this invisible person on the other side of the world, with a ten-hour difference,” Rochel recalled. She texted what she wanted — a band fall, or wig worn with a headband, and paid $400, including shipping, via PayPal.
“I got it within a week,” Rochel said. “And I’ve worn it every day basically, except Shabbos.”
Jewish law calls for women to cover their hair after marriage, and many religious women see wigs as a more subtle covering than hats or headscarves. And the hunt for the right wig — the one that makes you feel like yourself — can be exhausting and expensive.
For generations, wig shops in Orthodox neighborhoods run by Orthodox women known as sheitel-machers, were the only option, and in recent years they have charged anywhere between, on average, $1,200 to $5,000 for each human-hair wig to what has seemed like a completely captive market.
But social media and global e-commerce is starting to push back against their monopoly.
In Orthodox women’s Facebook and Whatsapp groups, members feverishly discuss how to buy wigs directly from China, often through AliBaba, often dubbed the “Amazon of China”, where prices are typically $300 to $500 — a fraction of the prices in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Lakewood, N.J.. Search AliExpress using keywords like “kosher wig” or “sheitel”, and you’ll find dozens of sellers hawking their wares to desperate Orthodox women looking for ways to cut costs. “I look awesome in my new AliExpress sheitel,” wrote Esther Kurtz in Mishpacha’s women’s magazine, Family First, in September 2017. “And I would do it again…and again.”
Rochel spoke on the condition that her full name not be used — she said she has friends who are sheitelmachers, and wouldn’t want to criticize their businesses publicly. She says that she does not plan to return to a sheitelmacher any time soon. “How do I know she is not buying from the same Chinese sellers? I’m telling you,” Rochel paused and lowered her voice. “This wig would have been sold to me for $1,200.”
Cindy, the woman who sold Rochel her band fall, told me via WhatsApp that her company, EBM Wigs, sells more than 150 pieces a month, mostly to customers based in the United States and Israel. She said that she also sells to wig stores, but refused to tell me which ones.
“This is how business works,” said Reena Furst, from Crown Heights. “People are now realizing they can directly bypass the middleman.”
Tali Kaufman, a rebbetzin in Montreal, spent a full year doing her research before buying from a Chinese supplier. “The sheitelmachers are seeing that we are getting wigs for a few hundred dollars and not saying anything — it makes me think the quality is just as good as theirs,” she said. “Having a cheaper option really helps. We are on a rabbi’s salary — it’s not like we can just stroll into wherever and get a $2500 wig.”
Yet some sheitelmachers are quite comfortable speaking up. “I don’t mind speaking on the record, because I’m very confident, I know what I’m selling,” said Shulamit Amsel of Shuly Wigs in Boro Park. “With wigs, you get what you pay for — as with everything else. It’s like, are you going to buy a custom-made dress for a wedding, or buy from Macy’s, or buy from AliBaba and whatever you get, you get? The other day, a girl came in wearing a fall from Ali, she came in looking for a new fall. It was like straw what she was wearing — I didn’t say a word, but it looked scraggly on her. She didn’t end up purchasing anything with me, but she was telling her friend, ‘I wish I didn’t spend this money.’”
“I wouldn’t risk it,” Amsel added. Amsel is known, among Orthodox women, as just “Shuly.”
“Girls will always pay for the service, the whole experience of going to a sheitel salon: color and cut, having someone to talk to if there’s a problem, and making it work so you could wear a sheitel for five to seven years,” she said. “I offer a year guarantee on all of the wigs I sell. But the culture of today is that some people just like disposable things.”
To make a successful wig purchase from across the globe, word of mouth is essential. In online groups, women pass along phone numbers of individual Chinese wig-makers, who generally go by English first-names only — Jack, Judy, Alice. Nancy, Wendy. When I reached out to some of them via WhatsApp, their first question was: “Who gave you my number?”
Several women I interviewed said that it took several tries to get the wigs they wanted: often the first or second packages that arrived from China were slightly off in color or measurements, or the cap of the wig was not bleached to hide the knots that tie the hair. Many warned that this route only works for dark-haired customers — that blondes and red-heads would be better off finding their matching locks elsewhere.
“A lot of these Chinese companies will tell the customers that they’re making wigs for the Jewish wig companies, for me, for others,” said Amsel, the Boro Park-based wigmaker. “But they’re lying through their teeth. They’ll steal pictures from Jewish wig companies, they’ll even put fake labels on packages with a frum sheitel company’s address.”
Sara*, a physician assistant living in Monsey, N.Y., said that she received a wig made with plastic strands from one popular seller who goes by Jack.. “He insisted it wasn’t plastic,” she wrote to me on Facebook. At first, she said, “he wouldn’t take it back because it was a custom size cap,” so she filed a claim with PayPal “and they sided with me. Paid expensive shipping back so he couldn’t claim not to have received it and got a full refund.”
Tamar, a non-profit professional who lives in the New York area, said that online forums warned of nits in Chinese-imported wigs. “I always put them in the freezer for a day or two, just in case.”
And the ethics of the sourcing are also complicated.
The human hair trade is expected to reach revenues of more than $10 billion by 2023.
Across Eastern Europe and Asia, hair brokers (often men) approach long-haired women and offer money for their locks. In Russia, women are paid anywhere between 8,000 to 13,000 rubles — $137 to $200 in US dollars — for the highest-quality hair on the market. In contrast, in Cambodia and Vietnam, most hair brokers offer just a few dollars for a village woman’s hair, Lexy Lebsack of Refinery29 reported.
And in India, Hindu female pilgrims shave their hair in religious rituals, yielding millions of dollars for their temples and local communities. This earned an outrage in the Orthodox Jewish community in 2004, when rabbis discovered that Jewish women were wearing wigs with “hair may have been used in Hindu religious ceremonies,” which are considered idolatrous.
China is the largest manufacturer of wigs and extensions, so regardless of where the hair is harvested and purchased by brokers, it is generally sent there, to factories, where women sort hair into bundles and make them into wefts, lines of hair sewn onto mesh, which are then sewn onto wig caps.
A few months later, that hair might find itself sitting on a head in Bnei Brak or Brooklyn, poring over a laptop, a prayer book, a pot of chicken soup.
The industry is unregulated, and brokers are not required to report the origins of their hair. Reporters have found that some Chinese dealers sell plastic mixed with what is known as “fallen” hair — collected from salon floors, hairbrushes and drains, combed and conditioned into locks. Some of the suppliers even attach Hebrew-language labels claiming that the wigs are deemed “kosher,” and not sourced from Hindu temple rituals — though there is no such certification.
I often wonder about the woman whose hair I now wear on my head — the hair that I picked out at a discounted wig sale, surrounded by other giggling young brides and mothers and grandmothers, throwing off our head-coverings as we tried on new colors and new identities. Who was she? A Cambodian peasant woman, a Chinese teenager, a Peruvian prostitute?
Since I started following the Chinese-made wigs discussions in women’s groups, I’ve been tempted to try it myself. Cindy of EBM Wigs has sent me videos of a few candidates that would match my hair color, but I have yet to muster the courage to spend $500 without feeling the hair texture and trying on the cap first.
Yet enough women are willing to take the gamble, for the sake of saving money. “In our community, I feel like a few years ago it was looked down upon to be cheap,” said Chana Snyder, a graphic designer living in New Jersey, who now only buys her wigs from China directly. “We’re reaching a breaking point where more people want packages, money-saving deals.”
For years, Jewish-owned wig brands have dominated the Orthodox market across price points. The conventional wisdom is that the more you pay, the more natural you’ll look. A top-shelf wig, customers are promised, will make you look just like you did before marriage (or even better). Pay a fortune, and it’s practically like having your own hair again.These traditional companies, too, use social media to pitch their products, often running giveaways on Instagram, posting videos showing soft lustrous locks, thousands of women commenting and tagging friends, hoping to snag a free sheitel.
One Orthodox woman who lives in Queens, the granddaughter of a sheitel-macher, said she is sure the quality of the wigs from China “is no different from the Jewish brands,” and that she has seen packages in Jewish-owned wig stores with labels from the same city in China where she and friends now order from directly. “I grew up knowing wigs,” she said, on condition of anonymity. “The whole industry got turned on its head.”
Rochel, the mother in Passaic, said the wig industry “has gotten out of hand,” but that it is just one example of many in which companies — often run by Orthodox Jews — are “taking advantage of people’s level of observance.”
“When you think about the cost of yontef clothing and food, Pesach — everyone cashes out on us,” she lamented.
Leah Amrani, a 26-year old Brooklyn resident, used to run a Facebook group sharing advice about how to measure one’s head, color differences, layers versus no-layers, etc. “There are so many people who said, ‘Thank you so much, I really needed a new wig, I couldn’t afford another one,’” she told me. “People don’t have money to just dish out. And all the big wig people don’t care, they just mark it up.”
But Amrani is hardly worried about hurting the sheitel industry. Some women, she said, just like to try things on before committing, and want to buy from a local shop where their wigs can later be serviced.
“People who are into brand names will always buy brand names, and people who want to save a buck, will want to save a buck,” Amrani noted.
Chana Ben-Abraham, a mother living in Dallas, Texas, only shops for wigs on AliExpress. “I think people being more open about how they spend on things will alleviate the burden on us,” she told me over the phone as she scrubbed her stove. “I can’t tell you how many of my friends say to me: ‘Don’t tell anyone your wig was that cheap!’”
But Ben-Abraham is proud of her penny-pinching. “Our kids are in Jewish schools, we buy kosher meat — we spend so much money on so many things,” she said. “If there’s one thing we can cut down costs on, we should be parading it and helping each other out.”
She paused and added, “What are we doing as a society if we’re just showing off how much money we’re spending?”
*— Names have been changed to protect subjects’ privacy.
Illustratior’s bio: Sefira Lightstone is a visual artist based in Seattle, Washington. She grew up in a home that was deeply involved in the arts, where she developed her skill and passion for creative expression through imagery. Her work has appeared on Chabad.org, Jewish in Seattle Mag, The JWE and more. You can reach her through her website, or you can follow her on Instagram @sefiracreative.
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.