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The Rastafarian Beret and Other Adventures in Hair Covering

sheitleGrowing up, I thought obsessing about hair was a Dominican thing. Later, I found out it was also a black thing. And after converting to Judaism, I realized it was also a Jewish thing.

I can remember back to a time when I looked forward to covering my hair. It was exciting. So much cooler than a wedding ring. It was a big whopping sign that Id gotten married. It made me feel special.

But then I started doing it. Every day was a bad hair day. The head coverings damaged and dried out my super sensitive kinky hair. I cried all the time. No matter how bad my hair looked, my husband told me he loved it. But I didnt. I ended up shaving my head.

What I liked most about having no hair was that I could suddenly wear all those trendy hats I saw women at shul wearing. I could fit in. I didnt look like that monster from the Alien movies or Marge Simpson because my afro was threatening to explode from underneath my hair covering. I looked like those dazzling women on coveryourhair.com.

But the hair grew back. My husband made me promise I wouldnt shave it off. He agreed to spend money we didnt have to support my hair: only the best hair products, only the best hair cuts from curly hair specialists.

When I went to get my hair cut for the first time since growing back my hair, I took off my head covering which much shame. It was matted, brittle, dry, damaged, disgusting. And embarrassing. It didnt matter how much product I put into it. When my hair stylist saw my hair come out of my head covering, she couldnt hide her horror. She gasped.

But nothing could prepare me for what she said after she had combed through it.

Youre losing your hair, she said.

What?

I see it in a lot of my Orthodox clients, she replied quietly. Especially the ones who wear wigs.

But Im not wearing wigs, I told her adding that a wig wouldnt fit over my hair.

She ran her fingers through my hair. Its really thinning, she said. See how your hairline has receded?

I hadnt noticed. I hadnt looked at my hair for a year. It was too shameful. But she was right.

After she washed and styled my hair, it looked wonderful. Better than it had in ages. But as soon as she was done, I pushed it back into the large black headscarf my friends made fun of because it was too frum. The hair stylist pursed her lips but said nothing.

Covering my hair was ruining my self-esteem, causing my hair to fall out, but I wouldnt stop. Not covering it would have made me stick out. Besides, I knew what people said about women who didnt cover their hair. Other women were not very observant if they stopped covering their hair but as a convert, I feared they would say worst.

I didnt notice it at first. As a freelance writer, I spent most of my days at home, alone, where I didnt cover my hair. Outside the home, I found myself tugging listlessly at my head coverings, not just because they were itchy but because my head hurt. I left Shabbos meals because of pain that started at my head and traveled down to the rest of my body. I got headaches no matter what head covering I wore so I made it a point not to go outside where I had to wear them.

Finally, I threw a tantrum at the supermarket because my head and neck hurt so much. My fibromyalgia, my chronic pain condition, had flared up something fierce and I couldnt think straight much less be polite.

You werent in this much pain before you left the house, my husband said. What happened?

It dawned on me. I covered my hair, I said. It was so obvious. I had always been tender-headed. Even headbands had troubled me as a child. But back then, I could carelessly remove my head covering at will. Now I couldnt.

Take the head covering off, he suggested.

Here? In public? Are you crazy? I said.

It wasnt just Jewish law I was worried about, didnt he remember what my hair looked like underneath? Instead, we left the supermarket and I shrunk down in the passenger seat of our car, removed my hair covering and cried.

There was another trip to the hair stylist. The update? I was still losing my hair. It was still thinning. It still looked like Id stuck my finger in an electric socket.

Before a wedding in Monsey, an ultra-Orthodox section of New York, I sat in a pile of my head coverings (hats, berets, head scarves, bandanas, you name it) crying. No matter what I put on my head, it hurt something awful. And with my longer hair, many of the head coverings didnt fit. My sister sat with me, holding my hand, picking out scarves, trying to be helpful. What about this one? I shook my head.

We settled on a Rastafarian beret I had purchased at Venice Beach just after getting married. (My husband thought they were cool. And every other hat at the boardwalk hat store hadnt fit my head.) I knew that I might as well have been wearing a bulls-eye. But my hair fit in it and while my head still hurt, it hurt less. Do I have to go to the wedding? I asked. Do I have to leave the house? My husband insisted I did.

At the wedding, a sea of expensive sheitels, no one said anything about my beret. When I made it to dessert without a single comment, I exhaled deeply. I had survived. Or so I thought. Until the woman wearing a sheitel next to me leaned over and told me what she thought about my beret.

According to her, it was obvious I was wearing a Rastafarian beret to make a statement. I was a rebel! Obviously, she said, I was one of those left-wing -Modern Orthodox-Riverdale hippie-Rabbi Avi Weiss-following women. If I hadnt felt like crying, I would have laughed. All my girlfriends in Riverdale who went to the same synagogue owned expensive sheitels they wore to weddings. None of them owned a Rastafarian beret, much less any beret.

Growing up in Washington Heights, if you didnt have the latest sneakers, you were teased. Nasty little children yelled at you: Youre on welfare! Youre poor! In actuality, most of us were on welfare, even the children in new sneakers. And in high school, my guy friends told me that girls who dressed like sluts were easy. But I met girls in mini-skirts and halter tops who had never kissed a boy. I learned not to judge people by what they were wearing. But that didnt stop people from judging me.

I heard a rumor recently that some rabbi thinks my conversion should be revoked because they heard from someone else that Im either not covering my hair all the time or Im wearing pants. At a speaking engagement, after I had spent all morning carefully picking out the perfect headband that gave me the least amount of pain, I heard a man in a black kippah and white shirt tell a woman that I was definitely not Orthodox because I wasnt covering my hair. Instantly, I felt small, a little girl in Washington Heights again wearing my orthopedic clunky black shoes.

There was never a class during the conversion process where a rabbi sat me down and explained that choosing between a sheitel, a tichel or a headband would make me part of one Jewish community and make me unseemly to another. But if you look, apparently this class is being taught on our street corners, at weddings, at bar mitzvahs, and well, everywhere youll find a bunch of Orthodox women crowded togetherbochinchando (thats what Dominicans call gossiping) about each other.

Does the color of akippah really tell you whether a persondavens withkavannah? Does a sheitel tell you how stringent someone is about keeping kosher or saying after the bathroom? To me, being Jewish is about more than the clothes you wear and the head coverings you don or dont. At least, thats the Judaism I signed up for, what about you?

Aliza Hausman is a Dominican-American Latina and Orthodox Jewish convert (Jewminicana for short!), freelance writer, blogger (at “Memoirs of a Jewminicana”) and speaker.


{ 38 comments… add one }
  • Schwartzie September 16, 2009, 11:24 PM

    I didn’t sign up for any Judaism. I’d like to trade my circumcised penis in for a black one.

  • Schwartzie September 16, 2009, 11:24 PM

    Not really, but maybe only a little really for the size upgrade.

  • s(b.) September 16, 2009, 11:26 PM

    Aliza, take no sh!t — you EARNED your Judaism — so many of Jewish women were just born into Judaism and know way less about it than you (or any convert does). re: head coverings — health comes first — if it aggravates your fibro to cover your hair, then don’t. There is hair other men don’t see on a married woman, and it grows south of the belly button. (which is enough for me, but I respect observant women’s right to cover whatever they’d like)
    I have a cousin-in-law who wears something like a mesh/fishnet beret on her hair (outside the home). That might be lighter than your beret. And thanks for the laugh at left-wing -Modern Orthodox-Riverdale hippie-Rabbi Avi Weiss-following — I’ve had many good experiences at HIR, but I don’t think of him that way at all. Good for him, for getting such a rep. The more open, the better.

  • talmida physika September 16, 2009, 11:49 PM

    Wow, your post really speaks to me. This past Shabbos I had a heart-to-heart with my rebbetzin where she opened up to me about the imperfections of frum life to expect as a BT especially after marriage. She actually did tell me about the social conventions of which hair coverings one ought to wear depending on community, about the important of closed-toe shoes and stockings etc. Basically that if you don’t live in Israel, expect to conform or be judged and have your children ridiculed in school.

    Quite the eye opener.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Elke September 17, 2009, 1:16 AM

    Aliza, I would suggest dreading your hair to manage it but thats not really an option as I’m sure you’ve dealt with. A very loose hat is probably your best bet to cover your natural fro. My favorite default is a red yarn rasta-esque hat. In frum communities I have been considered a goy when I’ve worn it, but the second I take it off and show an Israeli tichel underneath, they know I’m in the tribe… which is silly because those tichels are made in India, maybe I’m just a really white Indian!

    Hair covering is something that I feel strongly about because its a custom I also didn’t grow up with. I consider tichels as being my Jew-rag to represent the deep rooted heritage of Judaism and show off because I am proud. I can’t imagine putting on a wig because it seems like I’m hiding something, and if I’m hiding that, what else could I be hiding? Being upfront is the best way to go, but thank G-d I don’t have to deal with fanatic frummies. Seriously, thank G-d for that.

  • frumcon no mo' September 17, 2009, 1:26 AM

    This is the stuff that made me switch my conversion track from orthodox to traditional conservative.

    It wasn’t the burden of mitzvot (I’m shomer shabbat/ keep kosher.), but the close-mindedness and goofy internal politics that drove me away. Not that the conservative movement doesn’t have its own wierd brand of that, but it allows you to be religious without having to submit to a lot of (in my opinion) bizarre social pressures.

    Even if most conservatives aren’t at all stringent about how they do things, at the end of the day, everyone respects each other. Mission accomplished.

    Why should my kippah be considered the equivalent to a jewish gang sign? I rock a black suede if it looks good with the business suit I’m wearing, or a sruga if I’m trying to be more casual.

    Aliza, I feel for you having to put up with this crap after all the work you’ve put in. Lots of frummies like to hate on converts and hold them to an unfairly high standard. That sucks, but it’s how the game goes.

    • Heshy Fried September 17, 2009, 9:02 AM

      Don’t even get me started…the pressure is endless and its not like everyone can just be an “I don’t give a shit what they say” kind of person. So what permeates the community is a load of bullshit compliments of people snickering and talking about you if you wear something other then the norm.

  • Chris_B September 17, 2009, 2:51 AM

    When I clicked this from twiiter I expected some Heshy goofyness about those rasta tams with fake dreads attached but I’m glad I was wrong. Very moving post, made me think.

    • Heshy Fried September 17, 2009, 9:00 AM

      Hence the reason I carefully selected my contributors.

  • shlomo September 17, 2009, 5:25 AM

    A rastafarian beret is fine and there’s no reason to live in communities that don’t accept that sort of thing.

    I mean, not that I dislike Ashkenazim or Chabad (sarcastic), but on the train to Crown Heights once I saw a Jewish couple who were religious, but didn’t look too ‘religious’ (i.e. more ‘socially’ than ‘religiously’ religious), while next to them was a black rastifarian couple talking with each other, and the rastifarians looked a lot more ‘Jewish’ than the Chabad couple; the rasta woman had a much longer dress and a stricter interpretation of a head covering (and the guy had a beard and one of those bob marley hats)..

    Oh, and uh..wearing a big kippa for many years has been a factor in my hair-loss as well, I think… ..it needs oxygen to live!

  • Bsamim Smoker September 17, 2009, 8:27 AM

    “I heard a rumor recently that some rabbi thinks my conversion should be revoked ”
    They can’t once you convert halacha forbids any rabinic authority from doing so.

    • Heshy Fried September 17, 2009, 9:02 AM

      I’m sure they will find a way – maybe they can just put her in cherem, when they do – tell them to put me in cherem too.

    • Chris_B September 17, 2009, 9:24 AM

      I’m sure that some Dayanim may not agree with you on that but I happily dont live where they do.

    • Anon Ibid Opcit September 19, 2009, 1:35 AM

      It’s been happening all the time in Israel. By “all the time” I mean literally thousands of conversions. The Charedi version of halacha is that their rabbis can retroactively take away your conversion, make your children not Jewish and annul your marriage. They decide that if you aren’t observant enough you weren’t sincere.

      There is no appeal.

      Some of the more cruel and self-righteous see it as a personal duty.

      The sad thing is, these are the ones with the legal power to determine who is and isn’t a Jew. Hundreds have lost their Israeli citizenship over this. Failed Messiah has covered this a lot.

  • Chris_B September 17, 2009, 9:26 AM

    BTW the large knit or leather cap that rastas wear to hold their dreads in place is called a tam not a beret. Not sure of the origin of the name but thats what its called. One of those odd things one might not know w/o contact with that culture.

  • FrumGer September 17, 2009, 9:59 AM

    this is a good post, i hate that BS… don’t wear a head covering… and move to an area that is less frum. I wouldn’t wear a headcovering if i wear you. ask a rabbi. you shouldn’t have to live in pain. thats not halachah. living in pain for halachah is not halachah…

  • simone September 17, 2009, 10:04 AM

    Wow – great post. Thanks Heshy and guest blogger.

  • NewHempsteadReader September 17, 2009, 10:12 AM

    Great article — Washington Heights was a great place to grow up.
    Shana Tova

  • Frum Mother September 17, 2009, 10:58 AM

    I’m pretty sure covering your hair is Halacha and not tradition; but serious pain and being depressed are not part of halacha either. I have a friend whose mother has what you have (the pain part) and she got a heter not to cover her hair. Maybe you can get one as well.

    Don’t listen to the haters out there, they are just expressing their low self-esteem and sheep/herd like mentality. The Halacha is cover your hair; not look ugly, wear a tichel, or wear a sheitl, just cover your hair. So do the best you can do and if anyone pulls a frumie on you and starts telling you what to wear remind them that it says not to embarrass your friend in public.

    • Dr. Z. January 10, 2010, 9:18 AM

      Frum Mother- SOOO glad to hear that you know someone who got a heter! I am a psychologist and I have a patient who is suffering from the same tremendous neck pain. So much so that, similar to the author of this article, she is practically homebound because living in a frum community and sending her children to frum Yeshivos, she feels that she must get a heter from a “well respected” Rav before she can even consider uncovering her hair. Do you have any more information on who the rabbinic authority was or a specific direction I can take to help her?

  • StLSam September 17, 2009, 1:44 PM

    Do what works for you in this situation. Its hair, not kasrus or shabbos.

    If it were me, and somebody got all ignorant towards me, i would inform them that my klan hood is at the cleaners and the rasta tam is all i have.

  • Aliza Hausman September 17, 2009, 2:28 PM

    frumcon no mo’, I don’t think the answer is to decide that all frummies are like this. every society, and i mean every society, has social “norms” which seem abnormal to outsiders.

    • frumcon no mo' September 17, 2009, 7:28 PM

      Every society does have social norms which seem strange to outsiders. The great thing about being a convert is that you get to choose which society you want to be a part of. I don’t want to raise children in such a judgmental environment. I’m not some wishy-washy liberal, I just value secular studies, openness, and tolerance more than a lot of the people I encountered, and that led me to want to join a place where the values aligned a bit more with my own. I’m not trying to generalize this to all frummies by any means. There are some Orthodox people out there, but I just thought that at the end of the day the politics within the community were detracting from the reason I got into Judaism in the first place. If your spiritual is being detracted from negative aspects of the group you’re a part of; it’s probably time to start looking for something else.

      • frumcon no mo' September 17, 2009, 7:30 PM

        meant to say great and open Orthodox people, and spiritual life in the last sentence.

        Yay trying to type after work!

  • Aliza Hausman September 17, 2009, 2:30 PM

    shlomo, try a very lightweight knit kippah. a friend who was losing his hair for the same reason got this advice from a doctor.

    • s(b.) September 17, 2009, 4:36 PM

      seriously; hair needs air to thrive and survive.

  • Aliza Hausman September 17, 2009, 2:31 PM

    ChrisB, have you met the tam-beret-snood? A nice little number on Esty.

  • Aliza Hausman September 17, 2009, 2:32 PM

    By the way, thank y’all very kindly for the awesome comments!

  • Reb Itche Srulik September 17, 2009, 5:57 PM

    I was at one of your speaking engagements and thought you were amazing. It must have been well after the incident in the post since you weren’t covering your hair.

    Technically hair-covering is daas yahudis at best and not rabbinic or biblical halacha per se and while I’m not an official rabbi, an honest one will tell you you have no business covering your hair if it’s a self-destructive practice as it is for someone with fibro.

  • Pillar26 September 18, 2009, 2:40 AM

    I have kinky hair as well. What you may find helpful is to switch to silky/satiny head coverings. Cotton and porous fibers not only suck the moisture out of highly textured hair, but the friction also contributes to thinning and breakage.

    Hope this helps.

  • seebee September 18, 2009, 5:24 AM

    This post made me feel really sad.

    I have gone one notch down on tznius/hair covering because I am sick of feeling my body/head being imprisoned (I grew up non-Orthodox).

    I’m lucky that I’m not a rabbi’s wife and that the city I live in has very varied levels of observance. So I will cover for shul or frum events but that’s it.

    I am bracing myself for comments and hard stares from the right-wing section of the community but what else can I do? Lying to yourself is worse I think than lying to society.

    If one day, I manage again to be super-modest, then great, but until then, I’m just going to let myself and my hair breathe.

  • He Who Fights Monsters September 21, 2009, 1:27 AM

    Dear Reb Itche Srulik:

    Daat Yehudit = Rabbinic

    Daat Moshe = Biblical

    Thank you

    – The World of Halacha

  • Millinery Shop October 26, 2009, 11:31 PM

    Aliza,
    I admire your courage and wit! What a smart idea you had to use a Rastafarian beret! The woman who was nasty to you at the wedding was just that NASTY! I invite you to check out my site I have tons of comfortable items. If you feel you need larger sizes we do custom orders at no extra cost. I am sure we can make you a happy coverer:) check it out if you please…http://www.millineryshop.net add gift in the coupon code space for a free gift from me to you.
    Lots of luck
    chani

  • Anin November 26, 2009, 3:33 AM

    Dear Aliza,

    I’m really sorry to have to say this but it seems to me that there will always be someone somewhere with a nasty little comment about something, whether a person is single, divorced, childless, breastfeeding, not breastfeeding, rich, poor, and so it goes on endlessly.

    I hope that you find a solution that works for you and that you develop a thick skin towards the commentators. We’re supposed to love our fellow Jew and even more so the convert.

    So here’s sending you some love.

  • Matthew C January 12, 2010, 11:16 AM

    I wish more Christian women would adopt the headcovering practice, after all it is in our New Testament. And its a very nice custom too.

  • HeadCoverings February 5, 2010, 1:51 PM

    http://www.fisheaters.com

    Check there, there is a section on headcoverings.

  • Laure February 18, 2010, 4:11 PM

    If wearing a head covering is still too difficult, but you still want to wear one, you might consider an acupressure-based program called NAET. It sounds like you have a lot of sensitivities, especially if you also suffer fibromyalgia symptoms. As new technologies have increasing abilities to image energies of the body, it lends new credence to some of the health care systems of the east. NAET, aka Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique, was discovered by Dr. Devi Nambudripad in her own quest to solve a plethora of health problems, and she has been using and refining her technique and protocols for decades. Show found a key protocol combined with specific accupressure point stimulation will retrain the body to stop being hypersensitive to all sorts of things…other techniques using similar techniques are showing great promise as well.
    If your problems are related to some sort of sensitivity, this may be of huge benefit to you. A qualified NAET practitioner can test and treat you for these. To find practitioners who have trained with Dr. Devi and who are staying current on their training, check out http://www.naet.com in the practitioner area.

  • NKPTNY April 17, 2011, 4:35 PM

    A lot of my clients with headaches get some good (intermittent) relief with wire scalp massagers- you can get them for about $10 at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Like a thin wire claw with a handle, it scratches and massages the scalp gently, increasing blood flow to the surface. Being curly myself, I highly recommend Ouidad products… their deep treatment (twice a month, religiously) and curl quencher line have completely eliminated all frizz and breakage, no split ends whatsoever. Best investment of my life: a hood dryer, so I can work at the computer while the deep treatment does its work…

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