Friday, April 06, 2012

wig shopping

The young women filling the crowded salon on a recent Monday afternoon were engrossed in the intimate conversations with stylists that make haircuts just as much therapy as a coiffing. Their chatter bounced off the mirrors and converged into the high-pitched hum that Beth* and I walked through en route to a wig sale in the back. As I followed my friend, I noticed that the hairdressers weren’t touching the clients’ actual hair—they were all cutting wigs, resting on head-shaped holders, some newly purchased.

Welcome to Cedarhurst, one of the “five towns” on the border of Long Island and Queens, where the mannequins in the Benetton window all conform to Orthodox Jewish modesty standards and there is a restaurant called Sushi Metsuyan, Hebrew for “excellent.”

Behind screens that would prevent men walking by the salon from seeing wigless women through the front windows were two long tables stacked with crates full of wigs of all lengths and colors, all made from human hair. There were full wigs, which created a complete, standalone hair replacement, as well as “falls,” the back half of a wig meant to be worn with a wide headband or a hat. Beth selected a couple of falls, gathered her own wavy, brown hair into a low bun, and prepared one of the many headbands she’d received at her wedding shower the day before to cover the seam of the wigs she was about to try.

In the ultra-Orthdox tradition, married women hide their hair in front of men outside their immediate families. This tradition can manifest itself multiple ways: some women wear hats that hide the top of their own hair. On the other end of the observation spectrum, Hasidic women wear ugly wigs covered with ugly hats, calling attention to the fact that what you’re seeing is absolutely not theirs. Beth, and most of the women we passed on the streets in Cedarhurst, fell in between, wearing wigs that the uninitiated would read as their real hair while still keeping their actual locks tucked out of sight.

Some of those women, mostly in their 20s, rifled through the wig sale bins. They grabbed a few possibilities and then, vying for space at the mirrors behind the screens, tried them on, primping the wigs, discussing different styling possibilities. One young employee wandered around in a long, wavy wig half pulled back in a butterfly clip. Most wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t her real hair, except for the price tag hanging against her neck. It takes time spent in the Orthodox community to learn the wig tip-offs—straight-hair wigs hang a bit too heavily, without a glossy lock out of place; wigs never show gray roots and, most tellingly, the bangs are not growing out of the wearer’s scalp.       

I know all this solely thanks to my friendship with Beth. I was raised a Conservative Jew and spent years attending religious school three afternoons a week, perpetually getting separated from my best friend when we weren’t paying attention. When I entered high school, my mom said I could quit Hebrew school if I joined the swim team. Done. Beth, on the other hand, would never wear a swimsuit outside of an all-female environment. Her clothes always cover her elbows, knees and collarbones.

We met midway through my freshman year of college, when I decided to try copy editing at the school newspaper. Beth was the copy boss on my shift. We chatted between checking athlete names and comma usage, soon getting around to that evergreen subject, siblings. I have one younger brother. What about you? I asked her.

“I have 10 younger siblings,” she said, not uncommon for religious Jewish families. She dealt with my shock with unwavering class, and we bonded through late newspaper production nights and a shared devotion to punctuation, novels, and Diet Coke (I’ve given the latter up, which makes her shake her head, disapproving). But she never disapproves of my curiosity about why a college-educated feminist would practice a tradition in which women are considered a distraction to men. Orthodox women must dress modestly, hide their hair and sit behind screens in the synagogue. I wonder why men penalize women for an apparent inability to control sexual desire. I’ve also wondered about how gay Jews avoid these temptations in such a single-gender environment; Orthodox Judaism considers homosexuality wrong, so same-sex attractions are not part of the calculus.

Beth, an academic with a liberal intellectual life, never dismisses my concerns and doesn’t always disagree with them, either. But being thoughtful about faith is not the same thing as wavering in her devotion, and though I question many of her traditions, I never question the beauty and the strength of believing in something, even when it’s hard. It’s a loyalty that years of religious school can’t instill, and it makes her the treasured friend I can call at 3 a.m. So even though I think it’s bizarre to walk around twirling $800 worth of someone else’s hair, I was there for her, scrutinizing the shades and thickness of different fall wigs.

Beth wasn’t excited about any of the ones at that first salon, so we walked to a second salon a few blocks away. It was quieter there, and the man who dealt with wigs had to be called in to help us. An older guy in a plaid shirt and no yarmulke, he said he’d grown up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, another area with a large Orthodox population. He started working in a salon as a child, he told us and, too young to cut actual hair, his boss started him on wigs. Some 40 years later, he’s an expert. He found falls that matched Beth’s exact hair color and gently eased them around her scalp while fielding my questions about how to conceal her hair without a visible bun bump.

“Are you paying such close attention because you’re going to cover when you get married?” he asked me. Beth grinned at the characteristic wide-eyed glare I shot him in response.

“No,” I told him. “I’m paying close attention because this is fascinating.” He nodded, and then we refocused our attention on preparing Beth for the next phase of her life, and our friendship.    


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