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If you’re looking for the epicenter of modern, feminist Orthodox Judaism, you might start at Zelda Hair in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Zelda Hair specializes in sheitels — a Yiddish word that refers to the wigs worn by married Jewish women.
Since the 1950s, when affordable synthetic wigs first went on the market, sheitels favored within Orthodox communities have tended to be dark, short cuts. They didn’t look natural and they’re not mean to be. For Orthodox women, wigs are a kind of religious headwear, like the yarmulka for men, that signal: “I’m married, I’m observant, I’m Jewish.”
But these days, Zelda Hair’s walls are lined with long, luxurious wigs made of 100 percent natural hair:
“Our goal is to make it as natural and as similar to your hair as possible. ... Whereas people from other communities, their goal is to make it look as least natural as possible, ours is completely the opposite.”
“Our goal is to make it as natural and as similar to your hair as possible,” says Zelda Volkov, owner of Zelda Hair. “Whereas people from other communities, their goal is to make it look as least natural as possible, ours is completely the opposite.”
Volkov’s decision to start selling wigs was inspired by her own personal, traumatic experience with a short, bristly sheitel as a teenaged bride. Her transformation began with a trip to her mother’s sheitel-macher, or as Volkov puts it, “wig lady.” She walked into the shop as a woman with long, blonde hair, and walked out wearing the standard model: a dark bob with bangs.
“I didn't look like myself, I didn't feel like myself," Volkov says. "I feel like I aged overnight. I didn't feel good. I wanted a wig for myself that made me feel like me.”
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But as more Orthodox women traded in their short, artificial sheitels for longer, natural ones, ultra-Orthodox rabbis began to protest — loudly.
In Israel, 15 years ago, prominent rabbis issued an edict prohibiting sheitels made of human hair from India, a major player in the global wig market. Sometimes, hair donated at temples as a form of worship to Hindu deities gets sold and processed for wigs in India. Rabbis argued wearing these sheitels was a form of idolatry because of its association to Hindu deity worship. Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Israel held public sheitel burnings in protest, and wig-burnings have continued, as recently as a few months ago.
For the record, none of Zelda’s hair comes from India — she sources it all from Russia and Ukraine.
But as human-hair wigs got longer and trendier, many ultra-conservative rabbis began denouncing them for a different reason — one that many feminist Jews suspected was the real reason behind the Indian hair scandal: These wigs looked too good and they made Jewish women look too good.
Just a half mile away from Zelda Hair, at the Jewish all-girls private school, Bnos Menachem, the school’s rabbi sent a letter to parents in 2017 outlining new “standards of modesty,” including an attached contract. These new standards said girls should not wear bright nail polish, leggings or denim. But one item on the list was underlined just for the mothers — their sheitels “should not exceed the shoulder blades.”
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A growing number of feminist social media stars in the Orthodox Jewish community have become outspoken critics of ultra-conservative influence over what defines a “nice Jewish girl.” Adina Miles, better known as Flatbush Girl, with over 45,000 Instagram followers, sees no shame in wearing a long, lustrous sheitel but has gotten a lot of pushback, especially online where, Miles explains, “social media bridges the gap between all kinds of different sects within Orthodox Judaism.”
“I have had rabbis ask me to shorten my wig, and told me maybe I should wear a tichel [a type of kerchief]. There are a lot of spaces where longer wigs are considered 'slutty' and I think they felt I was an easy target,” Miles told The World.
As Volkov explains, modern Orthodox women like herself and Miles don’t believe that the tradition of head-covering is meant to make them looks unattractive or unnatural.
“The way I was raised, covering your hair when you're married is for privacy. It's something just for you and your husband. It isn't something that, now — because you're covering — you have to be ugly.”
“The way I was raised, covering your hair when you're married is for privacy," Miles says, "It's something just for you and your husband. It isn't something that, now — because you're covering — you have to be ugly.”
Various ultra-Orthodox sects have fundamentally different interpretations of Jewish law. Sarah Rudolph, one of a handful of Jewish women to earn the equivalent of a Masters degree in Torah studies, explains that clarifying the Jewish law around sheitels is complicated because there's actually is no verse that states, "Married women must cover their hair.”
Related: Can Orthodox Jewish women be rabbis?
Rudolph explains that the idea that married women must cover their hair is inferred from a passage in the Torah, Numbers 5:11-31, concerning a “Sotah,” a married woman suspected of adultery. In this passage, the “Sotah” is put on trial by a priest who uncovers her hair as part of a series of rituals to test her fidelity. While the Torah itself doesn’t make direct reference to wigs, Talmudic scholars who studied this passage deduced that women in biblical times did wear hair coverings, leaving rabbis to grapple with questions about how and why for centuries.
“When rabbis in the 16th and 17th centuries started writing about wigs and trying to figure out where exactly a wig would fall in the scheme of acceptable head coverings, the wigs didn't look the way they do today. ... Their views might be different if they knew we had these gorgeous human hair wigs that, you know, you can't tell look better than the original hair and are perfectly styled.”
“When rabbis in the 16th and 17th centuries started writing about wigs and trying to figure out where exactly a wig would fall in the scheme of acceptable head coverings, the wigs didn't look the way they do today,” Rudolph says. “Their views might be different if they knew we had these gorgeous human hair wigs that, you know, you can't tell look better than the original hair and are perfectly styled.”
Nowadays, each congregation comes up with its own set of rules about what’s acceptable. But some ultra-Orthodox see the mere existence of shops like Zelda Hair — and their customers — as a threat.
“A lot of the modesty restrictions come from, at the end of the day, the rabbis. They're men, and they want to control their women. At the end of the day, there's no nice way to put it.”
“A lot of the modesty restrictions come from, at the end of the day, the rabbis,” Volkov says. “They're men, and they want to control their women. At the end of the day, there's no nice way to put it.”
Take Rabbi Gurary, who runs the all-girls school that prohibited mothers from wearing long wigs. In his letter to parents, he didn’t mince words, referring to the new modesty standards as a “campaign” aimed at creating “a ripple effect in the community at large.”
Gurary and the school did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.
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“I get tons of women — and this makes me the happiest — who tell me that they've stopped covering their hair, or have never covered their hair before," Volkov says. "We actually inspire them to rethink it because of our approach."
When it comes to sheitels, the options for Jewish women are mindboggling. The wigs can look better than natural hair or even be made from natural hair. Researchers at MIT are currently developing 3D printed hair — what will Torah scholars say about that?