Sep 6, 2010

Tale of a Sheitel, Tale of a Scarf

I'd thought long and hard about video blogging this (vlogging, as it were), but I opted out of it. When I vlog, I tend to wander and not stick to a set trajectory of conversation. Thus, here we are, a text blog. Old fashioned-style.

I went to an event last week, between all of my orientations and receptions at NYU. My first day of classes is Tuesday, so I was excited to hit campus last week and meet the new students and do some student-y activities. So I showed up for a Jewish student event to visit the Jewish Heritage Museum down in Battery Park, eager to meet some students (knowing most would be undergrads) and excited to see the museum. I walked in to this facility around 10 a.m. where we were congregating before heading down to the museum and was greeted by a familiar face who quickly jetted off to a meeting or something elsewhere. Then, I was left in a room of about 10-15 people, whom I didn't know. There were about three or four individuals who were dressed in the facility's garb, and it became quickly clear that these were the group leaders, there to introduce themselves to the students, ask them how things were going, and make them feel warm and welcome as we schlepped down to the museum. So I stood there, awaiting the introductions. And then?

One of the group leaders stepped -- literally, and I mean that -- in front of where I was standing to address a group of students sitting in the lounge area. She proceeded to introduce herself to everyone in the room, except for me. She asked them their names and what they were studying. She even went out of her way to walk over to a guy that walked in a little late, asking him his name and how he was liking everything. He, too, was a graduate student.

So I stood. I waited. I thought, Okay, this girl is going to talk to me, right? She's made an effort to speak to every single person in this room, so I'm next. And I waited. I waited. I waited for anyone in this group of people -- leaders and students alike -- to say ANYTHING to me. And? Nothing. Not a darn word. Not a smile or a look or anything.

One of the girls offered water bottles to everyone in the room, I said no thank you, and we were off. As we were nearly at the transit station, finally a girl said something to me. "What are you studying?" she asked. I told her, she said that it was nice, and moved along.

Now, I'm not trying to play the oppressed Jewess here, but after my day there and at the museum I sort of had this realization of being exceedingly uncomfortable as the Frum Jew in a Secular Room. There was one guy there in tzitzit and a kippah, but he was the life of the room. There I was, in my skirt and ridiculous sleeves for the heat of the weather and the scarf covering everything but the tefach of my bangs. And no one wanted anything to do with me. People didn't look at me, smile at me, come near me. I was the leper in the room. At least, that's how I felt. It's entirely possible that these people were just as shy as I was. But that girl ... that girl who made such an effort to speak to everyone in the room ... bypassing me with a serious effort ... that says something to me. Something negative. Something hurtful.

I later thought to myself that maybe if I had been wearing my sheitel (wig), I would have fit in. Looked normal. Like a girl with long dark hair like the rest of the girls in the room. I would have been worthy of an introduction or a "hello" or something. Anything. But is that a good enough reason to actively wear it?

I spent Shabbos tormented over this incident and my sheitel. We were back in West Hartford, in our old community of no scarves or some scarves. I opted out of wearing my sheitel both Friday night and Saturday during the day for two reasons: fear of judgment that I'd gone off the deep end and my husband's aversion to the darn thing. I ended up throwing the sheitel on for motzei Shabbos as we drove to the Poconos because it's the easiest way to travel with it -- on my head. Friends saw it, and some said it was cute and one told me I looked silly. I felt ... relaxed. I felt the sheitel on my head, the netted cap causing a bit of an itch, but I felt good. I was irritated with myself that I had let what I worried the community and my husband would say reign over my emotions. The rabbi's wife wore her sheitel both days. Why didn't I? Fear. My old community is a very Conservadoxish one. When we siad we were moving to Teaneck we got laughs, scoffs, and questions of "Why?" I didn't want them to think I'd consumed the Kool-Aid or become one of those "rightwing judgmental Jews." I'm still me.

Sheitel or not. I'm still Chaviva. I'm still who I've been and will be.

But for those who don't know me, I'm a girl in a scarf or a hat or a sheitel and whatever my headgear says about me, I find myself frustrated. I've been told before that I've become more judgmental since becoming "more observant." The funny thing is, I almost feel like my observance allows other people to judge me in ways I have never been judged before. The way I dress, my headgear, my language, everything physical about me says to other people that I'm something that I'm not.

I'm frustrated. I'm frustrated that a scarf on my head made a room full of Jewish people not want anything to do with me, and that the thought of wearing a sheitel made a room full of other Jewish people cringe at who I've become. But how much of this is a projection, and how much is reality?

I guess I'll never know.


Mottel said...

Doing the right thing always brings out negative reactions in others. People feel judged somehow by your personal decisions because they shine light on their own shortcomings.

Keep doing the right thing.

Gamzoo said...

when modesty makes you stand out, what use is modesty?

Mottel said...

-Gamzoo: So by your reasoning, if you're walking down the street and people walk by (half) naked, modesty would demand that you take of your clothes so as not to stand out as well?

Risa Tzohar said...

You have to do what is most comfortable for you. What you wear is really not connected to being judgmental of others, it's just what you're wearing. It took me a while to get used to the idea that people shouldn't expect that they know my politics/philosophy because of what I'm wearing. Sometimes a wig or a scarf is just something you have on your head. Also, maybe it had something to do with that you're older than the other students?

(That said, it should matter what your husband thinks because if he doesn't like the way you look it could get uncomfortable. I love large brimmed hats but when we were first married every time I wore one - and I loved to wear them - DH would walk next to me grimacing every time he looked at me. It took me 20 years to decide to wear a wide brimmed hat again!)

TMC said...

oh honey, don't fret. some folks just don't know what to do so they do nothing. you'll be an ambassador. an outgoing, intelligent, frum ambassador.

David Tzohar said...

Chaviva-You have come such a long way to be who you are. Don't let the way others judge you define you. Your modest dress and hair covering set you apart and tell the world that you are an observant Jewish wife. You can be proud of that.
לשנה טובה תיכתבו ותיחתמו לחיים טןבים לעושר ואושר בריאות ופוריות את ובעלך
דוד צוהר

aml said...

@Mottel: that's not the question. Asking, what is modesty when we all live in a nudist colony, isn't the question.

I was at a waterpark once. A waterpark. And there is a (supa) frum woman and her (supa) frum daughter. They came into the wave pool fully dressed- long skirts, shirts buttoned to their necks, mama with a scarf and every last piece of hair tucked in.

They looked as ridiculous as the Muslim women there in headscarves. They should have never been there. It was an odd, surreal moment.

And they stuck out while fully clothed. If they were going to be at a waterpark (which I guess is probably questionable for them), a one-piece bathing suit and maybe some sort of pool cover-up would have been more than appropriate.

I've lived in a community where scarves and hats were considered immodest and fake hair (or someone else's hair) was considered modest. I know there are other communities where the opposite is true. And thankfully, there are still other communities where hates or scarves or fake hair or someone else's hair or whatever go and everyone (attempts to) suspends judgment.

The bottom line is, though... like it or not... if you look different, people are going to treat you different. If you can handle that well, then go for it. If it bothers you, then you may have to pick and choose when and where you wear the wigs.

Cousin Aviva said...

I can absolutely relate to how you feel. I have definitely come upon situations where I will wear a sheitel because the people I am coming in contact with will be more comfortable and relaxed around me, such as when visiting relatives (of mine or my husband's) who are not-yet-Frum. They all know that my hair is covered, but for some reason the wig freaks them out less. When they are uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable, and that is enough of a reason for me to wear a sheitel. But, there are certain situations that I simply don't care how they feel, like for a doctor's appointment, so I'll wear scarf. I live in New York City, so I am not the first person they ever saw with a tichel. As a newlywed, once, I had to explain to a pharmacist that I began wearing hats for religious reasons because I had recently gotten married, not that I was a cancer patient, chas v'shalom! The bottom line is that even though you may be more comfortable with scarves, you may find yourself wearing your sheitel in certain situations simply because it relieves the tension and makes others more comfortable. I think it's just a fact of life.

starlight said...

Hi, it's Adina Kastner.

My first few weeks at Columbia Teachers College, I felt so awkward and out of place in my mitpachot/scarves. Even though no one was judging me or giving me weird looks, I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. A lot had to do with the fact that I didn't feel pretty. I felt jealous of some of the Muslim women I saw there, confidently wearing their own head coverings. I wanted to be that confident about standing out, too. But I only got relief once I started wearing my sheitel to school, no mean task if the weather is over 85! My husband thought I was crazy, but it made me feel so much better.

In other words, you need to do what makes you comfortable. That might mean wearing your sheitel in one circumstance and a tichel in another. But it should be YOUR decision!

Also that woman was very mean to you! You (of course) did not deserve that. Sometimes people can be so obnoxious. There is never any excuse for rudeness!

Rivki Silver said...

I'm sorry that you got snubbed. Boo on her! It's her loss, really.

I can completely identify with your feelings. When I used to work as a paralegal, I would always wear my sheitel because I felt much less conspicuous. Whenever my sheitel was being washed, I would wear a tichel or a snood (even weirder than a tichel, I assure you), and I would feel self-conscious all day.

What Adina said rings very true - you should do what makes you comfortable, and don't worry about what other people are thinking. It'll only make your head spin.

Pam Siegel Zarte said...

I have a good friend who is my role model for being modest in the world we live in. She usually wears tichels. She has told me that people think she is a NUN. They offer to pump her gas for her and call her "sister".She has begun wearing a sheitel when she is at work(self employed attorney)because it does not seem to freak people out as much. She also wears hats at times. I have another friend who wears a snood almost all of the time. It's what she is comfortable in. I have yet another friend who wears her sheitel all of the time. I'm not yet covering my hair all of the time. I wear hats or tichels. I don't think I could ever wear a wig, although I've been thinking of trying some on just to see what they are like. I live in Arizona so the dress is much less formal than where you live. I finally found a "uniform" to wear this summer that was comfortable, relatively cool, and modest. I ordered cottonT shirts from a catalogue that have 3/4 length sleeves and a boat-neck. I ordered about 10,1 in every color. I have a good collection of skirts that I wore with them.This outfit fit in where ever I went. I felt "put together". It was great!Do what works for you.

Erika said...

I do understand this. I'm a Christian who covers in a major city. I know many people wonder why I have a scarf on and if I wear a tichel in a bun style I get some very odd looks- but people rarely ask. In my old neighborhood there were lots of Conservative Jews and I think most thought I was a confused Jew b/c my clothing doesn't follow the same rules in the summer. But, here, in an area where I have yet to see a anyone besides a Muslim covering, I'm a little odd.

Suburban Sweetheart said...

I'm frustrated by Mottel's comment about "doing the right thing." But it seems to me that doing the right thing, in any case, is treating human beings with the respect they deserve, & that means being respectful of & kind to people who have different views & lifestyles than you.

You do what makes you comfortable, what's right for you. But I think along the way, you also have to expect - or maybe not expect, but at least recognize - that what makes you comfortable will sometimes make others uncomfortable, & that it will manifest itself in ways that aren't comfortable for either party. You're not doing ANYthing wrong - & perhaps THEY are - but people deal with their discomfort in a variety of ways, & it's terribly unfortunate that this is how it played out this time. But just as people shy away from Muslim women, from Sikh men, from anyone who looks even a little bit different, so will others - even other Jews - sometimes see you that way.

And this means it's incumbent upon you to be the best you you can be & try to prove them wrong. Maybe they're not worth the effort, but don't cave to their discomfort & let it rule how you feel. Be you, be Chaviva - be outgoing & intelligent & warm - & they'll quickly see they had nothing to be concerned about. And won't they feel silly & ashamed? But then you'll be remembered as the girl who taught them better.


Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Mottel I'm not sure what the "right thing" that you refer to is. Covering my hair? Of course I'll continue that. Or wearing a sheitel? Please clarify!

@Gamzoo Covering the hair isn't first and foremost about modesty, so ... null.

@Everyone Thank you for your personal stories and the relating of your experiences and sentiments about hair covering -- be it with hats or scarves or sheitels. It's interesting how since writing this I've worn my sheitel many more times ... and how one experience of wearing it (on my first day of classes) resulted in a girl plopping down next to me on the train to ask "Are you going to Washington Heights?" She knew. It's the sisterhood of the traveling sheitel. I felt so at ease and comfy. It gave me a ... something. Something a scarf doesn't give me.

@SS You're right, by the way ... I should have killed them with kindness. But I didn't. Sigh. Next time? *hugs*

Mottel said...

-Chaviva: In this case it would be wearing a sheitel.

le7 said...

"I've been told before that I've become more judgmental since becoming "more observant." The funny thing is, I almost feel like my observance allows other people to judge me in ways I have never been judged before. The way I dress, my headgear, my language, everything physical about me says to other people that I'm something that I'm not."

Ugh, exactly how I feel.

At least in the winter I feel kind of "undercover" with the sheitel and all.

But I've also been mistaken for not married with it at work and that's just awkward.

What's my point?

People who get to know you come around and they eventually realize you're not the judgmental one.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to assume that 99% of this is projection. It's only fair to the people you know nothing about, but assume are being rude. Did you introduce yourself to anyone? My trick in these situations is always to focus on other people and believe them to be as insecure and uncomfortable as I feel. So I try to draw them out. Ask questions. Be interested. Try it!

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Anonymous Although I understand what you're saying, this was not the kind of situation where I SHOULD have been forced to throw myself at them. The group leader made a SPECIFIC point of welcoming everyone, introducing herself to everyone, and getting info about everyone. Except me. That's not weird, that's just ... absurd. I'm usually very good about throwing myself into the den and speaking to strangers. But this situation? It was catered to the "I'm the leader, let me talk to each of you and then you can talk amongst yourselves."

Unknown said...

"The funny thing is, I almost feel like my observance allows other people to judge me in ways I have never been judged before. "

They're human: people like categories. And in a Jewish world of Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservadox, Lubavitch, Yeshivish, etc., it's no wonder that people assume that you fit into one of these. I am not condoning it, because I get frustrated by categorizations, too, but I think it's just what happens. (If anyone asks me what I affiliate with I usually say shomer mitzvot.)

It's so interesting (and unfortunate) that you felt shunned by the person giving the orientation. I would think that in a liberal university atmosphere a woman who dresses a bit differently by wearing a scarf or some other funky item would not be considered so far out of the norm. But I suppose this is all situation specific.

I have a friend who used to wear scarves all the time for various reasons, but due to the nature of the job she now wears a sheitel most of the time -- after wearing them for a while she actually came to prefer them!

Honestly, to me, I have read so, so many blogs that are vehemently anti-sheitel that it is almost refreshing to find someone who is putting one on more often instead of talking about it something lavish and untznius. Kudos to you for covering you hair at all -- such a challenging and powerful mitzvah!

I hope you only have positive experiences from now on!

Anonymous said...

"I've been told before that I've become more judgmental since becoming "more observant." The funny thing is, I almost feel like my observance allows other people to judge me in ways I have never been judged before. The way I dress, my headgear, my language, everything physical about me says to other people that I'm something that I'm not."

That's a great summary of a dilemma that many folks have. So many commenters seem to assume that it's one or the other. Being part of an in-group means that you bond easily with other members of the in-group and have boundaries with the out-group. And boundaries take effort to bridge. It's possible, but it's another step. It may be that both you and others are more judgmental due to the boundaries.

That was my experience having gone from secular to Conservadox to strictly Orthodox to less strict. I am not less strict because I want to be rebellious or because I'm afraid that people will judge me. I've done all that, survived, and it was fine. I'm less strict because I don't want to judge others and feel separate from them, and it's so much easier for me to relate to people this way. I still do things differently -- I don't wear normal bathing suits, but my bathing outfit might not meet many people's halachic standards. My work had a really important event on 2nd day chag; of course I could have missed it, as I've done for years and years, but I went because I didn't want to again be the person standing apart and opting out, perceiving myself and having others perceive me as standing apart from everyone else. In a previous position several years ago, the head of the department called me a maverick, and he liked me, but he didn't say this entirely nicely. Not coincidentally, I feel so much more integrated at my current job.

Everyone makes their own decisions, but I really do think that it would take a really exceptional religious person not to experience this judgementalism on both sides. Such religious people do exist, but it's the exception.

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