(by Bat Aher )
According to Jewish Law, a woman’s hair is her “nakedness,” and as such it must be covered. From marriage onwards, its sight is reserved for the husband only. Its sensuality is hidden and veiled, clouded for every-(male)-one else. שייטל – Sheitel is Yiddish for wig and, together with headscarves and hats, it is one of the permitted and accepted ways of female hair-covering in rabbinic, normative Judaism. “Jewish women in Italy were donning wigs as early as the 16th century. As wig-wearing became popular in Europe in the 18th century — think Marie Antoinette — Jewish women followed suit.”
I live in Berlin, Germany, at the moment. But originally I’m not from here: my look, my skin, my bodily features, my language, my manners are foreign in this place. And – as a Jewish religious, married woman – I wear wigs, hats and headscarves every day.
The headscarf (in German Kopftuch) is an issue per se. Alongside the Beschneidungsdebatte (“circumcision-debate”) of 2012, there is an ongoing Kopftuchdebatte, with repeated bans on headscarves for teachers and never-ending controversies, specifically targeting Muslim women, who have my unconditioned sympathy. Generally, Germany – and even its liberal, international outpost, Berlin – still has a problem with religious and ethnic diversity. On a very banal, prosaic level, this means that when you put on a headscarf (or, for that matter, a kippah and tzitzit), you have to deal with a series of everyday embarrassing, up to really annoying situations, such as being stared at, reprimanded, instructed by absolute strangers about the right way to behave, or treated badly and condescendingly by sellers or by your dentist. When I wear a hat (especially in winter, when everyone else also has a nice Winterhut) or a wig, the amount of harassment diminishes consistently and my quality of life is slightly improved. I kind of blend in.
What makes the difference is that wearing a veil marks the fact that you voluntarily made a choice: a wrong one. Being ‘brownish’, not-‘Arian’ looking, born in a ‘less developed’ country, not having German as your mother-tongue is not your fault – although at the end it is, a little bit: something intrinsically amiss in your attitude or culture caused you to find yourself in such a bad situation that you had to leave your original place and move to a better one – Germany. But still, you can improve, you can learn, and therefore be treated nicely. But a woman, who wears a headscarf is intentionally labelling herself, thus consciously “othering” herself, causing the surrounding people to “other” her as well. She does not only adopt a mark which conveys a backward, primitive, degenerate message: She says straight to your face that she wants to be different from you; colorfully and blatantly she marks her person, so as to distance herself from the norm, tracing a boundary-line.
I had the opportunity to talk with a Muslim woman, who told me about a conversation she had with a member of a commission for granting scholarships. The man told her thoughtfully that he’d understand what it means to be discriminated against because of your looks: when he is in Paris, he feels people treat him in a disparaging way because he is German. Then he paused. He gazed at her headscarf, and added: well, but I don’t intentionally put a tag on my forehead, saying: “I’m German.” From his point of view, this is what this girl – and myself – are doing: we dissociate ourselves from society at large, and provoke our discrimination through hate-arousing religious markers and a deliberate act of self-othering. We actively dis-integrate ourselves. And we thus deserve to be cut off from the rights of the norm. This is what we want.
The accusation of self-inflicted “othering” through embodied practice and self-inflicted metaphysical alterity is a very old charge against Jews. Body-modification and -adornment practices such as circumcision or a distinct style of clothing, voluntary delimitation or even deprivation through the dietary laws of Kashrut and other restrictions represent an auto-demarcation (Stempelung). They construct a barrier, which keeps alive a sense of difference: I surely see my Jewish practice as a means of installing difference, that is, difference is also an end in and of itself. The wish to be absolutely dissimilar is a (not ‘the’) motor of Jewish culture.
However, I don’t get the conclusion that is inferred from this, namely that marking yourself as different means that you irritate, look for a contest, negate the other’s righteousness, or create disharmony within society. Outward markers of religiosity are a glaring strategy to differentiate oneself from others, and a way of self-determination through estrangement. However, they are not necessarily a means of “othering” or asking to “be othered” in a discriminating way: Yes, they create opposition poles, but these are not necessarily connoted negatively. Religious symbols are not a declaration of aversion and conflict. Moreover, self-authored difference is not self-imposed insularity. To blame someone, who is being discriminated against, of provoking this discrimination is a difficult move: the inscription of one’s body is not a self-inflicted stigma; rather, it represents the desire of being recognized as worthy and equal despite/because deliberate difference. Jewish distinctive garb wants to convey the statement that difference is a value in and of itself, and not an unavoidable or at best, to be “tolerated” defect of human nature that we wish to overcome in our hearts.
Jews have always actively created or (re-)produced difference and differentiation.
The Rema, Rav Moses Isserles, the halakhic champion of Ashkenazic and Polish Judaism prescribes (Yore Deah 178) that a Jew must deliberately “differentiate from them in dress and other practices.”
“While distinctively Jewish appearance might imply a symbolic rejection of the dominant society’s supposed values, such as “idolatry” or “licentiousness”, it was more fundamentally a performance of difference. Jewish sartorial differentiation… was not compatible with a modernizing ethos of homogeneity. … [Polish reformers were] charging that Jewish clothing and hairstyles produced and perpetuated difference, which … threatened to undermine social harmony. Traditional Jewish attire was … deemed clannish and visibly repugnant, while Jewish hairstyles were said to encourage the spread of the scalp infection known as koltun.”
And here I return to my Sheitel, my wig. My university peers (all non-Jewish women), with whom I spend my free time between master-courses, have always known that I’m kind of an exception in our group. For instance, we are all at the same age, but I’m the only one who is already married. Our friendship is based on our common interests and we are aware that there are slices of our lives that we cannot share with one another. The only thing, which really poses a difficulty in our relationship, is my Sheitel. This is völlig bekloppt (batshit insane) for them. Of course, also the headscarf – I have been repeatedly asked how dirty my hair and my scalp are – but the Sheitel is the ultimate division point.
The term Sheitel is most probably derived from the German Scheitel, meaning parting (of hair going in opposite directions), but also more generally ‘division,’ ‘separation’, from scheiden, ‘to separate.’
I don’t mind that my university friends don’t understand my Sheitel. As a Jewish friend once said to me: “No one understands why we put on Sheitels.” Indeed, even the Muslim girl from the scholarship interview was shocked. She honestly said to me that she doesn’t find it modest to cover the hair with fake hair that resembles your own, whereby most people around you are tricked, they don’t know it is a wig and think this is your real hair.
I have come to the conclusion that Sheitels are a quintessentially Jewish phenomenon in many ways. There are two main aspects here. The first is the difficulty to cope with a majority society which pushes you to abandon the distinctiveness and foreignness of your Jewish attire and to damp down your public performance of difference; in other words, to suffocate your alternative, rebellious message. To put on signifiers of radical difference is so much time- and energy consuming, so exhausting, that at a certain point you just wish to blend in, to be unnoticed at work, to get that job, to be listened to, to effortlessly and unseen sneak in to the accepted parameters of decency, elegance and respectability. When you live several years in Berlin, you understand why you need that sometimes, in order not to collapse. Your soul is constantly squeezed by the animosity and prejudice of the external world. In a veil, you are a political activist on the barricade. So on the one hand, the wig is your vacation.
Yet on the other hand, the wig is particularly repugnant to my German, non-Jewish friends who know that I wear it, because it is the last outpost of Jewish uncanny and obstinate difference, of faithful adherence to a national-religious custom and belief, in spite of everything. Secretly, hidden like Marranos, but nonetheless upholding it, tricking and resisting assimilation, in spite of the attempts to make the Jew desist from perpetuating her deep-rooted creed and her dissemination of difference. For the woman who wears it and for those who ask about it, her wig is a boundary line: it keeps a private sphere away from the external possession desire. Like the veil, it is not only a means for concealment, but for signaling the presence of a secret.
Wigs were not always thought of as repugnant: there were times in which everyone in Europe wore them. They came from the general culture, but their continued use in Judaism makes them a device contributing to the perpetuation of Jewish distinction (as for instance, the polish Streimel that originally was not specifically Jewish – the moving of symbols and their displacement is a well-known cultural phenomenon). Reiterative difference – declined differently in different times and places, according to the situation – is descriptive of the Jewish creative force that wants to imitate the Divine act of creation by separation.
The second idea, which a wig represents, is the recognition of the value of two contradictory truths and the tension this creates. A woman’s hair is a beautiful gift and a part of female expression. On the other hand, the practice of covering has also significance as part of a manner of existence that does not want to forget the virtue of modesty. The wig compromises and combines the sparks of these sincere ideas, accepting and legitimizing the two different points of view they entail.
According to Judaism, there are indeed many ways – each containing a fragment of truth – to arrive to God and good. Everyone should be free to follow her own way, also if that means that she has to ignore the harmonizing and homogenizing needs of “progress” and “civilization.” Tsar Nicholas said that Jewish distinctive dress was one of the “chief reasons their progression towards civilization had been held back.” I think he is right. But I also think that – since what he held for civilization ended up in terrible massacres – it is a good thing.
 For the story of Bito shel Aher (‘the daughter of the Other’) sees bHag 15b.
 Dynner, Glenn, “The Garment of Torah: Clothing Decrees and the Warsaw Career of the First Gerer Rebbe,” in: Dynner, G. and Guesnet, F. (eds.), Warsaw. The Jewish Metropolis, Leiden and Boston: Brill 2015, p. 100-102.
 Dynner, “The Garment of Torah,” 105.  Dynner, “The Garment of Torah,” 105.