Wig Fallout

Very few major news services bothered to investigate the facts, but they did revel around the bonfires of burning wigs in Brooklyn. Now, I don't want or expect your average indolent reporter to delve into the complex workings of Jewish religious observance or Hindu ritual sacrifices, but if this story had to be touched, there were some intriguing angles of investigation, and the facts were easily

Ellen W. Horowitz,

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"You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you." - Carly Simon

Oy... the wig ban. The "untouchables" in this case have nothing to do with the ancient Indian caste system, but this is one of those look-but-don't-touch kind of issues. Many will tell me that the entire subject of a woman's choice of hair covering is personal, and not on the agenda for national debate. But for me, every personal issue has a national dimension. So, I'm going raise some eyebrows and make some peoples' hair stand on end as I try to untangle this crisis and expose the true roots of the matter.

While I'm comfortable letting the rabbis split hairs over the intricacies of what constitutes idolatry under Jewish law, and I have full confidence that the ever-creative Jewish woman will adapt to whatever changes may be in store, I am concerned about the sacrilege that takes place when the BBC and other worldwide media outlets man-handle the story.

Very few major news services bothered to investigate the facts, but they did revel around the bonfires of burning wigs in Brooklyn. Now, I don't want or expect your average indolent reporter to delve into the complex workings of Jewish religious observance or Hindu ritual sacrifices, but if this story had to be touched, there were some intriguing angles of investigation, and the facts were easily obtainable.

An article at Salon.com gives us a colorful profile of the international wig scene. Two years ago, retail sales in the wig and hairpiece industry were nearing $800 million and growing. Seems one famous Indian shrine has 500 barbers waiting to shorn up to 25,000 heads of hair a day to be used in religious rites. But the priests are no dummies. Indian hair is big business and the hair brokers are waiting at the back door to elevate those sacrifices. That tidbit alone should have given any scandal-seeking or serious investigative journalist plenty to chew on.

(In case you very PC people out there think I'm taking a personal swipe at Indian priests and what may or may not be their extra-curricular business dealings, I can assure you that this article is going elsewhere.)

Nevertheless, it would do a world of good if mankind and the media (animals that they are) took a global look at international business ethics and practices as well as the type of cultural values created by mass consumerism.

Alas, It seems that despite all the goings-on in the world, the press will continue to focus their telescopic lens on the Jews and Israel. Which probably means that we need to take a good look at ourselves. And if the issue is over Indian hair and idolatry, then perhaps we need to look at India and idol worship from a very different perspective...

One of my most simultaneously enlightening and degrading moments came a few years back, when, after an unusually grueling session of wheeling and dealing with entrepreneurs in Jerusalem, my Indian business partner turned to me and politely and most sincerely said, "Ellen, excuse me for asking, but aren't those people supposed to be religious?" In what can only be described as a revelation, I had a sudden and very penetrating glimpse into the concept of Chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d's name).

The defilement that can result when religion and business mix has as many far-reaching implications as the often criticized combination of religion and politics. This potentially corrupt blend is introduced to us early on in Scriptures as we run into Abraham's father, who was running a brisk little idol business, until his son knocks off a few heads. But as Jews, we also know that instilling spiritual values and discipline into our everyday commercial and legislative dealings is potentially the most heavenly blend of all (keep praying for that day).

Then there's our personal lives. It is more than a disturbing paradox that people who have little more then their hair and faith flock to shear their locks as part of their devotional service, while some of us well-heeled and very frum children of Abraham can't be seen in shul without our $2,000 custom sheitels.

Meanwhile, a lot of us Reform and Conservative kids grew up hearing, "Finish your dinner. There are people starving in India." How finishing my food was going to help those poor, starving people was above and beyond me. I remember thinking, why not just donate the food to India? But it's a lot easier to eat than to think, and the decision to clean my plate and go for second and third portions weighs heavily on me today.

The Halachic laws governing idolatry are one thing, but there's a lot more to reflect on than simply whether one should opt for synthetic or European tresses.

As women, we are constantly going through changes. Monthly hormonal cycles and pregnancy take their toll, while we recreate ourselves again and again for the men in our lives, our children and our G-d. But aside from our inner world, there's our outside image to consider.

Many observant women originally opted for a wig and take great care in their appearance in order to represent Judaism and themselves in a proper light to the rest of the world. Whereas, others do it in order to blend in with the rest of the world. And some got a little carried away and do it to show their stuff to the rest of the world. How very human. Always good intentions, but there's always a golden calf grazing outside the local head-wear shop.

My guess is that if Moshe Rabbenu were here today, those Jews hanging out with the sacred cows in India would follow him into the desert sooner than the ones window-shopping on Madison Avenue. The view from the top of Sinai today would reveal a lot of ornate females joining in the dance at the bottom (they still wouldn't part with their jewelry, but for different reasons).

As someone who's pretty much seen it all, been there and done that, I can assure you that it's a heck of a lot easier to bring a young, secular Jew on a spiritual quest in the Far East back to his or her Jewish roots than it is to get many observant Jews to give up their worship of the dollar sign and the comfort of an American lifestyle.

Italian born and bred Sonia Gandhi has certainly gained from her ties to and years in India. She tearfully and humbly declined the post of Prime Minister (the New Prime minister is a Sikh - they never cut their hair, but always cover it). Can you imagine Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, Ariel Sharon or Binyamin Netanyahu humbly bowing out of any political opportunity?

Every time the government opens its mouth or there's an attack, G-d forbid, many of us feel like tearing our hair out (which is forbidden in Judaism). One viable alternative would be to go home, put on a snood and sit on the floor and cry or read Tehillim. The times call for simplicity and reflection.

If clothes make the man, do wigs make the woman? What if someone can't afford a wig? We come from a tradition where on Tu B'Av, a woman would wear a dress borrowed from another so that those who could not afford beautiful dresses of their own would not be ashamed. Bet you Ruth wasn't wearing a "Ralph" when Boaz fell for her.

What is it about hair, anyway? Many women and men pay tons of money on electrolysis and laser surgery to take it off of their bodies and then they invest even more to put it or keep it on their heads.

On the other extreme, what happens when a society celebrates the hair on their heads as well as their bodies? In the controversial 1968 tribal-love rock musical Hair, the cast let it all hang out. The Broadway hit changed America and featured nudity, drug-abuse, flag burning, profanity and sexually explicit language (what do you mean "big deal" - it was shocking back then).

And here's another shocker. As much as modesty has preserved the sanctity of Judaism, in desperate times, women have sometimes had to compromise themselves in order to save the Jewish people. One example would be that of the wife of Ohn ben Peles. She uncovers her hair in order to prevent her husband from joining Korach's rebellion.

I know some women who wear head scarves in Israel, but they switch to wigs or baseball caps in order not to draw attention in the Diaspora. I have a right-wing activist friend who confessed to me that she removes her hat before meeting with diplomats and those on the Left. There are a lot of issues.

I made the personal (national?) decision to cover my hair when I stepped off the El Al plane and onto the tarmac of Eretz Yisrael as a new Olah. I didn't think about it or analyze it too much at the time; it just seemed like the right thing to do. I can't say it was a spiritually uplifting experience, as I was jet-lagged and nauseous. My husband and I were carrying two cranky two kids, a stroller, carry-ons and backpacks. We had no extra hands for wig or hat boxes. So I simply took the scarf that I used to drape around my neck and I tied it around my hair. I guess you could say that I "elevated" it. The issues of Jewish law and modesty were not yet fully on my agenda... I was wearing a pair of jeans one size too small.

The wig issue and our broader national issues provide us with an ideal opportunity to take a good look in the mirror and reflect on what's really important, and to define who we really are as women and as Jews living in our land through these epic times.




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