One of the bigger Jewish stories to be given lots of coverage in the wider media in recent times concerned the curious case of sheitels, Victoria Beckham and Russian prisoners. Oh, and Hindu temples.
Samantha Ellis was working in Joseph’s Bookstore in the north-west London, Jewish heartland suburb of Temple Fortune at the time. She was in the process of making the leap from journalism — and working part time in a bookshop — to becoming a full-time playwright.
“In quite a lovely way, you know everything about what is happening in the Jewish community if you work in Temple Fortune,” says Ellis.
It was 2004, and a media story had revealed that much of the world’s supply of hair for extensions came from the heads of shorn Russian prisoners. Then, during an interview, Victoria Beckham, who was known among those who keep close tabs on all things follically extended, was asked if her extensions came from Russian convicts. In an answer that managed to conflate Ulster’s penal system with Russia’s, the former Spice Girl joked that she had “half of Russian Cell-Block H” on her head.
But after further research by the media, it turned out — stay with me here — that most hair extensions are sourced not from Gulag prisons but from the Tirapati Hindu Temple in India, where hair is often cut as a part of a Hindu religious ceremony.
This threw the Jewish Orthodox world into a spin. For if the hair worn by Orthodox Jewish women was produced during an act of ritual worship, according to some rabbinical interpretation it could be said that sheitels were scandalously the result of idol worship.
And so began Sheitel-gate. In Jerusalem, New York and London Jews were burning wigs in the streets. Ellis remembers seeing Orthodox women walking down the street in Temple Fortune wearing swimming caps in place of their sheitels. And that was how Ellis, now 34, ended up writing her play Cling To Me Like Ivy, which opens at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre this week, the first stage of its UK tour.
“It wasn’t until a couple of years later that the Birmingham Rep said they would like me to write a play about the idea. But I didn’t really know how to go about doing it,” she recalls.
The way she did it was to write a comedy whose narrative achieves the seemingly impossible by linking the life of an Orthodox Jewish family with that of militant environmentalism. The heroine is Rivka (Emily Holt), the 21-year-old daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Rivka’s wedding is fast approaching, but when the sheitel story breaks it is not just her carefully chosen wig that she is forced to doubt, but her faith in Orthodox Judaism too. And if you want to find out how Rivka ends up shackled to a tree, you will have to see the play.
“I wasn’t brought up Orthodox,” says Ellis, “unlike some of the people in the play. I went to an Orthodox synagogue because as a Sephardi [her parents were born in Baghdad] there isn’t really an alternative. My family is quite traditional, though.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Orthodoxy and I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming more religious. But I don’t think it is something for me,” she adds. “I definitely have a yearning for something out there, which I know sounds vague, but a lot of people don’t have that and a lot of my friends are fervent atheists. I’m not that.”
Apart from wigs, one of the more conspicuous themes in Ellis’s play is the way in which Jewish law is continually reinterpreted. Though perhaps not enough. As the sheitel story broke, Ellis followed the debate held between Orthodox women on internet forums. Many preferred not simply to wait for an edict to be handed out by a (male) rabbi, but to come to their own view.
“I was fascinated and amazed that these women wanted to find out what God wanted,” says Ellis. “And it’s so hard in Judaism. We just don’t know. So much of it is interpretation, which makes it very liberating but it also means we just don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing.”
That so much of the interpreting is done by men leads, says Ellis, to some uncomfortable decisions about the way in which women should be covered up. To wear swimming caps, for instance, while Orthodox Jewry waited for a ruling on sheitels, was probably an Orthodox rabbi’s idea. Why not a scarf?
So, is the sheitel the Jewish equivalent of the Islamic hijab, or even the burkha?
“I suppose it does seem to be coming from the same (patriarchal) impulse,” says Ellis. “What I found so interesting is that these women were fighting to wear their wigs rather than discard them. Though I am troubled by the fact that these decisions are made by men still. I’m very much in sympathy with the ideas of the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, that Jewish law should be flexible, creative and diverse; that we are able to reinterpret the laws. It’s a living source of law. We don’t have a list of rules that we blindly follow. I wish we had more of that kind of thinking.”