Family & Education

Frum, newly wed: should I cover my hair?

For Sara Elias, becoming more observant was a joy. But covering her hair was not an easy decision.


Between the night I met my husband and the moment we at last stood under the chuppah, I had become Shabbat and kashrut observant; I had started to dress in a more modest manner and I understood the beauty of mikveh. However, there was still one thing I could not come to terms with: covering my hair. Once I was a married woman, I knew it was the right thing to do — if I was keeping the other mitzvot, then why not this one? But I still could not do it.

I think that most Jews who are becoming more observant find things that they struggle with, but I believe that for a woman covering her hair is, as my rebbetzen so succinctly put it, “a biggie”, perhaps the biggie.

The years of my marriage rolled by, blessing us with three children. And in between all the big — and small — milestones, the subject of hair covering would come up every few months or so. It was always me who brought it up, and always me who said, “I know I should be doing this, I know.” My husband would listen to me patiently, and he would always, without exception, say the same thing — whether you decide to cover your hair or not, it is your decision. You must do whatever makes you happy.

For a long time, perhaps most of the time, I felt that it was more likely than not a decision I would never have the nerve to take. I googled “how to cover your hair (Jewish)” and I experimented in the privacy of my bedroom, covering my hair completely with a scarf. But I felt too exposed, too strange, seeing myself without my mane.

Yet still the thought of it would not go away. And at some point during this time the idea occurred to me that covering one’s real hair — whatever one covers it with — is a very tangible way of feeling the protective hand of Hashem over you at all times.

In the end, the decision took me by surprise. It was Yom Kippur last year, neilah, and I had been in shul for the best part of the day. My children were being looked after, so I was free to daven without interruption.

There I stood, feeling physically empty from lack of food, but as spiritually full as I am likely to be all year, wondering which of the myriad ways in which I needed to grow I was going to try to take on this year. And then a thought (a voice, really) popped into my head. “Yes, there are lots of things that you can do,” it said to me, “but actually, what you really need to do is quite clear — stop putting it off and start covering your hair.” And for the first time I was flooded with the certainty that, yes, I was ready. Without me realising, something in me had shifted.

As soon as the service was over, I caught up with my rebbetzen. I prefaced my announcement saying: “I may regret this in the morning, but right now I really need to tell you about a decision I have made…” She embraced me warmly — the first of many sisterly hugs, both literal and figurative, that I have received since making this decision.

I have spent many years observing women who cover their hair, and so I decided to approach a couple of those I thought looked the most natural for their advice. I knew that for me, certainly at the beginning, covering my hair with a scarf would make me feel uncomfortable. Although we are an observant family, we do not live in a religious area, and I would feel too self-conscious. I visited two sheitel boutiques — one fancy, one less so — and in both I was made to feel very much at ease. My desire for my sheitel or fall (a hairpiece which doesn’t cover the whole head, often worn with a wide band) to look as much like the hair underneath as possible was immediately understood. I went to the first place with my sister — I felt nervous and very much appreciated her support.

Yes, it does take some getting used to, and there are definitely days when I come home and am only too happy to take my fall or sheitel off my head. But there are others when I am barely aware that I am wearing one at all. I have received compliments on both of my new looks, from people who think I have simply had a change of style to others who are aware that it is not my real hair (I am not alone in being an avid sheitel-watcher!). Best of all, I have been the recipient of some really encouraging comments, too, a lot of women of all levels of observance telling me “Good for you.” And while I am not doing this for anyone else, it is lovely to have their support and encouragement.

I recognise that thoughts of my children and the world in which they are growing up have played a huge part in my decision. I have two girls and a boy. I began to look ahead to my son’s bar mitzvah (he is only four, so it is some way off yet!) and I realised that the woman I saw myself as being then would be covering her hair.

However, and more importantly, it is in large part for and because of my girls that I am doing this. It is a reaction against the world around us, and my means of trying to protect them from the corrosive effects of over-exposure. I want so dearly for them to realise that their true beauty comes from inside, and has very little to do with the physical. They are growing up in a world where they are, and will continue to be, assaulted by sexualised images of women, images that convey to them the idea that their true worth is in how they look and not in how they behave. And I am appalled, and fearful, and also very aware that I will have very little control over how they wish to dress and behave as they get older and more independent. All I can do is dress and behave in the way that I think is right, because this way I am giving them a choice. It may not be how some of the people around them look, but it won’t be alien to them either. And if I dress more modestly, then I have more credibility when I say that I want them to dress more modestly, too.

There is no doubt that the act of hair covering brings with it a lot of questions, and many very observant women of my acquaintance do not do it for many reasons, not just a lack of readiness: because they do not fully agree with it or see the point of it, or they feel that it is somehow a throwback to an earlier time when women lived less independent and visible lives.

And yes, I do understand a lot of those misgivings. However, I have also, over the years, begun to appreciate that sometimes it is necessary to take a leap of faith. I have always been very struck by the way that when the Children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai they accepted it saying “na’asei v’nishma” — we will do and we will hear. In other words, first we will do what Hashem asks, then we will understand. And so I have found. For example, when I started to observe Shabbat properly, I saw it as a restriction. I had to take it on, I had to live it, in order to really understand the beauty and purpose of Shabbat, and to realise that, far from restricting me, it frees me.

I am sure that there will be good sheitel days and bad sheitel days, just as there are with my real hair. But already, just a few months in, I am holding my head higher, feeling a confidence I didn’t know I had. As someone said to me recently, there is something very powerful about doing something not because you necessarily want to, but because you know it is right.

And when my daughter looks at me and says, “Mummy, your sheitel looks so pretty”, my heart swells, and I am hopeful that by seeing me do, she will begin to understand.

Before becoming a full-time mother, Sara Elias was chief sub-editor on a food magazine. She now volunteers in the community.

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