I'd never sell an idolatrous wig, madam...
May 16, 2004 10:32 AM   Subscribe

"A hair-raising fear of idols" - Orthodox hair crisis ".....The storm began four weeks ago, when someone told the rabbis that most natural wigs imported from Europe are actually made of Indian hair. Two years ago, rumors had begun circulating that this hair was bought from Indian priests who gathered it up after the women cut it during a Hindu religious ceremony. This would be a serious problem, since Jewish law forbids the use of objects employed in idol worship (which in Judaism means all polytheistic religions). Apparently many wig-sellers concealed the fact that their wigs, though made in Europe, used Indian hair" (Ha'aretz, Friday, May 14 2004)
posted by troutfishing (50 comments total)
( thanks to Ed Weiss for bringing this hairy scandal to my attention )
posted by troutfishing at 10:35 AM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

"It's too late to return us to the days of our mothers," said A., a Bnei Brak mother of seven.

No kidding.

My ex-mother-in-law, a deeply religious and quite wonderful woman, said to me shortly before her death, "There's too much damn religion in the world."

I'm so sick of dogmatism. All kinds.
posted by 327.ca at 10:37 AM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm so sick of dogmatism.

I guess that would be "dogma", wouldn't it? Dogmaticity? Dogmaciousness? Dogmaciosity?
posted by 327.ca at 10:41 AM on May 16, 2004

327.ca - "Dogmatism" is correct, I believe. But, I really like "Dogmaciousness" and "Dogmaticity"
posted by troutfishing at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2004

It's an oversimplification to say that all polytheistic religions count as idol-worshippingin Judaism. From an orthodox point of view, both are definitely considered misguided practices, and perhaps it's an accurate interpretation of the spirit of an anti-idolatry law to say that it should apply to religions with multiple gods in general. But when you talk about the reasons that, say, the Catholic trinity is an idea inconsistent with Judaism, then you're talking about monotheism vs. polytheism, without idols having to enter into it.
posted by bingo at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2004

...of course, once you start talking about iconography, the idol question does enter into it. All I'm saying is that the explanation is this article is flippant in a way that makes this situation sound stupid, for reasons separate from the reasons that it actually is stupid.
posted by bingo at 10:48 AM on May 16, 2004

Indian hair is the next best

I can vouch for this. Everyone I know absolutely adores my hair, which is pure-bred.

Although the cuts, styles, shampoos, conditioners, and 3-5 different products get extremely pricey. It ain't easy, or cheap, being this pretty.
posted by BlueTrain at 11:00 AM on May 16, 2004

Am I understanding this correctly? Wigs are popular with ultra orthodox women because after they are married, they aren't supposed to show their hair? But it's perfectly okay to show somebody else's hair, as long as the somebody else doesn't worship idols? It's not the showing of hair that's sinful? Just the showing of your own natural hair? Baffling.

Great supporting link on the temple hair biz, trout
posted by taz at 11:13 AM on May 16, 2004

taz - thanks, but I can't take credit. Thank Ed Weiss - he's the Mefi reader who emailed me the story.

"this article is flippant in a way that makes this situation sound stupid, for reasons separate from the reasons that it actually is stupid." - Well, that's a good distinction I guess.

BlueTrain - Do you let people touch your hair, for luck?
posted by troutfishing at 11:21 AM on May 16, 2004

I've seen a lot of orthodox women show their hair, though. And I'm sure some of them were married. Maybe this only applies to certain situations...
posted by bingo at 11:29 AM on May 16, 2004

Until recently, only two people were allowed to touch my hair: my stylist and myself (which annoyed the hell out of my g/f).

Five years ago I allowed a priest to shave my head for a ceremony, which was quite odd because he used a straight blade and was quite "rough". In a place high in the mountains, Tirupati (as I'm sure most have heard of, in passing) is supposedly the largest seller of human hair in the world. Hindus from all over the world climb the mountain and sacrifice their hair for god. It's an amazing place, but extremely dangerous for tourists (muggers and monkeys are rampant).

It is, in my opinion, something to do for the sake of culture and mysticism, more than anything else. You take part of a process that has been around for thousands of years.
posted by BlueTrain at 11:34 AM on May 16, 2004

extremely dangerous for tourists (muggers and monkeys are rampant).

/serious question
posted by matteo at 12:11 PM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

I mean, I know macaques are sacred in India, but dangerous?
posted by matteo at 12:12 PM on May 16, 2004

I haven't been there in 3 years, but when I walked up the mountain, several monkeys came at us with rather large fangs and began hissing. I, as the ignorant tourist, laughed and imagined trained monkeys from television, which are fun-loving and obedient. Luckily, I wasn't so stupid as to provoke them, but as a few relatives mentioned afterward, they have been known to attack on occasion.
posted by BlueTrain at 12:24 PM on May 16, 2004

Great post, troutfishing. I find this a fascinating story, and it's already inspired BlueTrain's very interesting comments and bingo's brilliant "this article is flippant in a way that makes this situation sound stupid, for reasons separate from the reasons that it actually is stupid."

I've seen a lot of orthodox women show their hair

Dumb question: How do you know it was their hair?
posted by languagehat at 12:32 PM on May 16, 2004

Well...I admit that I've never seen an orthodox woman get her hair wet, or offer it for me to touch. And yet, I have come into (non-physical) contact with an awful lot of orthodox women, Teachers in hebrew school, customers at a store I worked at for a while in an orthodox neighborhood, people I spent time with and around during the six weeks I spent in Israel. I can just say this; there would have to be an awful lot of variety in those wigs, including many different colors and styles. And that variety would be an extravagance that would in itself be very atypical of the orthodox sartorial aesthetic.

Also, sometimes they wear hairnets, which you would think would not be worn over a wig, and on non-hairnet days, the hair looked to be the same as the hair that had been previously visible through the net. Not that I was keeping track.
posted by bingo at 12:53 PM on May 16, 2004

Taz, not every Orthodox person is as stringent as these people. Note the article describes them as ultra-Orthodox. Many people think just a scarf, a hat or a snood will do.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:58 PM on May 16, 2004

(And even among the ultra-Orthodox, it's the married women who conceal it all; the unmarried don't have to save it for their husbands.)

Incidentally, my Orhtodox nephew has just had his upsherin, ie his hair was cut for the first time preceding his 3rd birthday. The hair is being donated to make wigs for child cancer victims.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:02 PM on May 16, 2004

Bluetrain - BTW. I wasn't trying to be offensive, and your response was fascinating. This is at least an American cultural tradition (and probably common to a lot of cultures), touching an "exotic" "other" (who might also be denigrated or believed to be somehow "primitive" for luck). For European cultures, I guess this has meant pretty much everyone else in the World. There was a Metafilter thread a few months ago where people discussed this tradition, within the US, of whites touching the heads of blacks for luck - and a number of Mefis testified that it's still around.

Did you not allow your g/f to touch your hair for religious reasons and - if so, do you mind my asking about the background? If you don't want to respond, I fully understand.

On another note, how much does a head of hair bring anyway ? I have enough for a decent wig now.
posted by troutfishing at 1:06 PM on May 16, 2004

this tradition, within the US, of whites touching the heads of blacks for luck - and a number of Mefis testified that it's still around.

indeed. (scroll down to half-page or just search for "teenager")
posted by matteo at 1:18 PM on May 16, 2004

Hair covering is something which many but not all Orthodox women do. If you look at the profiles on frumster.com, an Orthodox dating site, you'll find that it is used as one of the markers of one's position on the Orthodox spectrum. Many Modern Orthodox women do not cover their hair after marriage.
posted by callmejay at 1:46 PM on May 16, 2004

how much does a head of hair bring anyway ?

Not much if you've been washing it.
posted by Wet Spot at 1:51 PM on May 16, 2004

Callmejay: I just looked at Frumster. As Mefi's resident expert on Orthodox Jewish headgear, what I see is that most of the photos show guys with big broad fedoras. That style of hat is worn by Litvaks. Very orthodox, but not Hasidic. The wig thing is big among Hasidic women. The difference is that while "Modern Orthodox" Litvaks will argue a point - such as wig wearing or eating chickens with black legs - to death using a very traditional logic based on Talmud interpretation, the Hasids go by gut instinct and emotion, or more precisely, the gut instinct of their Rebbe, or rabbinical leader.

My grandmother wore a sheitel - a wig - because she considered a Klein's Dept. Store (shout out to y'all in da Bronx!) polyester fright wig a liberating modern change from the babushka scarves her mother and grandmother wore back in Moldavia. Her family was Hasidic (I'm descended from a rabbinical dynasty on her side, but it is kind of a Moldavian "put your hands on the radio and let the power cure you" kind of tradition that has very few modern followers.) But I was raised in a very anti-hasidic Yiddish atmosphere. The Bronx was non-hasidic, while Brooklyn became hasidic after WWII. We spoke Yiddish, we were kosher, but Hasidic wasn't as main-stream acceptable back in the 1960s.

And sheitels cost a lot. Cheap ones begin about $2000.
posted by zaelic at 2:31 PM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

zaelic - I'm sure glad my wife isn't orthodox. Closer to Deadheadox, maybe. Ah, but we're young. Time will bring tradition to the fore and so one day, perhaps, I'll find a blond polyester wig on her bedroom dresser.

"Oh my God. What the HELL is this?....."

"Oh that, honey. I thought you'd like something contemporary."
posted by troutfishing at 3:23 PM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

i'm with zaelic--for regular(?) orthodox it's not necessary, but for ultra-orthodox and hasidic people it's absolutely necessary.
posted by amberglow at 3:39 PM on May 16, 2004

New Yorker Pearl Gluck just released a great indie film about growing up hasidic in Brooklyn and then leaving the Orthodox community for a new secular life in Manhattan. Divan - The Couch. It's a great take on a isolated Hasidic culture (Brooklyn Satmar) that even Jews often find unfathomable.
posted by zaelic at 4:29 PM on May 16, 2004

I like "A Price Above Rubies" with Rene Zellweger (before she was really big).
posted by bingo at 4:59 PM on May 16, 2004

Did you not allow your g/f to touch your hair for religious reasons

Hell no. I happened to be extremely vain and pompous and enjoy having a perfectly groomed head of hair. Once upon a time I was annoyed when even a single strand of hair was out of place (so the idea of a person touching, let alone messing with, my hair was repulsive).

I still enjoy my culture and heritage, and continue to observe a few customs (I'm a vegetarian, I have pictures of dieties in my apt., I wear religious jewelry), but for purely cultural reasons, not religious. I enjoy being brown, and Indian.
posted by BlueTrain at 6:38 PM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

For a great book about growing up Hasidic in New York, I recommend Pearl Abraham's Giving Up America.
posted by orange swan at 6:51 PM on May 16, 2004

BlueTrain: I find the whole concept of ruffling someone's hair as a "goof" to be fuckin' annoying anyway; I wouldn't consider it a point of vanity unless taken to the extreme. Then again, I've got my own screwed-up rules regarding physical contact anyway...
posted by Dark Messiah at 7:05 PM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

Bluetrain - I think a certain measure of vanity is a measure of mental health. Humans are animals, and poorly groomed animals tend to be - in general - unhealthy.

Then again, various other expressions of grooming ( such as spiritual, as opposed to physical, grooming ) don't have much traction in this age.
posted by troutfishing at 7:27 PM on May 16, 2004

the ultra orthodox women in my family all (almost all - one wears a scarf) shave their heads bald and wear a wig. i used to think there was some kind of proscription against (antiscription?) vanity, but that can't be right as they all wear too much makeup and perfume. way too much perfume. they don't touch me either, maybe i'm too secular and thus trafe, who knows. i don't hate it, i'm just baffled and, i guess, i pity them to some extent as they miss out on so much. but they probably think the same about me.
posted by luriete at 7:49 PM on May 16, 2004

luriete - It's great to hear a firsthand voice in this.

What I find odd about this sort of religious observance is the suggestion that all those who do not adhere are relegated to the realm of the profane, the non-sacred.

I have to scowl at such assertions.
posted by troutfishing at 7:54 PM on May 16, 2004

Wig crisis was on the front page of the NYT the other day...Women of Williamsburg going about in "snoods" as a result. Some of these human hair wigs cost a grand or more.
posted by Slagman at 8:42 PM on May 16, 2004

I guess what's puzzling to me is my assumption that the prohibition against a woman showing her hair after marriage would have a purpose - probably something about not inciting lust in the hearts of men other than her husband, or some such - and that by wearing a wig, the letter of the law is kept while the intent is completely violated. But perhaps I'm way off base, and there is no underlying meaning, or I'm just completely missing what the actual point is.

The hair covering could be something so simple as an obvious statement that "this woman is taken, look elsewhere," for example, but with a wig such a message is lost.
posted by taz at 10:26 PM on May 16, 2004

If this were something that concerned me much, my first question would be "of all the places in the world where you can get hair they had to pick the place where the hair is cut during a polytheistic religious ceremony?"

I'm pretty sure that's what I would think.
posted by clevershark at 10:58 PM on May 16, 2004

Until recently, only two people were allowed to touch my hair: my stylist and myself (which annoyed the hell out of my g/f).

Good grief.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:12 PM on May 16, 2004

Metafilter: muggers and monkeys are rampant
posted by TungstenChef at 11:16 PM on May 16, 2004

taz - Back in Biblical times, the Jewish people dressed exactly like 19th Century Eastern European Orthodox Hasidim. Jewish customs and mores have, however, degenerated since that time.
posted by troutfishing at 5:45 AM on May 17, 2004

just kidding
posted by troutfishing at 8:01 AM on May 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

Wow, I grew up in a part of Florida that was primarily Jewish, went to temple with friends, investigated Judaism for a while when playing with the concept of organized religion...and I had no idea about this. None. Then again, I think most of my friends are/were Reform as opposed to Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox.

Still, it seems awfully similar to the scarves worn by many Arabic women. (Not necessarily an Islamic thing...many Christian Arabs also follow the same rule, I'm guessing it's a cultural standard, rather than a religious one in those cases.)

I guess, coming from a secular western perspective, it doesn't make much sense to me, in that I don't understand the logic behind it. Why only married women? What purpose in "gods divine plan" does it serve? I don't ask to be snarky, I just have no frame of reference in which to make sense of the rule.
posted by dejah420 at 9:15 AM on May 17, 2004

Alternative title for FPP:

Fundies Wigging Out Over Hair
posted by nofundy at 10:37 AM on May 17, 2004

"Still, it seems awfully similar to the scarves worn by many Arabic women."

Similar, temporally and geographically co-existent Semitic cultures with even the same roots to their languages. They're much more alike than different, which I'm sure they'd both hate to admit at this point.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

nofundy - !

zoogleplex - of course. that's why they are at each other's throats. Plus, they may be quite literally cousins.

The Cohanes got around, maybe - I recall hearing, quite recently, that the Cohen gene is distributed widely through the Mideast among semitic peoples. I'm still searching for verification on this. Maybe I dreamt it?.......
posted by troutfishing at 12:17 PM on May 17, 2004

Leonard Cohen did a lot of Mideastern groupies?

I guess I can believe that, if I try.
posted by orange swan at 12:52 PM on May 17, 2004

orange swan - well, probably. The Leonard Cohen gene is probably widely distributed now.

But, the priestly lineage descended from Moses are called alternately "Cohains", "Cohainim", "Cohanim", "Cohanes", and "Cohens" - and probably "Coens" too, as well as other variations I've missed.
posted by troutfishing at 2:22 PM on May 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

Cohns. But not all of them.
posted by bingo at 4:33 PM on May 17, 2004

bingo - "Cones", too I suppose. And what of the Kohns, Khohns, Khins, Kihns, Kinns, Coons, Kuhns..........
posted by troutfishing at 9:05 PM on May 17, 2004

Well...the Cones that I know of are not Jewish. Kohns typically are (e.g. John Kerry's grandfather), and are most like Cohaynes. Most of those others, I'd say probably not. Once you can start to imagine a completely non-biblical origin for the name without much trouble, then chances are that they're not part of the "tribe," let alone that particular one of the ancient tribes.
posted by bingo at 9:12 PM on May 17, 2004

bingo - on the other hand, recent genetic tracing has demonstrated that some rather improbable population groups - such as one indigenous South African tribe (relatively indigenous anyway - predating the Boers ) - has Jewish ancestry.
posted by troutfishing at 6:41 AM on May 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

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