An Orthodox Woman Wears Many Hats: How To Blend In While Standing Out
Covering my hair makes me feel like part of the Orthodox community. But how I cover it makes me feel like an individual.
I was the little girl in the large, floppy hat.
It was called my “davening hat,” and I wore it dutifully every morning during prayer services as a child. Even though I was raised in an Orthodox home, my parents sent me to a Conservative day school starting in kindergarten, and I did quite a few things differently at school than I did at home.
All students, girls included, were required to wear kippot during our school prayer services. This upset me on several levels. First, I did not want to wear what I recognized so distinctively to be boys’ clothing; gender difference was a particularly sensitive issue when I was at an age when cooties were still relevant. But more than that, I did not like the idea of some obscure (and apparently fickle) religious authority instructing me what I should or should not wear on my head. A healthy spirit of defiance beginning to stir, I went to see the principal, my 5-year-old self sitting across from him at his handsome oak desk, my feet not nearly touching the floor.
Together we came up with an ingenious solution: I could wear a hat instead. But even though we had shaken hands on the idea, my small palm getting lost somewhere in the conciliatory gesture, my flower-emblazoned pink sun hat made me feel silly in the reverent pews of the school sanctuary. The deceptively cheery flower perched front and center did not match the gloomy pout persevering underneath. I felt uncomfortable. The hat made me look different and strange—a blaring sign that a disgruntled kindergartener was flouting communal norms.
I could not have known that one day many years later, wearing a hat would become an integral part of my Jewish identity, instrumental to my sense of self and feeling of belonging.
Untangling the mixed messages I was receiving at home and in school became too difficult for me, and my parents moved me after fourth grade to an Orthodox school, where I remained through high school. The standard in the school matched the standards I kept at home, and in my Orthodox shul: Only married women covered their heads.
In synagogue, a hat was an infallible indicator that the wearer was a married woman—as sure a sign as a ring on her left hand. Weathered matrons in particular wore intricately engineered creations, boasting lace and feathers and sometimes pieces of fruit. There were other options besides hats, too: Newly married women primly patted down glamorous new sheitels, or wigs, that served as full head coverings. Rabbi’s wives popped in and out of services, sporting unceremoniously tied headscarves, or tichels, before darting back out of the sanctuary to tend to one screaming child or another. But girls and young ladies who had not yet experienced the trials and tribulations of matrimony left their heads conspicuously bare: Hair was worn down or up, straightened or natural, but there were no hats (and certainly no kippot) found among the single women.
My mother, who had not grown up observant, embraced the idea of wearing a head covering when she chose to become Orthodox later in life. She always wore an Israeli scarf, wrapped in colorful layers around her head. When I was young, her heading covering meant home and familiarity to me. Only when I entered my teenage years did I start to think about the way strangers in the supermarket or on the streets of New York perceived her scarf; it was foreign—a statement of otherness. Not wanting to be conspicuously different, my teenage-self became increasingly apprehensive about the decision that I would someday have to face.
As the years went by, I continued to muse about the way I would one day cover my own head. In the Orthodox world, covering one’s head was less of a choice and more of a rite of passage for married women. I can’t say I looked forward to it. To the contrary—recalling my alienating experience as a kindergartener in a floppy hat, I dreaded the morning when I would have to return some foreign item, in all its pomp and glory, to the top of my head. I became acutely aware of the different head-covering possibilities that surrounded me, mentally putting some on the list of options while simultaneously striking others off that list. I asked my friends if they had thought about what they would, or would not, wear someday—most had not spent a lot of time thinking about it, but the general sentiment toward the matter was relatively uniform: I’ll wear what my mother wore. I, however, didn’t have that same level of certainly—I didn’t want to wear what my mother had worn. I didn’t want to look different; I didn’t want to be an unmistakable other.
When my now-husband, a young rabbi, asked me to marry him a little less than a year ago, the question of head covering ceased to be hypothetical. No more abstract notions of what someday I would or would not someday do—I had to face the question squarely. My mother-in-law, who herself wears the gamut of different head-coverings, was thrilled to help me take the leap. Hat shopping and sheitel shopping appointments somehow squeezed their way onto my calendar, almost without my consent. While hat-makers and sheitel-machers swirled and chattered busily around me, I found myself frozen in a sea of ambivalence. I needed an answer, but I had none. The hats in the shops I visited seemed matronly and stiff. Their colors, either too bright or too tepid, felt forced and stale. My bare, familiar head was too much a part of me to hide once again underneath a brim, no matter how unobtrusive. But the hats were purchased all the same, and I half-heartedly prepared for a change I did not want to make.
Last November, I walked down the aisle with a bouquet of white roses and ushered in a new phase of my adult life. Together we moved into a new apartment, began to follow recipe blogs for the first time, and confronted the reality that electricity, food, and shelter demand compensation. But aside from all the expected adjustments that come with transitioning from one person to two, the change of covering my head seemed to overshadow the rest for me. There was no principal with whom I could strike a deal: Within the Orthodox community, married women traditionally cover their heads in public, and the halakha requested, respectfully, that I comply.
I decided to experiment. I started buying hats in all different styles—the kind you wouldn’t ordinarily see in shul. I asked my friends to contribute to my growing collection. I purchased fedoras, for those times I visited MOMA or sat inconspicuously in a coffee shop in the East Village. I bought coquettish, Jackie-O.-style pillbox numbers for when I felt particularly fashion-forward on a Saturday morning. I found Israeli scarves in fuchsia and teal and learned how to tie them to perfection, and I discovered lazy-school-day beanies for those mornings when I wasn’t feeling up to the trouble (I ended up wearing those most often).
Slowly, I began to embrace my new accessories and started having some fun. I looked forward to changing my style each morning. When I forgot my hat, or absent-mindedly left it lying on a library desk or in a gym locker, I felt instinctively that something was missing. I even sacrificed catching the bus a couple of times to dash back to my apartment, fumble with the keys, and grab my woebegone hat off the coffee table.
My defiance toward a law I didn’t completely understand or emotionally accept did not fade completely. I still felt frustrated at times about the foreign appendage on my head. But friends and family alike complimented my creativity and commented on my variety. Peers of mine began to buy hats similar to my own and even borrow some from the large (and growing) pile on my dresser.
More than a marker of fashion, my hats slowly became external markers of my identity as an Orthodox woman. A certain sense of stability accompanies external identification. Whether it’s a T-shirt, a baseball cap, or a catchy tote, our style of dress indicates belonging. The hats I wore daily started to do that for me. I started to feel a sense of pride in my head covering. That pride did not stem from the communal approval my head covering garnered, though that was my initial motivation—rather, it came from of an emboldened sense of self as I shared something with the world about who I was and the community to which I belonged.
The feeling of identification was both internal and external, depending on the hat. When I walked outside in a baseball cap to go jogging or a wool hat on a frigid day, I was the only one who knew there was some deeper significance to the way I was covering my head. It felt rather like a secret, something I knew and appreciated that didn’t make the rest of the world look twice. But when I one day chose to wrap a colorful Israeli scarf around my head, similar to the ones my mother always wore, my head covering signaled to the world that I was different. While my teenage-self had blanched at the idea, my adult self wore the look proudly. My scarf was an external sign of oneness with my community.
As one of my non-Jewish colleagues astutely observed when considering my new headgear: “I feel like so much more goes into this decision than people realize.” I nodded emphatically in assent. You have no idea. Hat or no hat expands to which kind of hat? Hair up or down? Wig or no wig? Wig with hat? The permutations become dizzying, each new combination signifying something subtly different about the wearer. A wig might indicate that you are more right-leaning, a stylish hat with nothing underneath might imply that you are comfortably Modern Orthodox, a wig with a hat on top might signify that the wearer is chassidish. No head covering is arbitrary—every detail, to the carefully trained eye, is significant.
For me, however, covering my head has evolved from an attempt to appease my community into an effort to belong to my community.
Now, when I walk into synagogue on a Saturday morning, I’m proud to be wearing a hat. My hat is not pink, flowery, or floppy. But the head covering that once made me feel like a stranger now makes me feel at home.
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