October 2, 2012 On women shaving all their hair
How can you cartoon about shaving? You have to. Because without some humor to lighten the subject, it’s hard for me to go there. Shaving my head was one of the most humiliating and hurtful experiences I went through as a Hasidic woman. Before I got married, in our cart at the hardware store of china dishes and cutlery and hooks and potpourri, we placed a Braun electric shaver for me. Every month I plugged the shaver into the socket near the mirror, flipped on the black switch, and beginning from my forehead over to the back of my neck, held the vibrating machine at my soft little hairs as they fell to the side, the floor, into the bowl, down my back. Where I had shaved, my scalp showed itself in pale white, dotted with dark roots. When I was done, I was bald. I collected all of my hair and tossed it into the toilet and flushed.
I did this every month for years.
It wasn’t always so hard. At first, I didn’t think about it much. I have only a very vague recollection of the first time my hair was shaved — by my mother on the morning after my wedding at eighteen — and not much more comes to mind of the first year. The whole ordeal was insignificant at a time of such tremendous life change; of starting to live with a man I didn’t yet know. I’d also been a tomboy growing up, and I was glad to get rid of the frizzy responsibility on my head.
Every married woman shaved, and it was a prerequisite to marriage, a price I was willing to pay. But as the years went by and I turned twenty, twenty-one, became a mother, matured, and grew into myself, I no longer thought marriage was contingent on this tradition. I no longer felt hair was simply a messy mane. I no longer wanted to rub Pantene on my shaven, itchy head every night. I was a woman, and I ached to put a comb through my hair, to watch it fall softly to my shoulders, to feel dignified and feminine. I wanted to make decisions about my own body.
But still, I shaved. Every month. In Kiryas Joel, it can be almost impossible to hide growing hair, and without the support of the husband, entirely impossible. A hair sticking out of the turban, a neighbor noticing, a mikvah lady asking questions, a husband tell-tailing. I tried to rebel. I didn’t just take it lying down. But when a few months passed and my hair began growing so long it no longer stood straight but tilted over as if to bow to my forehead, the start of blonde bangs, word got out. One day, out of the blue, the phone in my kitchen rang, with a religious woman sent by the leadership on the other end of the line. It was the phone call I dreaded all this time.
“I was sent to go down to your house to check if your head is completely shaven,” she said in Hungarian Yiddish, “so we can know that your son can be in cheydar. We cannot accept your neshamala into cheydar until you’ve done what every holy Jewish woman should do, so I’d like to come to your house as soon as possible.” Then she told me about the many blessings that will come to me for this great mitzvah, and she reminded me of the illnesses and accidents that come from women like me who cannot resist their feminine yetzer horah. She talked about cancer and recent tragedies and said that I never know if God had not sent them because of my sins.
I hung up the phone and felt shaken, my knees pulsing. She wanted to come to my home. She wanted to check under my turban. She wanted to see my bald head.
I had to let her. What choice did I have? I believed in none of what she said and thought her premise ludicrous. But banning my son from their school was a sure way of forcing me to comply. My toddler, moping around on the kitchen floor, pulling on my duster, blabbing in Yiddish, needed to go to school. I applied to a different small privately run school in the community, but they returned a message through a relative that they were unfortunately unable to accept my son, according to instructions from community leaders. I had no choice. I wasn’t prepared to take radical action like fleeing the community without money, a job, a school for my child, a degree, or even a driver’s license (women are not allowed to drive). I knew much better than to be impulsive in my very volatile situation. I stood to lose custody of my child, for heaven’s sake, if I ignited the community’s wrath. I had no legal support, no emotional support, no people behind me, no alternative cheyder, no way to stick up for myself. I was just me, a Hasidic lady among my Hasidic peers. I was helpless.
So one night I took out the shaver again, flipped the switch, and held it under my new side-part. I watched myself in the mirror. I was no longer a child bride. I had become a woman with opinions, ideas, aspirations, and self-respect. I did not want to shave. I abhorred the control others had over my body. But I had to do it.
As I shaved from end to end over my scalp, tears streaked from my eyes and nose. When I was done I looked at my bald face in the mirror. And then I yelled. It was a scream that tore itself out of me in protest for every ounce of my dignity that was gone, for every hair of self-respect I cut away. For the fight I had lost, to our own. My grandmother was bald like this, in the war, because of the Nazis. I have her recordings of these memories, and the horror and pain of forcing a woman to shave is shocking. Yet we do it, to our own children, ourselves, our women. We should, they should, someone should know BETTER!
But no, the ritual continues to be enforced. I know women who continue to shave their heads against their will because they are too powerless to make decisions about their bodies. I don’t refer to women who believe in the ritual. I refer to those who don’t believe there’s value to it and don’t want to be bald. What are they to do? You may assume they simply need to be assertive, but do you realize that everything they have stands in the balance? Do you realize how at mercy of their Hasidic husbands and rabbis they are?
For me, this episode made me more determined in the long journey to take back control over my life and my child, earn a degree, save money, get a driver’s license, find a good school for my son. But it left a very deep impression on me — about how vulnerable mothers in the community are. I learned that women who become mothers at a young age are essentially powerless because anything they try to do puts the children in the balance. To me, shaving embodies the enormous power the community has to make its rebellious women naked, humiliated, powerless, and defenseless. I feel strongly that more needs to be done to help the women who want different things for themselves and their children.
I don’t shave anymore but it still hurts, a scar that refuses to heal.