Meet The Orthodox Jewish Millennials Who Wear Wigs On Their Own Terms
At the Zelda Hair wig shop in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, young Orthodox Jewish women are continuing the tradition of covering their hair after marriage — without sacrificing their identity.
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Ahead of her wedding this June, 26-year-old Tirzah Gestetner has done all the things expected of a modern bride-to-be. She has decided on a location: Thailand, which is close to her native Australia, where her family still lives. She has picked out her flower arrangements. She has finalized her set dinner menus, and, of course, she's got the perfect dress. But now, one month from the big day, she has one final — and rather momentous — decision to make: her wig.
Within Gestetner's own Orthodox Jewish family, the tradition has been that after a woman gets married, she will cover her hair. Many Orthodox women do this with scarves, but others, like Gestetner, have grown up seeing the matriarchs in their family wear sheitels, which is the Yiddish term for a wig worn by a married Orthodox Jewish woman. "I used to try my mom’s wigs on, and it was like, Oh my god, I’m gonna look like this when I get married," Gestetner says. "Currently, it’s gone from excitement to like, Oh, now I have to cover my hair. Well, now I don't know if I want to do that. I love my hair!"
To find a sheitel that fits her personal style, which she will start wearing the day after her wedding, Gestetner drove five minutes from her home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to Zelda Hair, a bright wig shop with more than 20,000 followers on Instagram. According to its owner, 28-year-old Zelda Volkov, it sells approximately 600 wigs a year, with more than half of its customers looking for wigs for religious reasons.
When we visited the shop on a foggy Friday in late March, it was clear that Zelda Hair is popular for a few reasons. First, it caters to a younger audience; the shop posts on Instagram several times a day, and often tags the Insta-famous women who frequent its location. Gestetner knew the shop because her two sisters, who run the popular modest fashion brand The Frock, also get their wigs there. With prices ranging between $2,200 to $5,500, the wigs are a far cry from the more common dark bobs often associated with sheitels. Volkov crafts styles that range from multicolored mermaid waves to trendy tousled brunette lobs, which Volkov says are the best-selling units at the moment.
Zelda Hair's popularity among young Orthodox Jewish women, who fly across the country and sometimes even the world to shop there, makes it the center of a conversation currently being had in Orthodox Judaism: To wig or not to wig? While it was once seen as more of a rule or a community standard than a choice, these young women are exploring their options when it comes to covering their hair, effectively creating their own unique relationships with these wigs and how they decide to wear them.
As with many aspects of Judaism, there is debate over what a sheitel really represents — and who it is really for. "One of the conversations within Jewish law has declared a woman’s hair to be nakedness and part of the alluring nature of the effeminate," Rabbi Avram Mlotek, a Modern Orthodox-ordained rabbi who teaches in Manhattan, says. Indeed, in the Jewish religious law text the Talmud, it is declared that "hair on a woman is ervah," or essentially, "nakedness and impropriety" that should be covered once a woman is married.
The tradition of married Orthodox Jewish women covering their hair has been around for thousands of years, with women first using a cloth or a veil. It wasn't until the 16th century that Jewish women in Italy popularized the idea of wearing a wig as a covering, which actually ended up causing a huge debate among rabbis, who both condemned and condoned the practice of wearing them on modesty grounds.
But today, even as the debate over wigs remains unsettled across Orthodox communities (the fastest-growing denomination within Judaism), sheitels are reportedly more popular than ever. Why? Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Atlanta and always covers her hair with a hat or wig, says many communities are looking to modernize. "The Modern Orthodox community values the blending of a deep commitment to Jewish life and being integrated into society," says Rabba Melissa, adding that wig options have vastly improved in the last few years. "The wigs allow someone to take part in the mitzvah of covering and still feel like they’re not losing their identity."
But there's another reason why some Jewish women are looking to wigs rather than caps and scarfs. With anti-Semitism in America on the rise and anti-Semitic assaults up a staggering 105% since 2017, Rabba Melissa says she's had conversations with women who see wigs as a safer option. "People are afraid of talking about their fears, but I have had a few conversations with women who have expressed how they can pass under the radar more with a wig than those who wear other head coverings," she says.
Wigs allow someone to take part in the mitzvah of covering and still feel like they’re not losing their identity.
While every Orthodox community's expectations around sheitels are different— as is every woman's relationship to these wigs — there remains a prevailing question: Can you believe in your own agency as a woman, consider yourself a feminist, and cover your hair? Today, some women argue that yes, you absolutely can. For them, it is a choice that they make for themselves and their faith, rather than something that feels like an order. It can also have little to do with their husbands at all.
Zelda Hair was actually born out of Volkov's uneasy feelings about having to wear a wig in the first place. "At 19, I got married, and I had a really bad relationship with my wig," Volkov, who no longer wears wigs because she is divorced, says. "I felt so pressured, and I ended up with a short black bob. I went from looking 15 to 45 overnight."
For the first three years of her marriage, Volkov looked at that wig as a burden, and finally took it upon herself at 22 to start crafting wigs of her own that more closely resembled her own long, wavy, blonde hair. In 2016, she opened Zelda Hair as an alternative to the stereotypically dark and outdated wig shops in her neighborhood, where there is a lively Orthodox Jewish community. The reaction was electric, drawing a diverse clientele who were looking for not just a stylish, natural-looking wig, but sometimes also an Instagram-ready statement piece. Among them was Shira Shenberger, who chose to dye her sheitel sky blue.
"I got married and I was doing what I thought was the right thing to do," Shenberger, 29, says of her early years wearing a sheitel. "It wasn't a choice or a question. Whereas today, it's very much a choice that I make and something that I actively want to do."
Shenberger's sheitel is now an on-trend rainbow look, with blue and purple dyes swirling into yellow tips. "For me, my wig represents total love," Shenberger says. "I think that it’s very different from other people, because they have brown or blonde hair, and when they want to leave their house, they’ll put another layer of brown or blonde on top of it. For me, when I decide to wear it, it’s a full transformation."
Shenberger doesn't always wear her wig. She dons caps and scarves and even a hoodie in colder weather and feels just fine. For Adina Sash, a 30-year-old Orthodox Jewish activist who recently ran for City Council in Flatbush, Brooklyn, it’s a similar story. Some mornings, she feels like wearing a wig, which she bought at Zelda to match her naturally thick, brown hair. Other days, not so much.
"There’s so much more chargedness with the decision," Sash says. "It comes with thinking about community, expectation, female roles as a mother, female roles as a free, uninhibited female. It’s such a hard decision to make. My relationship with my wigs is very fluid. It’s constantly changing."
When Sash got married at 18, she shocked her family by initially being firmly anti-wig. "I come from a line of women who strictly cover their hair," Sash says. "And I told my parents, 'I’m not doing it. It feels like it’s squashing my identity. And they were like, 'What did we do wrong?' And I was like, 'No, what did you do right?'"
As the years have passed, Sash has come to wear wigs more frequently, most recently to connect better with voters who are from Orthodox communities. "It’s not just about myself, but also about the women I represent when I speak publicly," she says. "I feel like I owe it to them and I owe it to my tribe. If I want to represent the female Orthodox population, I feel like it’s respectful to wear a wig.”
But while women like Shenberger and Sash are exercising their choices around covering their hair when they see fit, other young women are trying to stay committed to covering at all times.
Take Olivia Garcia, a 24-year-old newlywed from Baltimore who entered the shop looking to get the cap in her wig sized down. Garcia is actually the first woman in her immediate family to wear wigs, telling us that she only came to learn about Judaism “beyond bagels and lox” in college, where she became more observant. At first, Garcia admits, “the wigs were something that I really freaked out about.”
It wasn’t until last year, after Garcia got engaged and found Zelda Hair on Instagram, that she became convinced that a wig could actually work for her. “I was really happy here because they make you feel good,” says Garcia, who now covers her hair every single day. “As I grew more observant, I realized I wanted a husband who wanted me to cover my hair, and I really wanted to as well. I struggled with, Am I just conforming to these norms? Or am I really doing this for me? I came to the realization that it was both of those things, and it was OK because that’s the religious path that I’ve chosen.”
Although sheitels are associated with married women, there are unmarried women who wear them as well. Rochel Cohen, a 35-year-old mother of two who's the head of sales at Zelda Hair, takes wearing wigs seriously despite being divorced for eight years now. Her reasons for doing so stem from the fact that she dislikes her natural hair texture, and because of community expectations.
"The Chabad rabbis in our community do not give permission for a woman to take off their hair covering if they have children," says Cohen, who notes that other rabbis in other communities do give permission. "In the community here, all the women cover their hair, and it may embarrass their children if their mom is walking around without a head covering. I very much value that. We have very religious schools here. I don't want my kids to feel any different."
For most, tradition also fuels the decision. "My mother covered her hair, and her mother covered her hair, and her mother covered her hair," says Shaina Wiess, a 39-year-old mother of four who flew in from Los Angeles to re-style her wig. "Who am I to take something that was so special to my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother, and break that beautiful tradition when it was something that was given to me?"
Despite feeling that way now, Wiess was close to ditching wigs entirely after 20 years of wearing them. In her words, they just made her feel unlike herself, and she had a hard time finding a wig that matched her naturally strawberry-blonde hair. Wigs also caused Wiess anxiety because she was the only Orthodox woman at her catering job, and she didn’t want her coworkers at the time to know she was wearing one.
Zelda Hair solved that problem for her, creating a wig that matches the color and texture of her hair exactly. "Without it, I feel naked," Wiess says. "It symbolizes that I'm married. It symbolizes where I come from, where I am, and where I'm going. It’s so much more than just a thing that sits on my head. It’s a tradition I want to give to my children so they can also wear it with pride."
While Wiess has had two decades to ruminate on what her wig means to her, 26-year-old Gestetner is just getting started. To ease her way into this tradition, Gestetner has chosen to go with what's called a "fall," which will sit on the top of her head to cover the crown while allowing her chestnut-brown hair to be nearly completely visible underneath.
"I’m moving away from what my hair means to me now and what showing my hair to the world means," Gestetner says. "When I get married, I don't know how it’s going to feel every day. Maybe I'll want to put a scarf or a cap on sometimes. I’m gonna figure that out as I start wearing it."