This is a time of increased vulnerability for many minority populations in the United States: people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, native peoples. The policies and rhetoric of the current administration have left all these groups exposed to hostility. Women are also feeling the pressure, as the gender split in voting in the past election suggests. And, Jews also are facing increased visibility. In addition to the murders in Pittsburgh, anti-Semitic incidents around the country have increased in the last few years. All this has me thinking about visibility, chosen and unchosen.
My father, an Ashkenazi Jew with curly black hair, green eyes and dark skin, came from an immigrant family that arrived here in the early 20th century from the region of Poland known as Galicia. His mother in particular valued assimilation into American identity, and prized blond hair as a sign of this identity– she in fact later dyed her black hair blond. His aunt had blond hair and it was considered a family coup. (There’s much to say here about developing an assumed American identity of whiteness, as well as the presumption of Christianity.) When I was a little girl, I had blond hair and blue eyes. My father used to call me his blond-haired, blue-eyed girl.
“No,” I would insist. “My hair is brown and my eyes are green.”
I knew what Jewish girls were “supposed” to look like. Of course, due to the circumstances of history, Jews come in all different varieties: there are Jews of color, blond Jews, and every other kind of Jew you can imagine. Yet the unconscious conventional wisdom I had picked up in my suburban, European-descended, largely assimilated Jewish community in mid-state New York was that Jews had woolly dark hair. My father, of a generation old enough to have experienced potent anti-Semitism, valued looks that could “pass.” I, an adopted child who loved my Jewishness, wanted—though I probably would not have admitted it– to “look Jewish,” to confirm my Jewish identity. One of my close friends had jet black frizzy hair. She complained about it, but I loved it.
By the time I was in junior high, I did indeed have dark brown hair (relatively straight but frizzy) and green eyes. I remember once my father glaring at me playfully and saying: “You wished your hair darker!” I smiled triumphantly and nodded. In spite of my father’s protestations, I finally had Jewish hair. As the years went on and college came, I grew my hair longer and wilder.
I wasn’t alone in my desire for Jewish hair: in 1995 Dr. Randy Milden wrote an article in Lilith Magazine, a magazine for Jewish feminists and their friends, titled: “As an Adopted Child, All I Wanted Was Real Jewish Hair.” Milden recalled tantruming as a young girl because her hair was “wrong.” (In fact, that entire issue of Lilith Magazine was devoted to various aspects of Jewish hair.) Yet in an article written for the Jewish Women’s Archive, Leah Berkenwald notes that for other Jewish women, Jewish hair is an often gendered liability: Jewish women are more likely than men to straighten their hair in order to look “like the mainstream images we see in magazines.” A commenter on the article described his girlfriend’s words about her own “Jewish” hair: “a frizzy, unmanageable, self-knotting mop.”
My wild and often knotted hair ran me afoul of my mother early on, for reasons of an intersecting but different stereotype. My mother, a convert to Judaism as an adult, had grown up in a small German village and had spent most of World War II as a war refugee. For her, neat hair meant one was presentable. Short hair was modern and attractive. My mother associated long, wild hair with witches. “You look like Wanda the Witch!” she’d complain when I walked by with my unruly mane. I didn’t know who Wanda the Witch was, but she was surely nobody good, at least not to my mother.
My mother was on to something, though. My desire for more hair wasn’t only about my Jewish identity—it was about my developing identity as a woman and a traveler of the worlds. I was a reader of fairy tales and myths, interested in theology, ritual, and magic. My witchy aesthetic was influenced by the fantasy books I read, where priestesses, sorceresses, and princesses had long wild hair. I was no doubt also influenced by goddesses from books of myth, who frequently were graced with long flowing locks. (Scholar Raphael Patai notes that the Shekhinah, the Jewish vision of the Divine Feminine, is depicted, in one synagogue frieze in second-century Dura Europos, as having long wild hair.) While many girls my age were embracing makeup and fashion, I was exploring my hair as a defining feature of my female body, a feature that signified (to me, anyway) adventure in hidden worlds. For my mother, that hair signified a problem in my female identity, a rejection of how I was “supposed” to look.
I never abandoned the hair, or the spirit-wandering. Thirty years later, I’m a rabbi and also the co-founder of a community of Jewish priestesses– the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. Many of my fellow priestesses also have long wild hair (though plenty also cut theirs short, wear it in braids or buns, or have none at all, since there is no one way to look like a priestess, or a Jew). We do have many adventures in hidden worlds. Over the years, we’ve done a few hair rituals: most notably, some of our community members have made a sacred occasion out of cutting off long braids—since hair is holy. After all, the Book of Numbers (6:1-21) prescribes a hair offering as one of the options for devoting oneself to God.
I’m not the only one who sees my hair as a character in this story. Writer Bruce Feiler, observing our Kohenet community, described my scholarship and ritual work and also noted my “superlong, slightly graying brown hair.” Feiler reported that I looked like “the kind of ethereal figure you might see illustrated on the cover of a girl’s young adult fantasy novel.” This remains one of my favorite mentions in the press: my bid to look like the heroines of my childhood seems to have worked. And it also highlights, for me, the complexities of my identity as woman, priestess, and Jew, and the ways that identity remains a problem for the society I live in.
My mother probably still wishes I would cut my hair, though she gave up and stopped saying so a decade ago. And my daughter, almost ten, has embraced lip gloss—but she’s also noticed my hair. After all, she’s inherited it: her hair, like mine, knots at the drop of a hat.
A while ago, in a restaurant, she said to me: “People can tell you’re a priestess because you have witch hair.”
Delighted, I agreed—and told her about my mother and Wanda the Witch.
“Do you want witch hair?” I asked her.
“Yes, but not as messy,” she said.
We’ll see how that goes.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).
Leah Berkenwald, “What is Jewish Hair?”, blog post at the Jewish Women’s Archive, Oct. 26, 2009, https://jwa.org/blog/jewish-hair.
Bruce Feiler, The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us (Penguin Press, 2017), p. 166-167.
Randy Milden, “As an Adopted Child, All I Wanted Was Real Jewish Hair,” in Lilith Magazine, Spring 1995.
Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State University Press, 1990).
Fresco of the Daughter of Pharaoh finding Moses, in the synagogue at Dura Europos: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/Dura_Europos_fresco_Moses_from_river.jpg