Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Tale of the Magic Tichel and Its Hijab Envy

Last week I was sitting in the office of a coworker (I use that term loosely since I work from home and don't technically have coworkers) when a woman walked in and began talking to him swiftly in Hebrew about something he had sitting on his desk. The conversation was incredibly fast-paced, even for me, and I didn't catch most of what was going on. Something one of them said I did understand and I smiled, and the woman looked at me and said something in Hebrew (I forget what) and then asked if I spoke/understood Hebrew, to which I motioned that "so-so" thing with my hand. She apologized and said she'd assumed I spoke Hebrew, I said "kol b'seder" (it's okay), and they continued their conversation.

I immediately realized why this woman had assumed I spoke Hebrew. I was sitting in an office at a Jewish institution, and I was wearing a tichel (nifty Isreali head-scarf) on my head.

The tichel, I realized was the tip-off to my supposed mastery of Hebrew. The tichel meant I was Israeli or had some connection. I wasn't wearing a hat or a sheitel (wig).

That got me thinking -- again, as always -- about head coverings and what they mean. In my Hebrew class last week we read an article about the politics of the kippah and what it means, whether it's black velvet, or knitted, or one of those Nah Nach style ones. Our headgear, it seems, delegates how others view and categorize us, both politically and religiously. If you wear a tichel, chances are people will assume you're somehow tied to or involved in Zionism and Israel. If you wear a sheitel, you're from Monsey or one of the more religious and showy areas of Teaneck. And if you wear a hat -- especially a baseball cap -- well, then we all know you're just doing it to appease everyone else. (These are generalizations, folks, not my own beliefs.)

And then I was sitting in Bergen Town Center, biding time waiting for Tuvia to show up so we could look at those fancy lightweight suitcases since I'm going to be traveling so much and have a problem with ... ahem ... overpacking. I was people-watching near the fancy fishtanks that attract children and elderly alike for their bizarre, prehistoric-style fish that just look fake. Two Muslim girls walked past me in the most beautiful hijab coverings I've ever seen. I started thinking: These women look so beautiful in their head coverings that wrap over and around and here I am, wearing a headscarf that I'm perpetually shifting and pulling and tucking and I don't feel beautiful in it.

I expressed my frustration on Twitter and people suggested that it's because no hair is showing -- the focus of the viewer rests entirely on the face of the woman. Someone else posed a question that I've been wondering for quite some time: Is there anything that says a Jewish woman can't cover her hair hijab-style? And if not, why don't we? Is it because it's a Muslim thing to do and we want to distinguish ourselves? I know that in many parts of the world, Jewish women do cover their hair hijab-style, and it tends to be those with historic ties to historically Muslim lands.

Yes, that's J.Lo on the right. Stylin' in her tichel.

I guess, what I'm saying is, the hijab seems to be more, well, more tzniut and more stylish -- more mysterious, if you will. Am I nuts?

When the seasons change, I always have this kind of existential hair-covering crisis. I got married as spring was upon us, then I dealt with the summer-to-fall change, the fall-to-winter change, and now I'm dealing once again with that winter-to-spring change. I'm almost a full cycle of weather-related hair woes, and I don't think I'm a pro yet. I've had my bangs since I was a wee lass, and I just can't get rid of them. That bodes well for cute winter knit hats, but I am not loving how it looks with a tichel these days. I feel like I'm cheating. Tefach (the hand's breadth allotment of hair showing) or not.

I'm guessing if I walked out of my house and to shul with my scarf wrapped all hijab-like, I'd probably be chastised, and my conversion would go out in the window (she's a closet Muslim!). But sometimes, I troll the sites that sell these beautiful scarves and am jealous. Envious. I sometimes covet the beauty that these women accomplish in their clothing and hair coverings.

Sure, some might say I fall into the Orthofox category with my fashion sensibilities, but I'll never look as good as some of the women I see schlepping around the mall. And my tichel will never fit the way it should -- even so far as my ability to suddenly master Hebrew when it's placed upon my head (like a magic slipper or something).