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What is Jewish hair?

Photo: "Great Jewish Hair" by Sashinka-uk

For more about Jewish Hair, check out Episode 5: "Jewish Hair" of Can We Talk, JWA's podcast.

The buzz about Good Hair, Chris Rock's new documentary about Black hair, has got me thinking about "Jewish hair": what it is, what it means, and where I -- a straight-haired woman -- fit into this curious piece of Jewish identity. 

"Jewish hair" is a tricky thing to define, since Judaism can include people from any racial or ethnic background. And while Jews are known to have a variety of haircolors, as well as levels of curliness, "Jewish hair" seems to refer to dark, curly, and often frizzy, hair.

The first time I became aware of “Jewish hair” was when I went to an overnight for prospective students at Brandeis University. Up until that moment, sitting in a crowded upperclassmen dorm, I had never really thought about my hair as a part of my Jewish identity.  But as I looked around the room, a sea of dark curls, I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of the few people with straight hair. With my light eyes and straight, brown hair, I found myself wondering if I "looked Jewish."  And even more troubling, did I want to "look Jewish?" 

The introduction of Rebecca Rubin, the Jewish American Girl Doll, sparked conversation about this question a few months ago. Some were upset that the doll looked "stereotypically Jewish," while others thought she didn't "look Jewish" enough. Like many minorities, we are stuck between the desire to celebrate our ethnicism and embrace our diversity as a community.

While the politics of Black hair and Jewish hair are not comparable, it is safe to say that many Jewish women have felt the pressure to look like the mainstream images we see in magazines. This reinforces the idea that one must look "white" to look beautiful. Judith Rosenbaum touched on this in her post about Patrick Swayze, and what it meant for frizzy-haired Jennifer Grey to be the object of his sexual desire in Dirty Dancing. Many curly-haired Jewish girls straighten their hair, and some use chemical treatments for more permanent results. I think the only time I have ever seen my older cousin's naturally curly hair was in her Bat Mitzvah photos from 1988.

The "Jewish hair" issue is also gendered. Curiously, or perhaps not, it seems only Jewish women straighten their hair.  Jewish men with "Jewish hair" can choose to keep it cropped short, or let it grow into a "Jew-fro," which has been recently popularized by Jewish comedy stars like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Thanks to those high profile Jews, the Jew-fro has become the mark of the "funny guy" who gets laughs making fun of himself and his Jewish heritage. The Jew-fro's resurgance has done little to challenge stereotypes of Jewish masculinity. We may see a Jew-fro on an action hero someday, but I'm not holding my breath.

This is particularly interesting when you consider that the Jew-fro was first considered a "style" in the 60s and 70s, when the Afro was worn as a mark of ethnic pride, and was sported by Jewish folk icons like Bob Dylon and Art Garfunkel. Was the Jew-fro meant to be a mark of solidarity with the Black community during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, or was it merely a fashion statement? And why do Black women participate in the Afro, while Jewish women with big, curly hair do not usually appropriate the term "Jew-fro" to describe their 'do?  The fact that we find ourselves thinking about "Jewish hair" within the context of "Black hair" suggests that Jews strongly identify with the Black community when it comes to the issues surrounding "looking ethnic" in America. 

I cannot speak for curly-haired Jewish women, since I have had a different experience with my "Jewish hair," if you can even call it that.  (We not only must define our own identity, we must define our hair's identity!)  For this reason, I would love to hear some stories from women with different hair and different experiences.  What's your Jewish hair identity?

Visit our Flickr group "My Jewish Hair," and share a photo of your great, Jewish hair! 

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My father in law was full Ashkenazi and he had soft black curls and bright blue eyes but at least one of his brother's had tight frizzy hair. My husband has light brown hair and blue/gold eyes...i.e hazel blue, blue with a yellow circle round the Iris. I am mainly English and Welsh..90% DNA with the rest being Irish/Scots/Swedish and Norwegian. I have dark hair and green hazel eyes. I am the one with curls my husband's is straight. Of our four daughters, three have wavy hair one straight from dark to really blonde. They all have different coloured eyes, blue, green, hazel and grey. Grey eyes are very pale with tiny brown flecks and they are typically found in Eastern Europeans, she is also very tall with very blonde hair. I read that DNA tests put Ashkenazi Jews closest to Italians and that conversation to Judaism was fashionable at one time in Ancient Rome but I have also seen Ashkenazi photos where one or more of the families look lighter haired and Eastern European and of course neither the Italian DNA link or Eastern European features explain wiry hair. My eldest grandsons father is 6ft 8 inches tall with poker straight red hair and my grandson is tiny for his age with a mass of blonde bubbles for hair..he is curlier than anyone since his Ashkenazi great grandfather. Certainly there has to be some Middle Eastern/North African heritage to get that hair texture and when they talk about Rome..it was extremely multi cultural. All of Southern Europe has that hair texture within the population. Diversity is interesting.

DNA = 53% European Jewish and my hair matches what is described in the blog post. I enjoyed the read. It led to the podcast to which I have subscribed. Mazel Tov

"Jewish hair" "Jewfro" and other related terms are rooted in bigotry. It assumes a stereotype. Even positive stereotypes are stereotypes and should not be encouraged. Stereotypes used by the targeted population are still stereotypes. Everyone should do what they can to stop all forms of stereotyping and bigotry. If we don't stop it, who will?

Signed,
A proud, Jewish, fair haired, light skinned, curly-haired person. (The only one in my family of five.))

I have to laugh in a way. Throughout my life, regardless of where I've lived, every single hairdresser asks do I want my hair straightened - curly & frizzy, easily tangled mop that it is hard to manage, the 'typical' Jewish look to some - and the answer every single time is NO. Because I am proud of my Jewish ancestry. I am not like a number of those with their "Jewish" DNA who've commented; people who rather likely know nothing, and don't care to learn anything, about Jewish history, culture, etc. Just because you've Jewish DNA doesn't make you Jewish just as how having Aboriginal DNA doesn't make your Aboriginal, just as having African DNA doesn't make you African. Culture, history, tradtions are or far more important. 

In reply to by Liz

Genetics don’t lie nor make mistakes in regards to identity. One may lack the future etc but if it’s in their blood, then it’s what they are.

I found this article while looking for Jewish hairdressers in my local area. I have none - go figure. I just want a hairdresser who will understand that my hair texture means I don't need more heat on it, straightening, oils for other hair types that leave it greasy etc. 

I've got curly, thick, frizzy AND dry hair on account of my relatively close Ashkenazi ancestry. My partner also has curly hair, but hers is a lot softer and more manageable which kind of made me come to the conclusion it might be my "Jewish hair".   I use hair masks, condition, try oils to try and minimise the dryness but nothing works - I wake up with hair like hay. 

To bring it back to the article, my dad has curly hair, his brother,  my grandma too, and great gran had as well. We've looked into my family history  and my Ashkenazi roots (accidental pun) are quite close. I do believe there is an ethnic link with it that goes deeper than the religion. 

As it is, I absolutely adore my hair, the mad curls, the bigness of it all! It's been my dream to look like a 70s rocker anyway... 

In reply to by Leah

If you’re still looking for a hairdresser that knows how to work with your curls you should look for black salons since these hairdressers know how to cut and care for BOTH straight and curly or wavy hair. Or, search for a DevaCurl salon where the hairdressers are trained to cut and style curly and wavy hair. Anything like a Supercuts or a salon with mostly/all white clientele really only have stylists who know how to work with straight hair.

But... don’t forget the Bear Jew. He was the ultimate “masculine” dude. I had a huge crush on the bear Jew. 

Ladies. 

Oils: even for naturally oily/frizzy hair. 

I moisturize with Argan Oil, use African shampoos that incorporate oils, and condition, condition, condition!! (Though Argan oil makes a decent substitute for conditioner as well— just give it time to soak in before rinsing it out.) 

 

Turns out I’ve got 22% Ashkenazi in me. I wasn’t connected to that part of my family. Those relatives I knew did not have hair like mine. (Unmanageable, it seemed. Frizzy. Impossible to untangle/keep untangled. Humidity was an enemy of my hair. No one knew how to handle my hair hair.)

Strangely enough, a time in Northern Africa gave me the tools I needed to go from frizz-central to beautiful, lovely, and yes— still crazy curls. 

Crazy curly hair journeys can be frustrating, but it’s refreshing to know you’re beautiful as you are— and that there are ways to enhance that beauty rather than change it. (Though if you prefer to change your natural attributes: Have fun with that as well!) 

Hope this helps someone out as they experiment in finding ways to love their curls.

My hair is very curly! I too hated it as a kid! Now I LOVE it. I'm light skinned but tan easily into a reddish brown. My eyes are very blue. My DNA shows 2% European Jew & 2% Middle Eastern which included Israel. I'm mostly Irish & Scottish & am happy with my Celtic heritage but I was thrilled to see the Jewish DNA. Both my parents have curly hair but not as curly as mine. I always wondered where my curls came from! I've also had a handful of people ask me if I was Jewish!

I have always wondered if my grandmother's mother was Jewish...my father & grandmother both had very curly hair, I had semi curly hair& my four older sister's had curly hair like our father, almost frizzy curly...my paternal great grandmother was a Miege (German),but looked like a tiny Polish lady, her daughter looked like a very healthy German woman, but her son looked Morracan, with lots of dark,very curly hair with beard & mustache...they came to the United States from Bourgeony, France ..if you can let me know if I am possibly of Jewish heritage Thank you

I have VERY curly hair. I always wondered about it. I hated it growing up, was teased about having a 'fro in fifth grade. Now, I embrace my curly hair, try to treat it right with moisturing shampoo and conditioners. People always comment on my hair, sometimes ask if it's natural. I recently did an AncestryDNA test and found out I have 8 percent Eastern European Jew. Ethnicity WAY BACK includes a tiny amount of Lebanese/Syrian to Armenian to Italian, to mostly French and Iberian peninsula; my mother's grandfather was a blue-eyed blond from Spain. I now love my hair; I rarely see people with hair like mine. You do have to be careful with curly ringlets -- treat it with care and it will do well. I was proud to learn I have Jewish roots.

In reply to by Donna

Yes, my hair was very curly too when growing up... one of my sisters hated her curly hair...I grew to love my long curly hair because later on, I didn't have to go to the salon to get a perm, just set it in curlers wet & when it dried, poof , a natural perm!

My ethnicity according to 23 and Me is 95% Ashkenazi, which is a European/Middle Eastern ethnicity particular to Jews. According to 23 and Me, I have one full blooded North African relative in recent history and even a full blooded Swede, but very little Eastern European ancestry per se, even though my grandparents lived in Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine prior to coming to America. So you can see that contrary to what I've read in comments below, being Jewish *IS* an ethnic identity, and my reading tells me that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have more in common with each other DNA-wise than they do with the cultures in which they may exist.  That said, I have very "overly curly" hair. Got teased as a child, before anyone knew how to tame curls. Wore my hair short and curly for years. Now 70, I use a round brush and flatiron. My dad had straight hair while my mother's family contributed the curls. and That's probably because Dad had some Yakut DNA, and the Yakut people in Siberia have straight hair, while my mom's side was probably more from the Mediterannean, and they tend to have curlier hair. So maybe Jewish hair isn't so much about Jewish genes as the fact that Jews came from certain parts of the world where curly hair was more prevalent.

 

In reply to by Judy McMillan

Ashkenazi is an ethnicity in and of itself that is of the Jewish people just like Sephardic, or Mizrahi, or Italkim etc. One can be a Jew and not be of these ethnicities; trust me I’ve seen Indian Jews in Israel. The only reason you’re getting markers for Ashkenazi or any ethnicity is because those people didn’t have a wife gene pool because they were quarantined from the rest of society. This is also where a lot of the diseases come in to play. I hate to break it to you but you’d get the same results if you tested for the Amish, but that doesn’t mean the Amish are a separate race; they also have many of the same genetic disorders that Jews have. You’re a Jew if you were born of a Jewish mother or you convert in accordance with Jewish Law. Both events will make you 100% wholly and full Jewish. Have a great day!

My girlfriend is very proud of her Jewish heritage but despises her "Jewish hair" which is a frizzy, unmanagable, self-knotting mop; Ilana Glazer on a bad hair day. That Sephardic trait, unique in her immediate family, emerged suddenly when she reached her mid 20s. I think it's cute but I understand her frustration.

 

The entire notion of "Jewish hair" is completely made up, a social construction. There is no one particular hair type that is more "Jewish" than others. 

In reply to by Laurel Kornfeld

are you sure ?

In reply to by Anonymous

Yes. Jewish people have every type and texture of hair under the sun.

I too have always been looked at an an "other". I was raised my my non-practicing Jewish family. I never identified as Jewish because none of my family is religious. My hair is kinky and I relax it very lightly so that I like wearing it down and curly. Relaxing it makes the curls manageable. Growing up I always wanted blond straight hair but I have learned to love my hair. I learned to work with the curls rather than against them. I think the American Doll is lame and not representative of the distinction of beautiful Jewish women. Why make a Jewish Doll is she's going to look white? Why make a Black doll that has straight hair? There's plenty of that in the media, why emulate that? I did braid my hair and have it ironed straight, it made me feel sexy but never wanted to find my sexuality with hair that did not represent me. 

I too have been perceived and Bi-Racial and have enjoyed the ability to walk a thin line. Being labeled as "exotic" has it percs. I have also strong ties to the Black community as such but always as "light skinned" or even "high yellow". When walking with a white man I get dirty looks (and some comments) from black men. When walking with a black man I get looks from dark skinned women. I married a black man and have 2 kids. There are Black Jews! My daughter attends a JCC after school program and (my Grandparents think that's so funny) but we celebrate Christmas. My daughter who looks black knows more about the Jewish religion then I do. I think it's hysterical. All mixed up and I love it! 

I loved this article. To be honest it had always intrigued me as to why my hair controlled a large aspect of my life? When I hit puberty my dark shiny wavy hair turned into a frizzy curly mess after my mother cut it in the late 70's. My father was an Argentinian Jew and he sported the Jew fro. My mom was Puertorican though and she had straight hair, she was born a blond. She was the typical fair skinned Puertorican. My hair became the pilar of my confidence. When I finally discovered curlers, wrap do's, and conditioning products, I set out to master my ability to control my crazy hair. I wanted to look pretty after the teasing and the constant longing to have the easy, soft silky hair the other pretty girls had. Ohh my story is long. But let's just say that I finally got the opportunity to have my DNA tested to find out if I had any black ancestors in my DNA because I was positive there had to be a great great great grandmother or father who was black. This would make sense as to why my hair was so similar to the black woman I knew but did not explain my pale white skin. Well my answer was a bit surprising. The high percent of my DNA was 27% European Jew all the other percentages was in locations where the Jewish population magrated too. Though it was a resolve to me, my result also showed that I was 10% Afican. Not sure if that's why my hair seemed so out if place? I was positive I would have a higher percentage, but it sort of answered my long curiosity as to why I was so different and confused as to where to place myself.

My grandfather on my moms side is full blood Jew and I am very proud to have Jew blood in me.

Jews do have some African ancestry - about 3% . Southern Europeans do as well.

In reply to by Dafydd

I am according to Ancestry DNA, 100% Eastern European Jewish No ties to Africa at al.

White people call themselves Jewish because they wish they were Jews. Ì¡üèωÛ_Ì¡üèÏå_Ì¡üèωÛ_Ì¡üèÏå_Ì¡üèωÛ_Ì¡üèÏå_

"Jews have African Ancestry"...Which is why most jews carry the gene for dark eyes and dark "ethnic" (frizzy/coarse) hair. It's part of the DNA they carry from their black ancestors. http://forward.com/culture/140...

In reply to by i thought so

We all originally came from Africa. You should look it up.

In reply to by Julia

We all originated in the Middle East...

In reply to by Scott

We all originated from the Big Bang

In reply to by i thought so

Nonsense most Jews have zero African ancestry. Many people with dark eyes and hair don't have African ancestry either. .

In reply to by Gian Luca

Egypt is located in Africa. The Hebrew people, later called the Israelites, fled Egypt in the Exodus and were scattered after wandering in the desert for four decades.
My family has Tunisian heritage that is identified as North African on modern DNA kit tests, because Sicilian Jews were captured and brought from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen by the Greeks in 4th century BCE to plant henna crops. Sicilian Jews are Sephardim ethnicity and Italkim sect of Judaism. Many Jews do not know their heritage because we have had to constantly flee from enemies and live in the lands of strangers, but as it is written, the child will teach the parents the way of the LORD. I am now teaching my family our lost traditions. There were always customs that we had that no one could explain, different from other Italians, such as family names (Lopresti which means the Kohanim of the Levites), eating lamb and koshering meat, women in my family covering the hair after marriage, needlework and dyeing wool, henna use for hair and skin, and carnatic singing. Some Hellenistic societal customs also remained such as music and dance.It is up to this generation of twenty year olds to keep Jewish Italkim traditions alive, and much of it requires re-learning and careful Torah study.

In reply to by i thought so

that's ridiculous !!!!!!
the jews have noooooooo African heritage

In reply to by Anonymous

AMEN! None!

In reply to by Joyah

Absolutely no ties. We are a separate and distinct ethnicity

I'm not entirely sure how Jewish I am, as it was hidden pretty well after my family left Germany, but I know that a Jewish woman looked at my hair and could tell that I was Hebrew by my hair. LOL It was awesome, though, because I've struggled my whole life with my hair. My mom has very fine hair and so I've always treated my hair like it's 'normal', and at this point in my life I just keep it in a pony tail. She suggested that I start finding hair dressers with experience dealing with what she called 'ethnic' hair and that I do some googling. lol That said, my hair is only slightly curly - it's more frizzy than curly which frustrates me to no end. Oh, well, I'm learning!

In reply to by Melinda Hicks

Hebrew is a language. how can you be "a hebrew"??? Judaism is a religion, you can be Jewish if you want, but only if you follow the religion. it's not an ethnicity or race. The sometimes large nose and the fizzy hair are a predominant genetic factor of the inbreeding that occurs in families which follow the religion. Geneticist.

In reply to by Laura

Hebrew is also a group of people - it's what the 'jews' called themselves before Jerusalem was a city.

"HeÌâåábrew noun 1. a member of the Semitic peoples inhabiting ancient Palestine and claiming descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; an Israelite." Dictionary.com

The word was used in the Bible as early as Genesis.

"A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew." Gen 14:13

In reply to by Laura

Study more Laura.

In reply to by Laura

I thought the same also, apparently it is a race, not just a religion. I don't know why? When Jewish families have babies, just like black families have spacific testing, Jewish people are asked if they have Jewish ancestry because children can inherit Tay-sachs disease, Canavan, and many others. Apparently, Being Jewish is not just a religion, it is a race. Noting also that DNA test results single out Jewish European as a genetic trace.

In reply to by Michelle Johansen

Ethnic group not a race. Of course many exceptions

I am 50% Ashkenazi Jew and I have curly, fizzy, thick and dry hair. It is impossible to manage. It is way easier to manage now because I have straightened, thinned, and layered my hair. I also use anti-frizz spray. Just because I change the way that my hair naturally looks doesn't mean that I am not proud of my Jewish heritage. I still look very Jewish with my facial features and my name! I am very proud of where I come from.

In reply to by Esther

Esther

This channel has done wonders for me. My hair is a 'fro, but now I can do simple twist-outs before I go to sleep and have beautiful, soft, pre-Raphaelite looking hair with NO frizz. You can too. It's for Black hair but works great for us too. Good luck.

Also we really need our own channels!

http://www.youtube.com/results...

In reply to by Esther

No such thing as 50% you are either jewish born from your mother or converted

In reply to by Josiah

She probably means that only one of her parents is Jewish. It doesn't have to be her mother either. Her father could be Jewish and still pass along the physical traits to his daughter.

In reply to by Marybeth Sanady

In reply to by Josiah

No, today we can objectively measure degree of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry in someone w/a simple ancestral genetic test, and there are people who ARE scientifically (measurably) 50% Jewish, regardless of the Jewish parent's gender.

This practice about the mother supposedly having to be Jewish is a recent - not the original - belief, and one that NOT all branches of Judaism follow. It used to be that by Jewish law it was the father who had to be Jewish. Now that we're blessed with DNA science, we get to come out of the dark ages and work with those ancestral facts, instead of trying to "decide" for other Jews who is Jewish, how much so, and what it's based on. Our reputation as Jews is that we are curious and intelligent. That's a stereotype, but let's try and live up to it Ì¢‰âÂå_ So we can honor God, but facts need to prevail once revealed, even if (flip-flopping) traditions run counter to those DNA facts. We are each as genetically Jewish as our DNA reveals, no less, no more.

In reply to by Josiah

Wrong on all counts.. Biblically, tribal status came from your father ( Jewishness coming from the mother was a later rabbinical addition).Secondly, there is a genetic basis to Jewishness, so you CAN be partly Jewish.Lastly, all Jews by your reckoning are not Jews at all, as most Ashkenazi Jews, for example have semitic , Israelite haplogroups on their paternal side, and have Mt DNA from Europe ( mostly Italy ). In other words , hardly any European Jew has genetically Jewish maternal ancestry, or at least, not purely so..

In reply to by Esther

good for you esther

I know it was a while ago now, but Andre the Giant (Roussimoff) was a hero with a Jew-fro and the highest paid wrestler in his time. Later on he became a villain without it. Also, Lou Reed had one and he's not exactly the cute, funny type of Jewish guy. Cool, rude and intimidating would be more like it. Action films would have to be the most low-risk, formulaic type of film there is. So if we were to see a "hero" with a Jew-fro that would mean the 'fro has been back in fashion in a major way or the guy playing the lead is also the executive producer.

In reply to by Wrestlefan

the only female I've ever seen with natural hair was Barbara Streisand, and that was for a short time

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "What is Jewish hair?." 26 October 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/jewish-hair>.

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