What is Jewish hair?
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!
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "What is Jewish hair?." 26 October 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/jewish-hair>.