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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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75 Comments

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.

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.

 

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. 

are you sure ?

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.

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...

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

AMEN! None!

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

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.

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

We all originated in the Middle East...

We all originated from the Big Bang

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!

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.

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.

Study more 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

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.

good for you esther

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

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..

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.

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.

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...

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.

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

I'm a full-blooded Ashkenazi Jew and I have straight oily hair that's wavy towards the bottom. Both of my parents and all of my siblings have straight hair, yet we all "look Jewish." I think the stereotype comes from the fact that Hasidic Jewish men curl their peyot with curlers or hot tools. The majority of Ashkenazi Jews I've met do not have curly hair. I think that physical trait is more common among Sephardic Jews, yet I've seen Sephardic Jews with straight hair. Ironically, a lot of Jewish girls I've met complain about how thin and oily their hair is.

I'm a former New Yorker, having lived in New York (Midtown West Side, Queens and Long Island) for 28 years. My mother is Sephardic Jewish, my dad was Cherokee/Choctaw/Jamaican. My mom's family made aaliyah from Spain to Ellis Island, NY; then settling in Philadelphia, PA. Her hair is long, thick and curly. My dad's hair was thick and nappy (bush city)! My Jewish hair identity: I'm a mixed chick...and proud of my Jewish heritage. I have very curly hair. My mom didn't know what to do with its thickness, so she resorted to using a hot pressing comb followed by hot curlers on a gas stove. She wanted me to "fit in". Being transferred to an all-white middle school in a then-Jewish area of Philadelphia, I had lots of Jewish friends. But I noticed their hair was either wavy or straight; mine was curly to the point I was teased in school. In the late 60s-early 70s, it seemed curly hair was out; straight hair was a more acceptable standard of beauty. Although my hair's length was to the small of my back, it was shampooed, toweled dry with NO CONDITIONER! All my mom did was fry it with a greasy pomade. Comb out was horrendous. From there, after college I got my first relaxer. That lasted for over 20 years. Until I found Curly Like Me by Teri LaFlesh in July 2013, I thought of going curly anyway. I was sick of putting my hair care in the hands of unscrupulous beauticians, suffering from a sore scalp after each touch-up, burns on my earlobes, etc. On Aug. 3rd, an aneurysm was detected on the left side of my brain, needing immediate surgery. My doctors (neurosurgeons) somehow cut the length of my hair in the back; as well as the front left side. I was a bit angered by the unnecessary cutting in the back. Prior to my surgery and following Curly Like Me techniques, my hair had grown right past my shoulders. Now I have to start all over again...thankfully, it grows fast. After my release from the hospital, I was seduced into relaxing my hair again. Thankfully, I resisted the temptation. My hair has been off the hair crack (relaxers) for 7months now. Having saved a lot of time and money, I vowed to NEVER damage/hurt my curls ever again.

I am so relieved to see others share what I have felt my whole life. I have dark brown super curly ringlets with blond baby hairs that frame my face. Im the oldest of 4 siblings but look nothing like any of them. They have dark skin and smooth waves for hair. Thanks to a knawing feeling in my gut and an arabic husband, a little research online and the knowledge of my mothers 1st marriage I was able to to find out her 1sthusband is my real father. I grew up thinking I was mixed(black-and-white ),come to find out my father is russian jewish. I have light skin and hazel eyes. I never knew other jewish women were being mistaken for mixed girls too. Thank you to all of u who shared your stories here : )

I am man, currently researching my ethnic origins. My grandmother came over from Vilnius, her and my father had very black wavy hair. It would be interesting if hair type proved to be the basis of a currently speculative hypothesis.

This article, although well intentioned and written by a woman with straight hair, classifies most Jewish women with curly hair. Jewish people are the wandering people of the earth and come from all places and therefore have every hair type. I myself am 50% Slavic Jewish. My roots lie in Lithuania (most of the Jews who were there during WWII were murdered by the Nazis) and I have hair straighter and finer than anybody you can find on this planet. Funny thing is my non-Jewish European mother has very curly hair. But the straight hair gene from my fathers Jewish side is quite strong. Nobody from this blood line can even hold a curl, even with all the mousse, curlers, hot round irons in the world!!! I remember crying to my mother as a child because I wanted waves and curls so bad!!! My hair is also very light brown which I highlight and looks light blonde and I'm extremely fair. I have the look of a waspy California girl and nobody would ever guess I was Jewish, but I love to tell people to prove stereotypes wrong. Jews come in all packages!!!

It really doesn't make a difference what hair we got. I work at a hair salon with a lot of young clients who are Jewish. Many of them are from Eastern Europe, even from Africa, Asia and Latin America and they all have different hairstyles and hair textures. I'm Jewish Eastern European and Hispanic, and I've got green eyes and black hair.

I am half Russian Jewish an half Jamaican. All my Jewish family have dead straight hair. Even my hair is not that curly and I'm half black. Not all Jewish people look the same or have the same hair.

I remember once when I was about 8 and had plastered my head with vaseline and then sat on the edge of the bathroom sink and admired my glossy,straight dark brown hair. So far from the cropped curls I usually had - constantly being chopped off as my mother, blessed/cursed (depending on viewpoint) with ordinary straight brown British hair - had no idea how to deal with curls. It wasn't until the late 60s, when I was a rebellious teen and insisted on letting my hair grow, that I discovered how thick, curly and sexy it could be. Anyway now I am 60, and still the lucky owner of a full head of shoulder length dark brown curls - sometimes ringlets, sometimes straighter, and sometimes a puffy mess - depending on the weather. All this I can thank my fathers Italian Jewish genes for. Of course I did end up marrying a super Aryan looking northern European and none of our kids got the curls. So, thanks Pappa!

I'm 50% Jewish and 100% European. I'm really light skinned, maybe with a hint of yellow. People think I'm white and sometimes Spanish when my hair is wet. I have soft hair with thick wiry hairs on the outside. Its very thick and I have a lot of it. I live in Florida and sun turned it a sort of reddish brown. My hair is very frizzy and is wavy when I brush it out, but curly if I wet it. Its getting long and I love it. My hair may not look sleek and perfect but its definitely some form of Jew hair. Rarely, I straighten it and when I do, I think it looks nice and I don't have to worry about it frizzing. But with the right product, I like it curly too (but the products are veryy expensive and I can't afford them). Anyway, no matter what you guys look like, love yourself! Because they're only one you and we're all beautiful in our unique way!

I work as a hairdresser and see so many hair types on people of every heritage. Generally people have good hair only if they take a real interest in it! Curly hair is amazing when its well conditioned and the right products are used, same goes for silky straight hair, if its treated well its beautiful but when its dry and neglected it snaps, thins out, loses color and life MUCH quicker than thick, strong curls. I know quite a few "white" girls that would trade flat mouse hair for thick, richly colored manes that Jewish girls are blessed with, and would kill for olive skin, fake tan is always just a bit to orange! I have so many clippings of Bar Rafaeli that have been brought in its not funny!

I'm a mixed ancestry African American with kinky hair and my ex is of Ashkenazim ancestry with curly hair. Our little girl has almost straight hair. Her hair came from my half-Native American great grandmother.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "What is Jewish hair?." 26 October 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 9, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/jewish-hair>.

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