Just a Small-Town Curl

A woman with curly hair. Photo by Oleg Magni via Pexels.

I have always struggled to accept my curls. Hiding behind hair ties and blow-dried lies for nearly a decade, I was ashamed of my natural hair. But when I watched Ilana Glazer embrace her “jewfro” on the final season of Broad City, I saw myself as an equally badass Jewess with untamed tresses.

My curls are wild and unbridled—I started trying to force them into submission from a young age. As a child, I was a playful tomboy, and untethered hair wasn’t conducive to roughhousing or playing basketball. Tying my hair up should have pleased my perfectly primped conservative mother. But, despite hating her own hair, both she and my balabusta grandmother took pride in my “cultured” mop and were dismayed when I straightened it or tied it back. I stuck to my rebellious nature and chose to spite them the best way I knew how: with a decade of taut locks.

By high school, I refused to wear my hair down for events like brunches and brises unless I ironed it beyond recognition. And as the youngest member of my family with a handful of older cousins of childbearing age, there were many a bris to attend. By the time I entered college, I had not only lost my curls, I had lost my way. I paired my English major with major depression and a heap of anxiety regarding my future. My university boyfriend begged me to scrap the scrunchie after being exposed to my post-sex lioness mane. He thought it might help me find my way. But I continued to blow out the bed head instead. 

The longer it grew, the knottier it got. I feared I’d always been as emotionally tangled as my hair—it was the personification of my messy reality. It was easier to hide my manic self in a neat bun than to shout it from the top of my roof, or in this case, the top of my roots. 

After finishing my undergraduate education at Carleton University, I combed through an obdurate knot of existential crises. I felt ugly and out of place in the nation’s tightly-wound capital and yearned to spread my wings overseas. I constantly changed my future vision, but never my image.

“Mom, Dad, I’m going to move to South Korea to teach English after graduating,” I informed my parents, my tone as serious as my muted hair tie collection, fifty shades of beige.

“Try again…”

“Japan?”

“Pass—”

“Hard Pass—” 

“Israel?” 

Done.

The autumn following graduation, I moved to Tel Aviv for an internship at Time Out magazine. I was taken aback by the ease with which the sabras (Jews born in Israel) flaunted their untamed locks—au naturel, frizz for all, curls for kilometers. I felt like having curly hair granted me entry into an exclusive sorority in Israel, one that I was scared to rush, despite fulfilling the baseline criteria.

Despite growing up with a chutzpah-filled Brooklynite grandmother and an Orthodox grandfather, my knowledge of Jewish customs did not help me crack the cultural code that first year in Tel Aviv. No matter how hard I tried to fit in—partaking in extensive hours of Ulpan or running 10K fun runs until red in the face—I felt like an outsider. By pulling my hair back every morning, I was living a lie; at least that’s what my Sephardi hairdresser told me.

“Just an inch off the bottom and straight, please?” I asked.

“No. I will cut four inches and let it roam free,” Sinai announced with grandiose hand gestures and an accent as thick as the hot Mediterranean air.

I could not argue with him. He’d outed me. And it felt fabulous.

When I moved to New York City’s East Village two years later, two shades blonder, and two years curlier, I was ecstatic to happen upon Filament, a hair salon in my neighborhood. My stylist boasted that her place specialized in curly hair as she draped me in a black smock. I was nervous I’d never find someone as bold and animated as Sinai, but Alexandra’s unrestrained passion comforted me.  

Slowly lowering my chair, she explained that she wanted to teach women to embrace their curls and their cultures in a safe space. My ringlets revealed Ashkenazi roots. Alexandra’s voluminous tresses took me aback, seeing as in her home country of Puerto Rico people were criticized for their natural look.

I traded in all my trepidation for fascination. According to Alexandra, in Puerto Rico curls are considered “unprofessional” or “too messy”—an interesting cultural difference since in Tel Aviv messy curls are the norm. After ironing out a similar period of pre-teen pushback, my hairdresser had learned to flaunt her fro while working in a hair salon at age sixteen. Her smile beamed through the spotless mirror, then quickly faded when she shared that her friends and neighbors were less open to their hair and continue to conform to the pressures of Western beauty standards.

“Then why open a place on East Fifth? Why not in Puerto Rico?” I asked a little too loudly from beneath the dryer dome. After coming to the big city to master new techniques, she decided to cancel her flight back to open her own place here. Four years later, Filament has become an East Village establishment. As she lifted the dome, Alexandra informed me that she had recently booked a ticket back to Puerto Rico to help open a brand new location offering the same services to the community in which she grew up.

Alexandra is not only the best hairstylist in town, she is also the best (and cheapest) psychologist: “Besides being hairdressers, we are also therapists,” she reaches for the hand mirror. “We hear every single detail of a person’s life in the chair; it’s a very intimate moment. When you’re one-on-one with a client, they really open up.” This is one of her favorite parts of the job, especially in a place like New York City where she learned so much from everyone that came in—every background, every country, every experience.

She wrapped up our therapy session with an enthusiastic “Lista!” meaning “ready” or “all done.”

I grinned as she made some last-minute snips, then exited the studio, making a bee-line for Avenue A. I was back to my curly self. My hair may have been a few inches shorter, but I felt a few feet taller. I was ready to expose the city to my raw, beautifully unbridled hair and hopefully make Ilana proud.

Topics: Jewish History
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Cool article. I always longed for curly hair but nothing turns my straight strands into perfect curls. I finally married curly hair and have lived with that man and my curls by association for forty years.

How to cite this page

Greenberg, Jennifer. "Just a Small-Town Curl." 29 October 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/just-small-town-curl>.

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