Episode 5: “Jewish Hair” (Transcript)
Ariele Mortkowitz: It’s very strange to walk into a hair salon and have the person cutting your hair go, “Hey Joe, come over here, get a load of this!”
Nahanni Rous: Welcome to Can We Talk?, with the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous, and this month, we’re talking about... hair. Curly, Jewish hair.
Emily Gasoi: My name is Emily. I mean I definitely have a Jew Fro. I think I have the quintessential Jew Fro.
[Music from Hair]
Ariele: My name is Ariela Mortkowitz …So, my hair I would describe as frizzy, fro-ie, brown, and kind of crazy. I wrote my college essay about my hair. It’s very much my identity.
Emily: My grandfather, he would joke about it usually, “Look at this, what is this wool on your head? Why do you wear it like that? Why do you do that?” like somehow my hair really bugged him. I think some people just find it odd that someone doesn’t do something to try to tame their hair, and mine often looks untamed.
Ariele: I can’t like blend in as easily as other people. So it’s kind of just like here I am and I don’t have to scream or shout, my hair does it for me.
Emily: I wasn’t raised religious at all. I like looking Jewish. Maybe because I don’t have so much of the traditions, at least that’s something that’s very clear.
Ariela: What is Jewish hair, we’re so different? I mean, if you look around at all the heads, we come from so many different places and so many different backgrounds, I don’t know what that means.
[Music from Hair]
Nahanni: If you google Jewish hair, you’ll see pictures of men’s peyos and women’s wigs, and a lot of big, dark, curly, hair. And right at the top of the search results, there’s an article titled “What is Jewish Hair?” The Jewish Women’s Archive, which produces this podcast, posted that article on its blog years ago. Tara Metal runs the blog.
Tara Metal: As the Blog Editor, it’s been very frustrating to me that no matter what blog post I put up, week after week, this Jewish hair post from 2009, is just continually rising to the top.
Nahanni: And it’s rising to the top of a treasure trove of articles… about popular culture, activism, women like Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Can it be that people are more curious about Jewish hair than about Jewish suffragists?
Tara: There’s so much, you know, angst around how to control frizz and curls and there just isn’t a lot out there about Jewish hair, what to do with it, what to make of it.
Nahanni: So with summer around the corner and a lot of frizz in the air, we thought we’d explore curly hair and its deeper significance for Jewish women. Recently, I sat down with writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman, and the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Tara Metal and Judith Rosenbaum. Judith started us off.
Judith Rosenbaum: One of the things I feel uncomfortable about when we talk about things like looking Jewish or having Jewish hair is like… Jews look all kinds of ways, Jews have all kinds of genetic backgrounds, there are lots of different kinds of Jews of color, there’s everything now, you cannot judge based on looks, based on names and yet, when someone says something like Jewish hair, or looking Jewish, we all know what that means.
Nahanni: Jaclyn has the kind of hair people usually mean when they talk about Jewish hair, and it’s a big part of who she is.
Jaclyn Friedman: Absolutely, I mean, even if you look at the logo for my podcast Unscrewed, it’s basically just my hair, [Laughs] because it’s the way people identify me… right, if you were to call up and describe me because you were trying to reach me at a restaurant, you’d say start with the hair.
Nahanni: Can you describe your hair?
Jaclyn: Can I describe my hair… it just very thick, it’s darkish brown, and it’s just very curly… a little bit wildly curly. You know, its moods are not controllable by me.
Nahanni: Do you feel like your hair is part of your Jewish identity, also?
Jaclyn: Oh for sure my hair is part of my Jewish identity… all of my cousins have a version of it… it absolutely makes me feel like part of my family and part of the culture… and I remember the one time that I was in Israel looking around and seeing people with so many versions of my hair, and feeling like, I look like I belong here. It also is part of my Jewish identity in a way that is sometimes othering, right, like where I’ve been cornered by a woman who like was so fascinated by my hair because she’d never seen anything like it before and wanted to touch it … and it was very fetishizing and othering.
Nahanni: Do you let people touch your hair?
Jaclyn: No! But they don’t always ask. [Laughs] No, don’t ever, people, just don’t ask and don’t touch!
Judith: Yeah. It’s part of the ways that people see women’s bodies as public property and it’s really weird and disturbing.
Nahanni: Judith is a feminist historian and an educator, but she’s not above sharing some personal details.
Judith: Yes, I have a complicated hair history myself. So I had totally straight hair, fine straight hair, until I hit puberty, and then my hair along with my hormones went crazy and became really curly but sort of unevenly like in phases. And then when i was pregnant my hair got thicker and straighter and then after my pregnancy it became thin again but never returned to its previous curl.
Nahanni: You mentioned that you were afraid people were going to think you were all of a sudden straightening your hair…
Judith: Yes. There are all these people I know who had curly hair and now have straight hair, some of whom admit that they straighten it, and some of whom in the manner of Chelsea Clinton are like, no, no, no, my hair just changed and now it’s stick straight. My hair really did change, but I have this fear that people are like, oh, she’s one of those people who’s like heavily treating her hair because it was really curly.
Jaclyn: Why would that be a bad thing? We do all kinds of stuff to our hair… we color our hair. I mean, I understand it has ethnic and racial connotations, I’m not being naive… But like I think there’s a fetishization of the natural. The point is that we should be de-stigmatized for having whatever hair we have. But we should also be free to make choices about how we want to groom and decorate ourselves.
Judith: Yeah, and I think hair can be fun but I also feel like I think a lot about how I spend my time… and I am resentful of a lot of the expectations that are placed on women that we spend a lot of time grooming. My kids watch me put on makeup in the morning, or get my eyebrows waxed… or things they don’t see my husband doing, even though he’s far hairier and more unruly than I am, physically. So you know, as the Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, there are a lot of the kind of Jewish things about my body that I spend way more time grooming than I ever did before. The irony is not lost on me as I think about our feminist work.
Sue Dorn: It always bothered me that my hair was curlier. It made me uncomfortable. Because I didn’t look like everybody else.
Nahanni: Sue Dorn is a board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Judith recently visited Sue to talk about hair. Sue is in her 80s and started chemically straightening her hair in college in the early 1950s. Straight hair was in style then. Even Sue’s husband liked her hair straight.
Sue: And that went on for years, and all along I resented the time that it took to do it. Finally, one morning I just said enough! And my whole body relaxed. Because if I could accept me, then everyone else could accept me as I was. Oh, I think it may well have been in part a feminist act, that you know, no man, or no one else, could tell me what I could do about my body.
Nahanni: Sue described the decision to stop straightening her hair as one of the most liberating moments of her life. But what’s really behind this drive so many women have to beat their curly hair into submission?
Judith: I see it as part of this whole sense of taking up space. When you think about all the words that are used to describe curly hair— like, unruly and uncontrolled.
Nahanni: I’ve heard women described their hair as schizophrenic, crazy, big, free-spirited, untamed, and even that their hair doesn’t listen.
Judith: They’re words that are also used often negatively to sort of discipline women, and try to reign women in. And I think those are also kind of stereotypes of Jewish women… that we’re loud, we take up too much space, we’re aggressive, you know, unmanageable… when you think of all of these words that can be applied to hair and also to women.
Nahanni: In Judith’s research on Jewish women and feminism, she found that many Jewish women stopped straightening their hair in the 1960s. They were inspired by the counterculture and the Black Pride movement and their hair became a point of ethnic pride.
Judith: It was really interesting to see all these women who became feminists saying, well, first I had this moment of feeling really othered as a Jew because I had darker hair, and curly hair, and maybe had a nose that people told me I should get quote unquote fixed… all these things that were sort of defined as unattractive, and that rejecting those conventions was kind of a first step in challenging conventions and then it wasn’t such a big step to also add the feminist lens to that and say not only is this an act of ethnic pride, but these are expectations and beauty norms that affect all women in various ways. There was a kind of this dovetailing of the Jewish experience and the feminist consciousness.
Nahnni: There’s a story that was passed around feminist circles in the 1960s.. That FBI agents were taught to recognize feminists by their masculine clothes and frizzy hair. It’s probably apocryphal, but back then, big hair wasn’t just in style, it made a political statement.
Jaclyn: For me, when I think about having hair pride, it is very ethnic, sort of tribal. But also makes me think about discovering, in my twenties, that like maybe I should be shopping for the black girl products, and nobody told me. I think that there’s a certain… well, there’s a certain racism in that, right? That like, it was too taboo in my family… you know, again, my mother had a fro at one point in the 70s, like a big fro, but nobody said to me like we have this in common with women of color.
Judith: I definitely have friends who in college discovered black hair products and were like, finally! and whose parents, or moms in this case mostly, were a little disturbed by it and were like, but that’s not for you. I think it’s part of the investment the Jewish community has had in claiming whiteness.
Nahanni: Does our obsession with hair date back to a time when Jews needed desperately to assimilate in white America? Women in Sue Dorn’s generation spent hours making their hair look less ethnic, and now more and more women are letting their curls go free. Tara points out that’s reflected in popular culture.
Tara: Now is kind of an amazing time at least on TV... I mean, on Broad City, there’s Ilana Glazer, with her big curly hair. And she’s identified as funny and sexy and clearly one of two leads in this show… and it still feels radical to be able to turn on Comedy Central and see this young woman with this hair!
Nahanni: There’s also Jenny Slate who has, as Tara calls it, “big Jewish hair.” And who could forget Sarah Jessica Parker, with her curly hair, in the ambiguously Jewish role of Carrie on Sex and the City.
Tara: But there is that amazing episode where she meets Big’s new girlfriend Natasha.
Nahanni: Big is Carrie’s ex.
Tara: And Natasha has very sleek straight hair. You know, she’s everything Carrie’s not. Carrie is messy and crazy and loud and brash and that is represented by her hair. And Natasha is polite and controlled and Carrie feels like this short little mess with her hair.
Judith: But the great thing is that what she uses to encapsulate that moment is a comparison to The Way We Were...
Nahanni: Which came out in 1973. Here’s the scene from Sex and the City where Carrie and her friends are talking about the movie.
Clip from Sex and the City, Carrie: Robert Redford is madly in love with Barbara Streisand… Catie. C-c-c-Catie. Oh, C-c-c-Catie, right. Yeah, but he can’t be with her because she’s too complicated, and she has wild, curly hair. Hello, c-c-c-curly!? Yeah?
Nahanni: Carrie’s waving her own long blond curls.
Clip from Sex and the City, Carrie: So he leaves her and marries this simple girl, with straight hair. Ladies, I am having an epiphany. The world is made up of two types of women. The simple girls, and the Catie girls. I am a Catie girl, and where are our drinks??
Jaclyn: Oh my God... That gives me every feeling. It’s been a little while since I’ve been dating, but so many people have bailed on me because I’m too complicated.. And I identify my hair with that in exactly that way, it’s just like a symbol of all those characteristics that I love about myself but are also difficult in the world.
Judith: To me what that story is really about and what the hair signifies is the political narrative of that movie, which is about Catie, who is an activist and a socialist and wants to fight against McCarthyism, and Hubble who is conventional and doesn’t want to rock the boat and ultimately can’t be with someone who causes that much trouble.
Nahanni: Here’s Robert Redford as Hubble during the break-up scene with Catie, played by Barbara Streisand.
Clip from The Way We Were, Hubble: You’re so ready to fight you don’t have time to understand anything. Counter-attack, politics, revolution, cause. That’s fine. It’s all fine, for you, so do it, stay with it. I admire it.
Clip from The Way We Were, Catie: Up to a point.
Clip from The Way We Were, Hubble: That’s right! Up to a point.
Clip from The Way We Were, Catie: Ok, ok, don’t belabor it. I get it. I get it.
Judith: Ultimately, Hubble ends up with some beautiful WASPY woman and Catie ends up with someone we don’t see, but we hear his name and we know he’s Jewish and is an organizer, and that’s the right kind of person for her. But in the Sex and the City version, the politics gets totally erased and written out and it’s just about are you curly-haired or straight-haired. But in The Way We Were, curly is a signifier for all those other ways that Barbara Streisand’s character doesn’t fit into the conventional norm of the period. It’s about her Jewishness and her hair and her nose and her politics. And that piece somehow doesn’t translate into Sex and the City, no surprise, but I think is part of this whole conversation about what Jewish hair represents... like it represents all the ways that Jewish women challenge the norm and some of that is really deep stuff around politics beyond the politics of hair.
Nahanni: Curls do more than just frame the face; they’re layered with historical significance. Curly hair may be a great metaphor for the tangled, not-so-neatly-tied-up categories of race, ethnicity, gender, and politics that make up our identity. Does this help explain the popularity of the “What is Jewish Hair” blog post? I’m not sure. Maybe people really are just desperate to control the frizz.
Nahanni: Thank you for joining Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Engagement Director Tara Metal joined me for this roundtable discussion on the cult of Jewish hair, along with writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman. You also heard the voices of Ariela Mortkowitz, Emily Gasoi. and Sue Dorn. Ibby Caputo edited the script and our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Special thanks this month to Rabbi Or Rose.
Nahanni: Can We Talk? is taking a summer hiatus and will be back in September. If you miss us, you can find all our archived episodes online at jwa.org/canwetalk or on iTunes or Stitcher. Don’t forget to subscribe, review us on iTunes, and make a donation. I’m Nahanni Rous… Have a great summer.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 5: “Jewish Hair” (Transcript)." (Viewed on June 23, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-5-jewish-hair/transcript>.