A few weeks ago I found myself spellbound while watching "Girl With a Pearl Earring." This film, based on the excellent Tracy Chevalier novel, is a fictional account of the history behind Vermeer's famous painting of the same name.
The novel revolves around a servant girl, Grete, who became a secret assistant to the painter in his studio. In one scene, Vermeer accidentally glimpses Grete with her hair uncovered. The moment is electric. Grete, like all women of her social station, covered her hair at all times. It was as if Vermeer had caught her unclothed.
It was odd to feel such a kinship with a fictional character, and one who lived in the 17th century at that. But, like Grete, I also keep my hair covered in front of all but family members.
Over the years, I have begun to feel that my hair is a very private part of me. Revealing it has become an almost intimate act.
I never expected to feel this way. Years ago, I wrestled with the idea of living an Orthodox life. It was the most defining and difficult spiritual struggle of my life, and one that was not made quickly. While I was captivated with the timeless truths of the Torah, I insisted that I could never fulfill the mitzvah of covering my hair after I married.
The Torah considers a woman's hair part of her crowning beauty. Covering it after marriage symbolizes not only the woman's modesty but also her exclusive relationship with her husband.
For a long time I considered this idea to be repressive and anti-feminist, and could not make peace with it. But I had a problem: In my new circle of Orthodox acquaintances I kept meeting Orthodox married women, bewigged or wearing scarves or hats, who failed to match my unflattering stereotype of the Jewish Stepford wife. These women were intelligent, highly educated and lively. Almost none had grown up Orthodox, so I couldn't claim they were covering up their locks by rote. Nearly all were baalei teshuva, or returnees to the faith, and they had chosen this spiritually rich lifestyle despite myriad available choices.
Even after I married and adhered to most Orthodox standards, I did not cover my hair. I wanted to want to do it, but I couldn't bring myself to take on this monumental obligation. I attended lectures about hair covering, but left depressed because I had not found the beauty or inspiration I had sought. What did everyone else see in this that I could not see?
However, I no longer viewed the idea of hair covering as repressive, since Jewish men, both single and married, also wear garments that remind them of their unique obligations as Jews: the kippah on their heads and the four-cornered tzitzit under their shirts. I had learned enough by then to understand that these guidelines were designed to help us incorporate spiritual awareness into the physical aspects of our lives, including how we dress.
Eventually, I began covering my hair to set a good example for my sons.
After all, how could I expect them to make blessings before and after eating, wear their little kippot and perform other mitzvot, when I failed to uphold such an obvious one?
Still, it remained a struggle. I vainly missed compliments about my hair's beauty. I missed feeling the wind in my hair. Still searching for meaning behind the practice, I continued to drill friends about their feelings about it. When one friend said that covering her hair made her feel special, like royalty, something finally clicked. Jews are supposed to be God's chosen people and should dress the part. Stylish, modest clothing and head coverings did the trick for her. I liked this idea of hair covering making me special.
These days, when women and girls bare so much skin in public, I know that my manner of dress makes me something of an oddity. Looking at me in my long skirt, mid-sleeve blouse, and hat or beret on my head, many can instantly identify me as an Orthodox Jew.
I like being marked this way. I appreciate how the Torah has taught me to resist the ordinary and the faddish in an effort to become exemplary. My modest attire and hair covering remind me that I must always separate the private from the public. My body, including my hair, is private. I've also been heartened by the book, "Hide & Seek," an anthology of essays about hair covering, edited by Lynne Schreiber (Urim Publications, 2003). The writers in this book are an eclectic group of Jewish women -- not all of them Orthodox -- who came to the decision to cover their hair in many ways, some of them unexpected and dramatic. Reading these women's stories, including their struggles with a mitzvah that they find both important yet difficult, I realized I had more company than I would have expected.
When Vermeer saw Grete's beautiful, naked locks, it added a level of intimacy to their relationship. It took me years to realize this, but eventually, I found that reserving my hair only for the closest of family members -- and especially for my husband -- has done the same for me, too.
Judy Gruen is a columnist for Religion News Service and an award-winning author of two humor books. Read more of her columns at www.judygruen.com.