Jewish Journal

Their Crowning Glory

An evening of vignettes examines the often-stormy relationships between women and their hair

by Ellen Jaffe-Gill

May 4, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Long hair -- straight or with a little wave, but definitely not curly -- was de rigueur for young women at Brandeis University in the early '70s, and it was my misfortune, as an 18-year-old sophomore in 1972, to have hair that grew out to the sides, not down. Unless I kept my hair cropped short, my head looked like a mop that had been dipped in dark-brown paint, and given my other physical deficiencies (I was too round and way too tall), I had little chance of social advancement.

Combining a teenager's maturity with the self-esteem of the chronically homely, I put a great deal of effort that fall and winter into trying to remake myself in the image of the desirable Brandeis woman. I lost 20 pounds on the Stillman water diet, starting using eye makeup and blusher, and began wearing skirts to class instead of ripped jeans. During winter break, I took a radical step sure to make me a guy magnet: I bought a wig of long, straight hair.

Suddenly I could do all these things with my hair that I could never do before: braid it, put it in a ponytail, pull it back on either side and fasten it with a barrette. The first time I put on the wig for my mother, she gasped: "You look just like Stephanie!" -- my pretty older cousin, who had a mane of straight dark hair. I ran to the mirror, and sure enough, the wig gave me a closer resemblance to my cousin than I could have dreamed possible.

I wore my new hair back to school and got a lot of compliments -- but no dates. That February I saw the film "The Heartbreak Kid," in which a Jewish guy dumps his new bride to pursue a WASP goddess played by Cybill Shepherd. Realizing that the guys I knew at Brandeis were not interested in a slimmer me with long hair but were probably holding out for Cybill Shepherd, I gave up. I could dye my hair blond and have nine plastic surgeries, but I would never look like Cybill (or get any shorter). I quit wearing the wig and gained back the 20 pounds.

I told this story at Temple Emanuel's Rosh Hodesh gathering last month, right after Jan Lewis, Susan Merson and other representatives of the Jewish Women's Theatre Project presented two segments of its new production, "Hair Pieces: By Women, About Hair," which it will unveil this Sunday at the Gindi Auditorium.

Three of the nine vignettes included in the staged reading are written by and about Jewish women. Merson presents a suburban matron, circa 1970, who changes her life after seeing a production of the musical "Hair"; television scriptwriter Ellen Sandler, in a sketch she told the group is "only somewhat autobiographical," writes of a young woman's years of (artificial) blondness; and Jenna Zark examines the Orthodox woman's relationship with her hair.

Other women at the Rosh Hodesh gathering had stories to tell about their hair that brought up issues of beauty, aging, and assimilation, issues to which most women can relate, regardless of ethnicity. To hear similar stories, told by women across the cultural spectrum -- and to support a unique and important resource of the Los Angeles Jewish arts community -- visit the Gindi on Sunday evening.

The Jewish Women's Theatre Project will present "Hair Pieces: By Women, About Hair," directed by Jan Lewis and produced by Susan Merson, at the Gindi Auditorium, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Dr., 7 p.m., Sunday, May 7. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, $5 for students. Call (323) 871-6817 to order tickets or (310) 440-1246 for credit card orders (no credit cards at the door).

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