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A Reason to Wig Out

by Gaby Wenig

May 20, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Is your hair kosher?

That was the question being debated at a fever pitch this week in ultra-Orthodox circles here following a ruling by an Israeli rabbi saying that wigs made from human hair coming from India could not be worn.

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv said that hair from India, which makes up the tresses in cheaper human hair wigs, probably comes from idol-worshipping temples, where women cut their hair off as part of the service ritual. Since Jews are not allowed to benefit in any way, shape or form from idol worship, wigs that contain Indian hair would have to be destroyed.

The edict, which made the front page of The New York Times last Friday, caused a panic in Haredi circles all over the world: Married women removed their wigs en masse and ventured out in scarves or snoods. Israeli newspapers even reported wig-burning bonfires in communities like B'nai Brak.

In Los Angeles, the subject was a matter of many Shabbat table discussions and classes.

Matti Avidor the proprietor of Fuzzy Navel wig store, said she has received hundreds of phone calls from women wanting to know if their wigs were OK. She said she is waiting for word from the wig companies she deals with about the origins of the hair. She said that the Asian hair is often used in lower priced "blend" wigs, where it s mixed with European hair, which is considered to be finer and silkier than its coarser Asian counterpart.

"It's the middle that's going to be affected," said Avidor, referring to the women who can't afford the high-end European hair wigs, which start at around $1,000 and can cost as much as $5,000. "But I don't think people will stop wearing wigs."

Aside from the obvious religious issues involved, anti-wig forces in the ultra-Orthodox community are using the brouhaha to bolster a century-old argument against the use of wigs.

"This issue touches upon a debate at the heart of haredi life," Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The uproar owes much to the origins of Jewish wig-wearing in the late 19th century, he said. Up until then, only a few upper-class, observant Jewish women wore wigs, while other women covered their hair with hats, kerchiefs or shawls. But a rise in the standard of living, coupled with technological advances that made wig manufacturing more feasible and affordable, resulted in an upsurge in wig-wearing among Orthodox women.

The new ubiquity of wigs presented Orthodox rabbis with a dilemma.

"The goal is that the women will be modest. And how do you do it? With head coverings," Friedman said. "But when the woman is more erotic wearing a particular kind of head covering, that presents a problem."

In Los Angeles, until a final ruling will be made, there has been some change in coiffure. A Pico-Robertson matron told The Journal: "My sister went to a L'chaim [engagement party] last night, and all the women had come in scarves."

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