In the first episode of Unorthodox, Esti Shapiro trudges into a lake and plunks her wig in the water. In Disobedience, Rachel McAdams’ wig is whisked off in a flurry of lesbian romance. In My Unorthodox Life, Julia Haart attests to no longer wearing a wig, but her perfectly coiffed, unmoving hair threatens to betray her (it’s definitely the extensions).
The sheitel, or wig, captivates the imagination of audiences. Youtube is full of content featuring curious folks like Oprah popping into Brooklyn sheitel shops, marvelling at the walls of chestnut bobs and the freshly blown-out barrel curls of their hosts. Instagram influencers tag their sheitels on the grid. Tiktok users flood the comments of frum women, asking, “why are you covering your hair with hair?!”
Despite what dramatizations about frum ladies will have you believe, more young women are covering their hair than the previous generation, and they’re coming up with innovative, halachically informed ways of doing it – without trumping their personal style or sense of self.
When an Orthodox Jewish woman gets married, Jewish law stipulates that she should cover her hair. Exactly how her hair should be covered is a question in itself. Scarves, hats, and wigs are common, but how does she know what’s right for her?
“There’s a big debate,” Rabbanit Leah Sarna told me. Rabbanit Sarna is an expert in halacha and the associate director of the Drisha Institute, a center for women’s advanced study of Jewish texts. “Rav Ovadia Yosef felt that sheitels are not an appropriate way to cover your hair, and that actually scarves and hats are what people need to be wearing – as opposed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who felt that sheitels were the ideal way that a person should cover.”
With so many options, are women really that eager to cast away the practice? Esti Shapiro didn’t lob her bob into a lake for no reason – it symbolized her freedom from an oppressive world and a rigid lifestyle. Of course, there’s more to it.
Mandy Getz, a young mom who creates content on TikTok under the moniker ForJewPage, understands that hair covering is a fraught topic. “The whole situation brings a lot of controversy with the wig looking exactly like real hair,” she said. She stressed to me that covering isn’t about hair being too sexy, or being controlled and oppressed, adding, “When people say this I get so angry. Like, what do you mean?! Should we be ashamed we have hair?”
The decision to cover isn’t always taken lightly. Most women admit that it’s difficult to go from one day with their hair uncovered to covering it the next day – forever. Mandy pokes fun at sheitels in her content all the time, joking about whipping her sheitel at strangers or throwing it on in a rush. There are myriad factors that play into covering, like community, level of observance, family, and physical comfort. In turn, there are countless styles to choose from – some obvious, and some totally discreet.
Every mitzvah is beautiful, but it comes with weight and effort. For those of us who struggle with certain mitzvot, it’s inspiring to watch other people reconcile their observance with the demands of the modern world. Between cycling trends, shifting beauty standards, and dizzying social pressure, waking up every day and choosing to do this one thing seems like a feat on its own.
“Feeling beautiful in how you dress is really important,” Rabbanit Sarna tells me. “In considering all the other elements that play a role in how you cover your hair, feeling beautiful is also cultural.” She pointed out that while some Modern Orthodox women in Israel wear ornate, voluminous mitpachat, it’s uncommon to see them in the diaspora.
“There’s a real cultural piece of, could I imagine myself walking down the street in this, and would that feel beautiful to me?” she says.
It’s no surprise that the most traditional styles of sheitel don’t work for everyone – but a lot of women still want to take ownership of this mitzvah. They just don’t want their wigs to look wiggy.
“The hardest part of your sheitel is the front. That’s where you can always tell whether it’s someone’s actual hair or not.” Rabbanit Sarna says. You might be familiar with the band fall, a popular style of wig with a hard front that’s often covered by a headband or a hat. A kippah fall takes this a step further: “The front of your hair is your actual hair and the fall matches your hair perfectly, and you wear your hair down underneath.”
Meira Weiser Statman is the cofounder of Kippah Falls Direct, a sheitel boutique with a fiercely loyal consumer base and one of the most popular distributors of custom-made kippah falls in the world. After spotting her work over and over on Instagram, I reached out to ask her about her product and why women choose hairpieces that look extremely natural.
“When you see your own scalp showing in front, where you just pull your hair over it and show your part in the front, nobody can really tell it’s a wig.” She told me. “So it’s kind of like that private thing that they want to know they’re doing. I think of it as being between them and God – nobody needs to know.”
According to Rabbanit Sarna, one of the determinant factors in head covering is the concept of Dat Yehudit, the ways of Jewish women. “There are so many ways of understanding what this concept of Dat Yehudit is. And that’s what gives rise to all these different practices,” she says, adding, “Does that mean the ways of Jewish women for all time? Does that mean the ways of Jewish women within a three-block radius of me? Is it contextual based on what’s the standard practice in America?” It could be argued that if the practice is commonplace enough, it sufficiently encapsulates the ways of Jewish women.
A generation ago, fewer Modern Orthodox women covered their hair outside the home. The kippah fall is a recent response to a new generation of women who want to cover, which Sarna attributes to “an explosion of Torah education.” Most young Modern Orthodox women have spent a year in seminary before college, while few women in their mothers’ generation did. “We went to Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist seminaries and got this phenomenal Talmud education there. There’s a reclamation of ownership over Jewish texts that didn’t used to exist. Hair covering is one of the most obvious places generational divides play out.”
The religious world isn’t immune to trends, either. Meira thinks we’re trending away from hats. – “Certainly a hat for every outfit, which was very ‘in’ 15-20 years ago, isn’t as in style anymore. That’s why people who don’t usually cover their hair are even coming to buy a piece for shul so they can be covered – for me that’s always surprising, and it’s more and more and more.”
Despite the reclamation of text, tradition, and tresses, sheitels are still controversial in and out of the Orthodox world. Flyers distributed in Monsey and Lakewood called for families to “Erase the lace,” declaring full-coverage lace front wigs assur. “If you’re married, look the part,” one flyer implored women. Nevertheless, new styles persist.
“At the end of the day everyone makes judgements constantly,” Mandy says. “Whether it’s your clothes, how smart you are, or your religious level. Keep reminding yourself that no one knows you better than you know yourself.”
Every woman I spoke to emphasized that choosing to cover is complex.
“I know it’s such a Gen Z word, but whatever. It’s fluid,” Meira says. “You could start this way and decide it’s not enough for you. You could stop covering your hair, or you could come back to it.” A lot of women who struggle with hair covering still want to stay in the game, making it work for their needs. “It’s going to change over the course of your married life. It doesn’t have to be one thing.”
When Orthodoxy is formatted for public consumption, women are reduced to tropes that rarely centre on finding power, comfort, or meaning in their religious lives. In response to series like My Unorthodox Life, frum women took to social media to share stories and anecdotes about their Orthodox lives – balancing work, families, tradition, and Torah education.
But still, what isn’t visible in a hashtag, and often unrecognizable to others, are the deeply nuanced and ongoing personal journeys that women take to carry forward tradition.
Jesse Martin-Miller is a Canadian writer and blogger who lives for Friday night dinner.