The women in my family have thick, wavy hair. My great-grandmother Hinda and her daughters all had it (see the photo at the head of this blog). In fact, in Aunt Pat’s notes (probably dictated from a conversation with Auntie Nunia), Sarah was identified by her “beautiful hair,” and Rachel by her “thick, thick hair.” When I was a child, Babcia and Auntie Nunia wore their long silver locks in buns piled high on their heads; I now know from photos that their sisters Liba, Sarah, and Rachel did the same.
I remember watching as Babcia let down her hair at night, and brushed it until it formed an undulating frame around her that extended past her waist. Then she plaited it into two braids. During the day, she wound the braids around her head and held them in place with pins and a hair net.
I can’t remember exactly when this was. Could it have been in Puerto Rico when I was five? That seems too early, but I think I was still a child. She kept her hair long until it got too difficult for her to lift her arms and pin it back. Cut short, her hair made a curly silver halo around her face.
My mama inherited this wavy hair, only she wore it differently. She favored a blunt cut to the shoulders, with long straight bangs across her forehead. The bangs were styled to cover the the uneven discolored surface that grew back after the skin of her forehead was removed to use in the reconstruction of her nose. While she couldn’t hide the imperfect nose left by numerous failed surgeries, she could use her hair to hide the scars on her forehead. But it was a struggle. Left to itself, her hair curled in different directions. What she longed for was an even, thick curtain that would lie flat across the terrain she sought to conceal.
Over the years, she developed a technique where she would tie a scarf around her wet head so the bangs would dry in place. She joked it made her look like an Indian. The struggle didn’t end there. To protect against the wind exposing her scars, she held her bangs in place with hats—when I was younger she favored berets, an exotic but elegant choice that stood out in suburban Long Island.
Even as she battled her wayward locks, I admired Mama’s soft waves. I liked to stroke her head, and wished my light stringy hair were more like hers. Luckily, when I grew older, my hair became darker, and along with it, thicker and more curly. On a good day, I might have waves like Veronica Lake, or even sometimes ringlets.
I’ve almost always worn my own hair long. Only once, right after my brother Ron died, I cut it short. So short I looked like a boy. Perhaps it was an act of mourning. Definitely, I was motivated by the desire for a radical change. I was just a few months away from beginning my dissertation fieldwork in Poland. Short hair was liberating. It dried almost instantly, and didn’t even need combing. When it grew just a bit longer, it curled around my face much as my grandmother’s had. But still, I didn’t like it and have never cut it short again.
When I first started looking into my Jewish heritage, I told a good friend about what I was learning. Before then, he hadn’t known; it wasn’t something I had talked about with anyone, really. At some point in the conversation, he remarked that I have Jewish hair. Surprised, I asked what he means. He described my hair as wavy (though he might even have said frizzy) and coarse. This unsettled me. I have often returned to this moment, and tried to understand why. Perhaps it’s as simple as hearing something I love about myself described negatively (who wants to have coarse hair?) But it’s more than that. I like my freckles, too, and when people have encouraged me to try to hide them I’ve only been amused. So maybe my uneasiness has something to do with being stereotyped, or maybe even with stereotypes in general.
Nevertheless, this idea of Jewish hair has continued to bother me. I spent a lot of time on the trams in Poland inspecting everyone’s hair. Sure enough, it seems that most Poles have straight, thin hair. So could there be something to this idea that my curls mark me as Jewish? I hate this kind of categorical thinking, though. This is probably the key thing; it may well be that most Poles have straight hair, but many have curly hair, too. Furthermore, maybe my waves come from my Dad’s side of the family. Scots can have wavy hair, as well. In fact, lots of people from many different backgrounds have hair like mine. Genetic inheritance is not as simple as “Jewish hair” suggests.
I hesitate to even write about this because it has the potential to just perpetuate the kind of categorical thinking I want to argue against. I mentioned my hair in a talk I gave at a conference in Poland, and I feel it backfired. Afterwards a couple of people talked to me about “Jewish hair,” trying it out as a new physical trait to assign to a category of people. It left me feeling uneasy.
I’m still trying to sort this all out. I love my hair, and I love that I share it with a long line of women, from my mother to her mother to her mother. I feel richer knowing that I have Jewish roots. But I have a problem with stereotypes, and the lazy way designations like “Jewish hair” can be used to make traits that may well be common in a population into essentialized markers.
So standing in solidarity with all the straight-haired Jews, curly-haired Poles, and everyone else who does and doesn’t fit ethnic stereotypes, I wish you a Happy New Year. May the coming year bring health, happiness, and better understanding regardless of our similarities and differences.