In recent weeks, it has become fashionable to suggest that we should all wear a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim women who wear them. One school even held a “Walk in Mile in Her Hijab” Day. Multiple people on Facebook suggested that my girls and I should join in and put one on. The Room for Debate section of the New York Times recently joined the fray when it asked readers if efforts like this one by non-Muslims hurt or help.
I don’t know what anyone else will, or will not, do. I know what I will do. I will not shove my head under a sheitel and cover my hair. I won’t be putting on a headscarf or a tichel of any kind. The headscarf is not an alien custom to Jews. Despite the fact that I’ve yet to see any non-Jews suggest people don a tichel in solidarity with Jewish victims of terror, many Jewish women, like many Muslim women, cover their hair. When I think about the headscarf or the tichel, I think about a lot of things. I think about how good it feels to have a bare head on a warm day, about my own hair with the hint of auburn that I inherited from my redheaded grandmother, about my eldest daughter and her beautiful curly Jew-fro.
Most of all, I think about my own great-grandmothers.
My late mother had two grandmothers. Grandma Sarah came to America in her teens from Europe and married early. She bore three kids, including my Grandma Ida, and spent most of her life in the kitchen. My late mom knew her intimately, because it was Grandma Sarah who raised her. The Sarah I never knew was the Sarah who taught my mom fluent Yiddish, created the perfect matzah ball for her soup, and served her little granddaughter a batch of cookies each afternoon in their Bronx townhouse. Grandma Sarah shaved her head after she married my Grandfather, and wore a scarf that covered her bare head every day of her life.
Then there was my mother’s other grandmother, Grandma Szerena. Like Grandma Sarah, Grandmother Szerena grew up in an observant Jewish household in Europe. She left Europe, taking her brave voyage on the Carpathia, the ship that would later gain fame as the boat that rescued many Titanic passengers. Grandma Sarah also married. Her husband, my great-grandfather Paul, would become my mom Paula’s namesake. I also never met her, as she died about two years before I came into the world.
But unlike my great-grandmother, Szerena decided this was America, and she was not living in Europe anymore. My mom told me she wore no sheitel or tichel. She threw it off when she got here as a symbol of the old world she had escaped. For the rest of her life, she wore her hair long, and she wore nothing on top of it, not even a headscarf. My great-grandfather Paul died early. Szerena had five kids to support. So she did. She went back into the workforce and made enough money to buy a house, and retire to Florida.
My mom loved both of her grandmothers. But it was her grandmother Szerena–funny, feisty, earthy, irreligious–that she probably admired more. Like Szerena, my mom didn’t wear a headscarf. At my mom’s wedding, grandma Szerena told her it was her hair, not her husband’s.
I won’t be donning the tichel either. The only thing that goes on my head is the occasional hat when it’s cold outside. Wear one if you must, or if you like. My hair is my own. I will not be covering it in the name of modesty or solidarity with anyone, or adherence to some Jewish customs. I will not ask my girls to put on the headscarf my own great-grandmother shoved off.
This is my America, an America of deep secular values, and not only freedom of religion but freedom from religion. My girls and I (and the eldest I named Serena to the delight of my mom) will also wear our hair long. We prefer the vision my great-grandmother had, of a nation she joined with great happiness where you could throw the tichel in the trash, and no one would demand you put it back on.
Let’s not bully anyone. Let no one feel shamed in this free country, because of what she chooses to do with her hair. That’s their choice, and if done voluntarily, I respect it. But let’s also honor this great country by also refusing to shame anyone who will not cover her hair, and chooses to be an American in this way. Both my grandmother Sarah and my grandmother Szerena deserve a place at our American table.