In May 2004, a group of ultra-Orthodox men lit open pyres in the streets of Brooklyn and discarded a number of women’s wigs. This auto-da-fé had its origins in an opinion expressed by Israeli Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, 94 at the time, according to whom part of the Indian hair used to make wigs was bought in Hindu temples where pilgrims went to have their hair shaved and offered as a sacrifice to a Hindu deity. The hair in question could be the product of an act of idolatry. He declared the Indian hair was not kosher and that the wigs should be burnt.
This decision had unexpected effects on the Orthodox Jewish wig economy. This object, both religious and cosmetic, is at the heart of an international consortium of suppliers, designers, manufacturers, sellers, and buyers whose profits amount to millions of dollars annually. From the moment Orthodox rabbis allowed wigs to be more beautiful and comfortable, accentuating the female bearer, wig shows multiplied in New York, London, Melbourne, or B’nei Brak. Brides-to-be chose their first sheitel, while other customers searched for inspiration for a new look by changing their haircut, getting highlights, or going blonde. A world of possibilities, but not cheap: wigs made of natural (human) hair cost at least two thousand dollars. And the most sought after? Indian hair. One of the most important suppliers of Indian hair for the wig industry is the Temple of Venkatesvara, near the city of Tirupati in the south of India.
This temple earns more than six million dollars a year from the sale of hair. This is because many Hindu pilgrims go there to honour the divinity. On arrival, they have their hair shaved before going to the shrine to worship the image of Venkatesvara.
This is precisely where the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Hindu rite by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis lies. As Benjamin Fleming and Annette Yoshiko Reed explain in a fascinating article entitled “Hindu Hair and Jewish Halacha” (2011), pilgrims do not offer their hair to the deity as a sacrifice or gift. It’s rather a “mokku”, a preparatory ceremony that takes place in a dedicated building, where hairdressers sit on the floor. Once shaved, pilgrims perform further washing and purification rituals before being allowed to enter the sanctuary and experience a moment of spiritual elevation. The fate of their hair is of little importance to them, quite the contrary: it must be removed just like other impurities. Hair is collected and taken to a remote warehouse where it is put into large burlap sacks and sent to factories where it is processed into high-end wigs. The hair is therefore not an offering, nor can it be considered as partaking in a rite of idolatry. Moreover, Hinduism is a completely foreign religion to the Orthodox rabbis, who view Christianity and Islam as references to “other” religions. Thus, Rabbi Elyashiv’s statement reflects a complete lack of knowledge of Hindu rituals and beliefs: a preparatory purification ritual has nothing to do with an offering (puja) or the worship of a divine image (darshana).
One must therefore look to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to understand that it remains an issue of power, identity, and gender relations. To combat the spread of the latest fashionable wigs, which are beautifully made and cost an arm and a leg, the rabbis accused “the other”, the supplier, of idolatry. An accusation that holds no water upon further research. However, more than fifteen years after the public auto-da-fés, some haredim rabbis continue to demand the prohibition of wigs made from natural hair in favour of 100% synthetic ones. They claim that it’s impossible to be completely sure of the origin of human hair. This would therefore fall into the same category as the “traceability” of meat and the “search for the origin” of looted paintings.
At the other end of the chain are saleswomen and designers of wigs destined for Orthodox women. They have made natural hair a powerful argument for sales, as expressed in online forums and videos: “Super soft hair! You look beautiful!” A way to justify the several-thousand-dollar price tag.
Once again, in this debate, men in power are making decisions that affect women with very little personal freedom. For some Orthodox feminists, the decision taken by Jerusalem is to prevent women from being too beautiful. The rules of modesty must be revised, banning natural hair, as well as overly long wigs, nail polish, and jeans skirts. These are all injunctions to maintain control over women. For many wig consultants and designers, a beautiful accessory represents quite the contrary: an incentive to joyfully live the mitsva of covering one’s hair after the wedding. This important act of passage acquires an additional spiritual dimension when combined with aesthetic considerations. In any case, the discussion among women is not over yet. Certain sites, such as tznius.tips, have decided to censor the subject “to speed up the coming of the Messiah in our time”. Others offer hit parades of wig shows (shaytell.com) or advice on how to sell or buy used wigs (imamother.com).
Alternatives to Indian wigs are emerging. First of all, there is a return to synthetic wigs, which satisfies everyone—along with their wallets. So much for aesthetics, along with the latest fashion trends gracing the pages of Vogue magazine. And then there are the other channels, Russian and Chinese, which “ensure” the traceability of natural, “European” or “not Indian” hair – in other words, kosher. Just contact Cindy, Alice, or Wendy in Shanghai via WhatsApp, specify the desired colour and style, send 400 dollars via PayPaland receive your wig via FedEx. The circle of globalisation is complete.