Being Jewish when you’re not religious is a complicated business, especially if you weren’t raised in the faith, like myself. People sometimes find my heritage a matter of curiosity, and it’s usually when they ask about my hair.
“But you look kind of exotic, where are you from?”
“Your hair, it’s so dark isn’t it?”
Some people expect me to have a scholarly knowledge of the Old Testament. Others exclaim, “Oh my god, you’re Jewish? Do you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm?” Seriously.
But if asked how I relate to my Jewishness, it would be mainly through my hair. ‘Jewish hair’ is a tricky thing to define, since Judaism can include people from any racial or ethnic background. But in general it seems to refer to dark, curly and often frizzy hair – and mine definitely fits that bill.
Now, it must be said that most white Jewish women aren’t woefully under-catered for by the beauty industry – yet our hair is sometimes a tool of self-deprecation. Many of us affectionately bemoan our unruly Jewish manes and while Jewish men like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill can embrace their stereotypical Jewish hair in all its glory, women have fewer role models to aspire to (Baby in Dirty Dancing and Dorian from Birds of a Feather notwithstanding).
At school, my jet black hair made me ‘different’ from my mainly blonde or light brown-haired classmates. And yes, my school was very white. I always felt slightly other and not particularly pretty. I didn’t grow up in a typically Jewish area like Essex or Manchester or northwest London. Instead my mum, grandma and me lived in a two-bedroom ex-council flat just outside the M25. In the living room stood a giant three-piece suite in crushed grey velvet with chrome armrests. As with most of our furniture, it was a hand-me-down from my uncle, who had done well for himself and could afford fancy stuff. It was a tad too big for the room but then everything my family did was a little larger than life – and that included our hair.
I brushed off this collective obsession with hair as an eccentric family quirk. But I grew to realise it went deeper than that. Beauty rituals are important in Jewish culture; a show of defiance.
My grandma dyed her white lengths a vibrant shade of auburn courtesy of Nice ‘n Easy, then cut them into short feathered layers à la Princess Diana. My mum’s hair mirrored Demi Moore’s, from the Indecent Proposal glossy bob to the pixie cut in Ghost. Hours would be spent combing and primping and curling, dyeing, spraying, teasing and blow-drying, even if we weren’t going anywhere special. While my friends’ houses smelled of dogs and cooking, our flat smelled of L’Oréal Elnett and Clinique Aromatics. When it came to holidays, Brighton was about as exotic as it got, but we never scrimped on our beauty and hair regimes.
I wore my black hair in two polished pigtails which my grandma would tie with red ribbons – according to her, an Ashkenazi superstition to ward off the evil eye. Her way of showing affection towards me was to grab a chunk of my hair and lovingly gush, in her mix of English and Yiddish, “This hair! Keinehora!” before making a spitting sound three times, a Jewish superstition for good luck.
For a while I brushed off this collective obsession with hair as an eccentric family quirk. But I grew to realise it went deeper than that. In general, beauty rituals are important in Jewish culture. This may appear superficial on the surface but I see it as a show of defiance. While my hot-tempered mother and grandmother were busy arguing with shop managers, rowing with teachers, or occasionally picking fights with grown men in the street, those heavily lacquered hairdos never fell out of place.
Many women use beauty and hair as armour, not least Jewish women who, to put it lightly, have struggled throughout history. In her brilliant family biography House of Glass, Hadley Freeman vividly describes her Parisian-Jewish grandmother Sara, who fled to the US via an unhappy marriage to escape Nazi-occupied France. She talks about how unfailingly glamorous Sara was, despite how wretchedly sad her life must have been. Looking at photos of my great aunt, the daughter of refugees living in London during WWII, you would never know how chaotic and precarious things were, judging by the smirk on her pillar-box red mouth and her hair (black and wavy like mine) arranged in perfect victory rolls.
Many Jewish women use hair as armour. Looking at photos of my great aunt during WWII, you would never know how chaotic and precarious things were, judging by her hair arranged in perfect victory rolls.
Elsewhere throughout history, the Jewish community has produced many doyennes of the beauty industry, such as Estée Lauder, Helena Rubinstein and Terry de Gunzburg of By Terry. Their polished outward appearances (not least their hair) matched their shrewd business acumen. Trailblazing women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem famously wore her trademark glossy locks tumbling loose around her shoulders, proving that beauty and feminism could coexist.
Many of us see our hair as synonymous with chutzpah, a self-confidence. As I grew older, I dutifully followed in my relatives’ footsteps in my devotion to this school of thought. Over the years (and being lucky enough to work in the beauty industry) my haircare regime has mirrored that of a duchess, even if dinner came out of a can and the rest of my day was spent chasing invoices or begging my landlord to fix the leaky ceiling.
As anyone with curly or textured hair knows, washing it is an event that takes time and planning. Like many things in life, it can be great fun if you’re in the right mood but at the end of a long day, you’d rather just watch The Crown. Washing, masking, drying, combing and styling takes a good few hours, two or three times a week. But over the years I’ve got my routine down to a slick art form: I shampoo with Natur Vital Bio Strengthening Shampoo, £8.95, then it’s 10 minutes of Dizziak Deep Conditioner, £22. When my hair is damp, I smooth on Kiya’s Lavender Whip Shea Butter, £7.99, and let it air-dry. I follow with a mist of trusty Elnett Hairspray, £6.70.
I am not particularly religious and probably never will be. But when it comes to my colourful Jewish background and culture, I’m determined to carry the spirit of the Levy women with me for the rest of my life and that means channelling their grit and wicked sense of humour. And, of course, their high-maintenance hair.
Refinery29’s selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission. Transparency is important to us at Refinery29, if you have any questions please reach out to us.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?