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Hair, Headwear, and Orthodox Jewish Women

Hair, Headwear, and Orthodox Jewish Women comments on hair covering based on an ethnographic study of the lives of Orthodox Jewish women in a small non-metropolitan synagogue. It brings the often overlooked stories of these women to the forefront and probes questions as to how their location in a small community affects their behavioral choices, particularly regarding the folk practice of hair covering. A kallah, or bride, makes the decision as to whether or not she will cover her hair after marriage. In doing so, she externally announces her religious affiliation, in particular her commitment to maintaining an Orthodox Jewish home. Hair covering practices are also unique to women's traditions and point out the importance of examining the women, especially because their cultural roles may be marginalized in studies as a result of their lack of a central role in worship. This study questions their contribution to Orthodoxy as well as their concept of Jewish identity and the ways in which they negotiate this identity with ritualized and traditional behavior, ultimately bringing into question the meaning of tradition in a modern world.
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Table of Contents

Prologue Chapter 1: A Hairy Subject: Approaches to Hair and Hair Covering Chapter 2: Covering Jewish Women: The Congregational Context Chapter 3: Splitting Hairs: The Struggle for Community Definition in a Small Town Orthodox Synagogue Chapter 4: Wearing Many Hats: The Hair Covering Practices of the Orthodox Jewish Women at Degel Israel Synagogue Chapter 5: Letting Their Hair Down: Orthodox Women at Degel Israel Synagogue Who Choose Not to Cover Their Hair Chapter 6: Flipping Their Wigs for Judaism: Non-Orthodox Women Who Choose to Cover Their Heads Chapter 7: The Long and Short of It: A Psychoreligious Interpretation of Hair Covering Epilogue

About the Author

Amy K. Milligan teaches women and gender studies at Elizabethtown College. Her research concentrates on the overlap of gender and sexuality with religion.


Orthodox Judaism is generally considered patriarchal and male dominated, but this insightful study on the symbolic tradition of Jewish women covering their hair reveals that under certain circumstances, Jewish women have been able to co-opt tradition and thus empower themselves. Ethnographer Milligan focuses on a small, widely divergent Orthodox community (Degel Israel Congregation) in Lancaster, PA, and for comparison, a few unconventional Jewish women unaffiliated but with other communities. She provides a myriad of complex choices these women made on whether to cover their hair and, if they did, what they wore and how, when, and why they did it. She also discovered that from a psycho-religious perspective, head covering and hair covering are not synonymous; however, both may provide the means for self-identity. Milligan found that tradition and family history rather than Jewish law (halakah) were usually the basis for female head covering choices in what she describes as an Orthodox community of practice involving learning, observance, and experience. As the novel The Red Tent (1997), by Anita Diamant, depicted little-known Jewish women's roles in biblical times, so this intriguing, factual work provides many subtleties within Judaism as practiced by women in the contemporary US. A five-page glossary of mostly Hebrew and Yiddish terms is also helpful. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. CHOICE Hair, Headwear, and Orthodox Jewish Women: Kallah's Choice is an important contribution to the fields of Jewish studies, gender studies, and American studies. Through her multi-disciplinary approach, Milligan reveals the symbolic power of hair and hair covering as a tool for negotiating the complexity of Jewish identity among Jewish women in small-town America. While hair covering is often read as a repressive practice in traditional communities, Milligan shows how the choice to cover or not to cover one's hair is perceived among the women she interviews as an expression of power to define their own status in a complicated religious landscape. This very readable ethnography is complemented by a careful analysis that draws on a wide range of theoretical tools, including insights from gender studies, cultural psychoanalysis, anthropology, and American studies. -- Andrea Lieber, Dickinson College In this brilliant ethnography, Amy Milligan lets us listen in to personal conversations and see women in and out of worship to ask a profound question about the maintenance of tradition in a non-traditional environment. She opens doors to places we have not looked before-beneath hair coverings and in women's study groups-to make us reassess the meaning not only of orthodox practice, but of identity driven by women's worldview. Her groundbreaking book on a hairy subject will surely change the way we think, and talk about, not just Jews but the expressive body of tradition. -- Simon J. Bronner, Pennsylvania State University

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