Chaya nervously navigates the traffic to the Brooklyn Bridge on the rush back to Monsey from our few hours in Borough Park and Crown Heights. Her periodic glances at the GPS should be unnecessary since she’s probably driven this route no less than a thousand times, but I don’t ask. She seems annoyed and there is something about her anger that frightens me.
“You know,” I say, when we’re settled into her candy wrapper-littered minivan for the trip back to Rockland County, “what I am holding in my hand is really just a bag of hair. Somebody else’s hair. Or, rather, it was somebody else’s hair. And now it’s mine.”
Chaya’s face darkens and she mashes her lips together.
“Somewhere in Europe there are women walking around practically bald because a bunch of crazy Jewish ladies needed sheitels.” Now I’m laughing and I can’t help myself. The bandana I’ve been wearing starts to slip back, revealing some of my hair and she glances over at me, glaring.
“You really need to stop wearing those things. The Rebbe says that Jewish women are not allowed to wear scarves of any type. Now that you have a sheitel, you have to wear it all the time. You have no excuse for ever leaving your house without it.”
“What if I’m going running?” I venture. “I can’t wear a wig running.”
“Then you shouldn’t be running. It’s not tznius. And I’m not speaking as your friend. I’m speaking as your mashpia.”
“Chaya, are you kidding me? You expect me to wear somebody else’s hair running? How about hiking?”
“You are a frum woman. A married frum woman. Hashem expects this of you. The Rebbe expects this of you.” She brushes back black hairs from her own wig that have landed in her face and shifts her portly body in her seat as she drives up the FDR. “I am your spiritual mentor and I expect this of you.”
I sigh, feeling a bit too much like a child despite nearing thirty. It feels like it was only yesterday that she was teaching me the laws of taharas hamishpacha. “You should feel Hashem’s presence when you and your husband are having relations,” she had said. “When you are in your bedroom, make sure it’s pitch black. And when he is inside of you, think only of righteous men.”
“What if I can’t think of any?” I had asked.
“Think of the Rebbe.”
Um, yeah, sure. I’ll think of the Rebbe during sex. That should be orgasmic. Maybe I should have had thoughts of him during those wild nights before I was married and religious. I could have told my lovers that I had a Rebbe fetish. They could have dressed up in black coats and long beards. Later when I told my husband, we collapsed in fits of giggles and tears.
The trees are already turning orange up in Yonkers and Chaya finally addresses me. I have been gratefully engaged in my own thoughts and now I look across at her and wonder if she’s going to reprimand me for my hair jokes.
“Nu, you’re pretty quiet. Are you okay?” She reaches over and strokes my arm. I’m bundled into an olive green sweater and I shiver a bit. “We should pull over and talk. We have time.”
“What do we need to talk about?” The bag of hair is at my feet in a smart white paper shopping bag. Suddenly I’m suspicious of Chaya and her push for me to get this wig. I’m feeling coerced and confused and I just want to curl up into myself.
“I don’t think you understand just how important this sheitel is, Rachel. It really proclaims to the world that you are a proud Jewish woman doing what Hashem commands. Whenever you wear it, the Rebbe will be smiling down on you and giving blessings to you and your family.”
My eyes dart back to the bag and I start hyperventilating and then I lose it to the laughter. “I’m sorry, I just can’t get over that it’s somebody else’s hair!” More giggles.
“It’s nobody else’s but yours,” Chaya says sternly, switching from the right lane to the middle to the left, barely missing a truck piled high with crates of live chickens.
“You know, it’s pretty ironic that you told me that I had to get rid of my goyishe friends but it’s okay to wear their hair on my head. Isn’t that a bit ridiculous?” I smooth my denim skirt and adjust the laces on my boots. (Chaya insulted my Doc Martens earlier. “You can’t wear men’s boots” she had said. I didn’t respond.)
“Look. If you don’t wear it Hashem will punish you. Maybe he’ll make you or your children sick, chas v’shalom. Maybe your husband will become ill, God forbid. Maybe he’ll take away your parnassa. Maybe other bad things will happen to you or your family. But He’ll be angry. He wants you to do the right thing. And this, very clearly, is the right thing.” Chaya is speeding and has passed the rest stop. I am no longer laughing. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I’m clutching my seatbelt and the door handle while she hits eighty. “Do you want to be the one who’s causing Moshiach not to come?”
I revert back to the safety of quiet for the remainder of the trip.
Ten months later, I take the sheitel off for the last time. Eight months after that, my five year-old son is digging through my closet, searching for lost trains and he finds the sheitel, sitting on a Styrofoam head stuffed behind some boxes.
“Mommy! I found your hair in your closet.”
“That’s not my hair. My hair is on my head.” I try to suppress a giggle but I can’t help it. He laughs too but then he’s all serious again.
“Whose hair is it?”
“I think it might belong to a European woman,” I say, scooping him into my arms.
“Then shouldn’t you give it back?”
“Yeah,” I say, looking into his wide hazel eyes. “I think I should.”