Loving My Roots: Hair and Jewish Spirituality

Jennifer Yael Green is a book club member, spicy margarita-lover, and roller-skating enthusiast. She has lived and worked on five different continents, with a background in teaching, advocacy, and public diplomacy. She currently works as the Assistant Director of NuRoots at The Jewish Federation, and the LA Director of Community Engagement for Honeymoon Israel. Jenn is part of the Honeymoon Israel Well Circle in LA, and in her free time, she runs an adventure blog with her best friend called My Best LA Day.

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My first memory of my hair is that it wouldn’t grow. Until I was about seven years old, it was just tufts of wispy, dishwater-blonde locks, and I was often mistaken for a little boy on the school playground. I remember rubbing my head, willing more hair, wailing when my mother announced that there just wasn’t enough for a side ponytail (the most popular of styles in my early 90s childhood). I looked on in envy as my sister, almost three years younger and with a mane of golden ringlets, sported neon scrunchies and French braids. My British mother insisted I had a “Princess Diana hair style.”

When my hair finally came in, it was frizzy, thick, and curly, and I didn’t feel much relief. I wanted to look like Alisha, the coolest girl in my 5th grade class. She had shiny, straight golden hair down to her waist. It only got worse as I got older, growing up in the 90s where everything was thin and straight – women’s hair, bodies, teeth. This began a nearly 15-year battle with my hair and how I felt it represented me; I wanted to be like Kate Moss or Fiona Apple – aloof, interesting, chic.

How could I be that girl with a mass of kinky waves atop my head? I convinced my parents to buy me a hairdryer and flat iron in middle school, spending nearly an hour every morning tugging, clamping, and smoothing down each strand of hair. But flat irons were only a gateway.

By college I was doling out large sums of cash to get my hair chemically straightened; spending three or four hours every couple months. I’d sit in a salon while they painted my unruly mane from root to tip with a thick white paste, feeling that familiar, hot, sharp sting at the nape of my neck. It wasn’t until my hair started breaking off and falling out in my mid-20s that I realized I couldn’t fight myself forever.

“Sweetie, your hair is just so damaged,” said my hair stylist at the time. “It would be so much easier if you stopped this nonsense and just accepted your hair.”

And so I did. With no other option, I finally accepted my hair and a whole lot more about myself.

The curls started to re-emerge after a few months - only at the roots first. Strange looking crimps and ripples began to grow in above my ears, while the rest of my hair clung to its straw-like straightness down to the tops of my shoulders. I had to grow the chemicals out, rid my hair particles of all the extraneous and the artificial, and let it return to its natural state. It was a metamorphosis, a detox, a cleanse of sorts.

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As hokey as it may sound, I really started to become myself when I began this process, allowing my hair to be its frizzy, curly, coiled, un-tameable self. This was also around the time that I started to think about my own identity, what it meant to be me and what I believed in (beyond being kind to others and the power of Beyoncé).

Up until then, my hair told stories I wasn’t ready to embrace: I was different, more cheerful than chic, too busy tending to my full life to focus on blow-outs and thermal reconditioning. 

Then suddenly, unexpectedly, my hair connected me to something bigger.
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On my maternal side (my Jewish side) there's a bevy of Eastern Europeans with bright red curls, almost orange in youth, fading to auburn as the owner got older. I had given myself the gift of a physical reminder of my lineage, a marker that I am connected to all these other curly-haired family members. It's the one thing people point to when they see my mum and me together, exclaiming, “You look so alike!” 

Going through old photo albums recently, I ran my fingers over photos of my grandmother in the 1950s; she wore an emerald green cocktail dress her autumnal curls coiled and smoothed for an event at the Brixton Shul. As a child in 1960s London, my mother cropped her curls close to her head, an elfin fringe resting inches above her eyebrows. I found a snapshot of her on the Belgian coast, her hair was blowing wild, framing her face - a nearly perfect match with the color of her freckles. I saw my mother and grandmother in the 1980s with big, happy, frizzy manes and high shoulder pads, a perfect hallmark of the era. I reveled in these photographs.

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For most of my life, a painting of my great-grandmother Yetta hung above my grandparents’ dining room table in Wimbledon. Her curls – coiffed, pinned, styled back – were always the first thing you noticed, even before her stern expression and opaque eyes. 

From a Jewish standpoint, our tradition explains that hair has spiritual power. It represents the idea of hash pa’ah – the ability to influence others. They explain that we find hair on and around the parts of our body that are most able to influence others: under the arms, above our mouths, around our lady parts.

And the largest abundance of hair is atop our heads, the body part that is the essence of who we are as a person, where our thoughts and ideas live. (I also think about how, in yoga, we close our practice by placing our hands on our foreheads – our 3rd eye or 6th chakra – the region on our body that is the seat of consciousness and intuition).

Nowadays, my hair is thick, curly and free – flopping across my face, swelling with the humidity, regularly snapping hair elastics that strain to keep it contained. My hair feels like a big part of my essence, an attestation that I am my mother’s daughter, and my grandmother’s granddaughter, and a member of all these generations of strong, stubborn, and extraordinary women with wild hair – three of the last four who immigrated to a new country, beginning again in a new place.

Like tefillin or a tattoo, my hair is a daily reminder of who I am, where I come from, and what I believe in. My hair tells me that I’m always, always a Green, a Cooper, a Shedletsky, an Edelstein.

I can’t ever forget that. I only have to pass a mirror to remember.

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REFLECTION QUESTIONS & WELL CIRCLE CONVERSATION STARTERS

Did you fight anything about your personal appearance, that you now embrace?  What was that process like for you?

Do you have any physical reminders that connect you to your family?

What are some things that remind you of where you come from?

What is something you love about your appearance and why?