One woman says that it took her seven years to get used to it. Another one struggles daily to put it on in the morning – she has a lot of negative memories of her wedding day, when it became a permanent part of her everyday life.
This is about wigs. Some ultra-orthodox Jewish women wear them, and in the beginning of Covered Up a number of them talk about this with surprising honesty. In their world the wig is an outer sign of a woman’s marital status. It is a protective shield and a sign of her personal integrity. Behind the wig is a very private world.
But still these women talk to the camera. The Israeli director Rachel Elitzur comes from an ultra-orthodox background herself, and in her film she gives a vivid description of the tension between her free, personal will and the massive social pressure from her surroundings. She wanted to break free, and now she has turned this process into a captivating film.
She grew up in a small rural community in northern Israel. Everybody was ultra-orthodox. She describes it as a place full of cows and lots of flowers. There were no televisions, no visits to the cinema, no computers, but she read a lot. We meet her after the screening of the film at the Docaviv 2018 film festival in Tel Aviv.
«When I was 17 we moved to Bnei Brak.» Elitzur refers to an ultra-orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv where she attended a strictly religious school for girls. When she turned 20 she got married to a man that had just moved to Israel from the US.
«In ultra-orthodox Judaism a married woman’s hair belongs to her husband.»
«Before the wedding I bought a wig,» she recalls. «I just did it without thinking. But when I got divorced a few years later the questions started to pop up.»
After the divorce the wig bothered her emotionally. In ultra-orthodox Judaism a married woman’s hair belongs to her husband, and being a divorced woman this intimacy interfered with her feelings. She wanted the divorce to be total.
This turned out to be easier said than done.
No way back
In the film, Rachel consults with her parents. Her father explains that there is no way back. Yes, she has divorced, which in itself is a problem in the ultra-orthodox world, but that does not give her any opportunity to return to her status as unmarried. Her father is a warm man, and we feel his personal frustration at not being able to be there a hundred per cent for his daughter. Both of them are up against heavy social norms that are very hard to escape. When she asks him about her chances of finding a new husband his only advice is to pray to God and hope for the best.
Her lovable grandmother puts things in perspective. She does not wear a wig. When she was young, norms were less strict and she had a larger freedom of choice.
Would she invest 10.000 shekels in a wig? No way.
How about 1000 shekels? Out of the question.
How much then?
The grandmother might consider 100, which both she and Rachel know is an unrealistic price. She says that at least wigs looked like wigs in her time. Today they are so well made that you can’t distinguish them from real hair. So what’s the point? Granny considers it a waste of money and lists a range of worthy causes she would rather support. However, she is not judgemental because she understands the social pressure connected to the whole matter.
«There is no mention whatsoever of wigs in the Holy Scriptures. It only says that a woman should cover her hair,» says Daniel Sperber at the reception after the screening. He is the rabbi that Rachel consults in the film. He is also a professor of Talmudic studies at the religious Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, and in that capacity he has made a name of himself by claiming that ultra-orthodox interpretations of the commandments have gotten much stricter over the last decades.
«It is a huge problem when that kind of thing turns into a norm that is inevitable, and it becomes absolutely absurd when a wig becomes a true copy of real hair.»
Rachel has her first encounter with a secular hairdresser who admires her hair. Little by little she becomes certain that she has something beautiful and natural, and she learns to feel well in her own body. She previously worked at an ultra-orthodox company where shedding the wig was not an option at all. Then she took a position with the religious Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts in Jerusalem where she decided to create her film. There she found a much more open atmosphere.
«She has no desire to break away from her beliefs, but she wants to find the right compromise.»
She is aware that she shares a problem with a lot of women from all religions: She has no desire to break away from her beliefs, but she wants to find the right compromise.
«I handled the stressful situation after my decision by praying to God,» she smiles. «I had arrived at a stage where my wig was worn out, and I had to invest in a new one if I wanted to continue wearing it. A new wig costs 13.000 shekels, and I considered it a lot of money for something that I did not need or want.»
Elitzur is wearing long black gloves when we meet. For her that is another step away from constricting norms. An ultra-orthodox woman is not allowed to shake hands with a man, and she would like to have that opportunity. The gloves have given her some space for that without rejecting her tradition totally. Another compromise, and very much the essence of her film.