Are head coverings the new black? Sheitels and the religious-secular culture wars in twenty-first-century America and its literature

Karen E.H. Skinazi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
349 Downloads (Pure)


In 1896, when Abraham Cahan's collection of new Americans encouraged his greenhorn Gitl to remove her wig-which sits on her head as the metonymic symbol of religious ritual and thus Old World shame-readers of Yekl were offered an account of twentieth-century American progress, rendered necessary (if painful). Just as Yekl/Jake shaved his earlocks and beard, so Gitl must give up her Jewish wig and stand before the world in her 'own hair'. But we might imagine the necessity of such a sacrifice has become obsolete in twenty-first-century America, particularly as we see that what the grandmother doffed, the granddaughter comes to don. Beginning with a revival of religious themes in the 1980s, heralded by Cynthia Ozick, Jewish American literature is now rich with narratives centered on secular characters becoming Orthodox; on the inner-worlds of insular Orthodox communities; and on reimagining the potential of Orthodoxy within the context of Americanness. Interestingly, most of these narratives have been written by women, and it is the experiences of Jewish American women-the latter-day Gitls-that are foregrounded. 

Despite the proliferation of such narratives, it is important to recognize that the choice to embrace religion (made visible through wigs and shpitzels, turbans and kerchiefs) continues to be fraught. The increasingly popular 'off-the-derech', or ex-Orthodox, memoirs of the twenty-first century identify the Jewish sheitel, like the Muslim veil, as a symbol of oppression, and the act of uncovering (like unveiling) a tale of feminist triumph. 

Still, looking at a range of fiction, including Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls (1998), Nathan Englander's short story 'The Wig' (2007), and Naomi Ragen's satire, The Saturday Wife (2007), we find the multivalent appearance and complexity of Jewish American women's head coverings in recent literature suggest a different and varied signification, and a more nuanced negotiation between religious and national values. This is significant because it is allows readers to see how seemingly comprehensive religious communities, which could be marked as a form of 'counter-cosmopolitanism' in the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, actually engage with the broader spectrum of American culture, which in turn is able to both accommodate the communities and alter itself through the accommodation.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages27
JournalOpen Library of Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 8 Nov 2017


  • Jewish
  • headscarves
  • veil
  • Orthodox
  • women


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