I’m Not an Orthodox Jew but I Play One on TV

The evading started the moment I walked in the door for my interview.

My thought bubble: “Don’t reach out to shake his hand, don’t reach out to shake his hand, don’t reach out to shake his hand.” (Touching between men and women is not okay in the Orthodox Jewish community unless two people are married to each other…and even then it’s only okay sometimes.)

Man Boss #1: “Well, hi! Great to meet you. So how do you know Cruela?” (She will also be referred to at random as Girl #0.)

My thought bubble: “Oh shit, I knew he would ask that. Don’t cuss–there’s NO cussing here! Not even in your head because it might spill out accidentally! How do I know her? Ummm, okay, I can’t say that we’re dating. I could say she’s a girlfriend and that wouldn’t be too far off the mark…”

Me: “I met her at a party one night; we share a close mutual friend.” Okay…not bad, all true…what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him (or me)…

And so this became the story that Cruela and I perpetrated whenever asked how we knew each other. (She worked for a sister organization of the yeshiva, so if I knew someone, it was likely she also knew that someone). It was nice to have an established script because, quite frankly, we’re both shit liars and for largely the same reason: Neither of us has a good enough memory to make things up that aren’t true.

The interview went well, my references gave glowing reviews of my previous performances (wondering quietly why the hell I was choosing to take this job), and before I knew it, I was being welcomed into the “yeshiva family.”

The first order of business was to raid my nearby thrift store for ALL the long skirts it had in my size. For this gig, I would be expected to wear skirts that were at least knee length (pants were NO JOKE not an option) and my shirts were expected to be at least three-quarter sleeve and have a high enough neckline to cover any hint, any whisper, any possibility of cleavage. Shoes were expected to be close-toed unless there was hosiery underneath.

Here’s Emma Watson looking the part (the flats seal the deal):

FrumEmmaWatsonThis way of dressing is an essential requirement of being frum, which means the following:

The Yiddish frum, meaning devout or pious, means committed to the observance of the 613 commandments of Orthodox Judaism. This appellation is generally, but not only, applied to Orthodox Jews, and used by that group as a self-reference. (per Wikipedia)

I often heard it used in such instances as, “So and So was raised frum but is no longer” or “She became frum later in life.” In my case, as a female employee of a boys’ school, I was expected to look ultra-frum (haha–that’s redundant!) in my manner of dress so as not to give the boys any ideas–especially because I was on the younger and bustier side.

Now truly, not being an Orthodox Jewish female, I got off easy on the clothing requirements. Were I Orthodox and married to a man, for example, I would have been required to wear a sheitel (aka wig, pronounced “shaytl”). It is the custom that once married, nobody but a woman’s husband will ever again see her actual hair. The explanation I was given for this by a younger woman in the community is that they perceive of a woman’s hair as a form of self-expression. By keeping this a secret shared between only the woman and her husband, it becomes a sacred, intimate, and private thing.

A good sheitel is not cheap. The better the sheitel, the more real hair it will use. And one sheitel generally won’t do. Most women have at least two–one for everyday wear and one for Shabbos (which I’ll elaborate on in a future post). My frum friend told me she has a few of those foam head-forms on her dresser and that’s how she stores her sheitels when they aren’t in use. I’m thinking that could scare the hell out of hubby on a middle-of-the-night bathroom run in the dark!

sheitels on foam headsA good sheitel is truly almost indistinguishable from real hair. Because I wasn’t expecting it (in all my ignorance of Orthodox Jewish culture), I was a bit shocked the first time I realized my woman boss was wearing a wig. She scratched her head and the whole unit of hair shifted back and forth in a suspicious way. I felt super stupid for not realizing it sooner, and from that point forward I couldn’t unknow that the women were wearing sheitels. I enjoyed observing the various levels of qualities and styles. There are even women in the community who specialize in cutting and styling sheitels. The perfect job for an introverted hair stylist!

It takes a newly married woman some time to get used to wearing a sheitel because they are hot and itchy. The learning curve sounds steep, rough, and mostly unavoidable. The thing most women prefer to use as a hair cover, especially when minding the children and cooking and cleaning, is known as a snood (rhymes with food, not wood). This is a blingy one, but it gives you the idea:

blingy snood

Not being an expert on this topic, I’m going to refer to this cool blog I just found called Wrapunzel. If you’re curious to know more about head covering, why it’s done, how it’s done, what the possibilities are…this seems to be a great resource.

My particular frum style turned out to be quite hideous. I brought the laziness to it that I bring to all endeavors involving putting clothes on my body. I had a few skirts that I alternated with the same five tops. I never wore jewelry or makeup. Sometimes I was only minutes out of bed before reporting for duty. Only my footwear changed with the seasons. I figured, “Hell, you want me to look unattractive to these boys? No problem!”

I was always happy to see other frum women looking cute, though. 😉


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