I’d estimate that roughly 40 percent of my college friends know that I’m Jewish. Well, half-Jewish, I guess. I’ve always wondered how obvious it is from the outside. My religious background doesn’t come up in conversation that often, and besides, I have fond memories of Christmas mornings I reference during the holiday season. My mom never figured out a way to explain to my older sister and me why Santa wouldn’t come down our chimney but left presents under the tree for every other kid from our country day school.
My mother grew up as the archetypical uniform-wearing Catholic schoolgirl, converted into a righty by a nun who’d continually slap her left wrist with a ruler because “life is made for right-handed people.” She attended church twice a week for nearly 30 years. Her father was even born on Christmas day.
When she fell in love with a Jewish man, her faith became a deal-breaker, so she left it at the (mezuzah-ed) door and converted to Judaism in order to marry my father.
And although “biologically” speaking, that makes me as much Irish Catholic as I am Jewish, there are times when the former seems like nothing more than a muted recessive gene.
When I was a little girl, I earned a reputation in my family as being a little too independent. “I Can Do It Myself,” I’d say when someone tried to pack my lunch box or tie my shoes. My nickname soon became the acronym for my personal mantra: ICDIM.
It was during the ICDIM era that I began doing my own hair. I picked a hairstyle I liked and stuck with it—day and night—for seven years. The braid. One single braid, straight down the back of my head.
In the beginning, it was cute. I latched onto the hairstyle because I loved it when people told me I looked like my mother, and all the pictures I saw of her as a child showed her wearing the same singular braid.
But as the years passed, it grew increasingly less cute. I wound my hair so tightly that the top layer began to break off where the braid began. A “frizz halo,” as my volleyball coach called it, started to form. You can probably estimate in what year a photo was taken based on the circumference of the halo.
Despite how unattractive that look became, I felt almost incapacitated to change it. Part of me wonders if this was a residual fear of one of the more scarring moments of my youth: the day I unwove the cornrows I had gotten while on a vacation to the Caribbean. I cried when I looked in the mirror because I was so terrified of the self I saw stare back at me. My hair had expanded so much it had become more like the mane of a lion than the locks of my hair that, for most of my life, had been pin straight.
That moment commenced a sort of Pavlonian conditioning in my mind: if I undo the braid, my hair becomes unbearably puffy. Each day I made a choice between which image I disliked less, and so each day I voluntarily bound my hair so that no one—especially not I—could see what it really looked like.
I learned the slang word “Jewfro” in high school when I became friends with another girl who shared in my hair troubles. Her definition matched what remains on Urban Dictionary today: “the Jewish form of an Afro,” or “a curly mop of hair with lots of volume.”
I began using the term around the house, in reference to myself, when my hair was being particularly unmanageable or when looking at old photographs of my dad in college. One day, my father had enough. I used the term in a snarky line, and he got so angry that he grounded me.
I never really felt connected to Jewish culture, so I guess that’s why I never considered the term to be anything offensive. At our temple, which was over half an hour away from where I lived, I was an outcast. I attended Hebrew school only on the days my pediatrician swore I didn’t have strep throat. The experience felt wholly unauthentic.
Every Sunday and Monday, when my mom—who to this day hides statuettes of saints among her bookcases—drove me to temple, I wondered why we were not instead travelling to the church down our street. I harbored a lot of resentment toward my father, a man of science who openly argued about the irrationality of believing in God, yet demanded that his kids be raised Jewish.
Since Catholicism had played such a strong role in my mother’s life, I always thought that my sister and I should have been raised Irish Catholic or at least been formally exposed to both faiths. But what I really wanted, in typical ICDIM fashion, was to choose for myself what to believe instead of having the decision made for me.
Hair straightening was the only “Jewish” (and I put that in quotes because I know that it is not culturally unique) ritual I understood innately. It is so widespread that it is almost customary for a Jewish girl with kinky hair to flat iron or chemically treat her hair until she convinces herself that it’s as smooth and shiny as the paradigm of beauty she constructed in her mind. It was my older sister—my polar opposite in almost every way—who taught me this.
When she got a keratin treatment during my freshman year of high school, I saw what I believed to be an ideal solution to the braid that was exacerbating my hair damage. Only a couple of months passed before I, too, was sitting in the hair salon for hours, getting chemicals pasted onto my hair with a slimy paintbrush, just like she had. The tedium of the process—and the woes of post-treatment upkeep—suddenly became a shared experience, a way for my sister and I to connect despite our distance.
As different hair straightening treatments hit the market, we tested them all and shared our thoughts on each. Keratin grew out too quickly. Chemical relaxer wasn’t strong enough. Brazilian Blowouts contained carcinogenic chemicals. After a couple years of experimentation, I settled with the keratin, but my sister went for the next-level stuff: thermal reconditioning. In exchange for a hefty investment of time and money, the process makes hair stick straight, puff-less and free of frizz for six months—the longest lasting treatment, but also the most difficult to grow out. Its permanence staved me off, but I watched with a glimmer of jealousy when day after day, my sister rolled out of bed and ran a comb through her hair without it inflating.
Eventually, I caved.
It is not uncommon for me to notice people staring at my roots sometimes. When my friends ask, “How come your hair is curly at the top, but the rest of it is straight?” I have no problem explaining to them that it’s because it’s chemically treated and growing out, although I’m aware of how alien that may sound. Most people don’t understand, and some have even yelled at me for voluntarily “damaging” my “perfectly fine” hair, but their comments never bothered me enough to change my mind.
Recently, I was sitting in my friend’s living room when he told me he thinks I should stop getting my hair treated. “Why don’t you just let it be natural?” he asked.
Since I was a tween, I’ve been putting on my scalp the same chemicals that morticians use to embalm dead people. I wish that I could look at my friend and tell him that, you know what, I think I am going to stop. But it’s not as easy as it sounds like it should be.
Upon immigrating to the United States, my great-grandfather changed our surname from Rabinowitz—meaning “son of the rabbi”—to the less-Jewish-sounding Robbins to avoid persecution. Almost a century later, my hair treatments have become my modern-day tactic of hiding my Jewish identity, an identity to which I never genuinely related, and at times even resented. They have also come to represent the strongest tie I feel to a Jewish tradition, which, as flawed as this may be, is a ritual of suppression.
I mistook hair straightening as a solution to the braid I wore in my childhood, when really it was a metamorphosed continuation. Both allowed me to displace my frustration over my inability to be Catholic onto the most visible aspect of my Jewishness: the Jewfro. I thought that confining my hair in a braid or trying to change its physical structure would take care of the larger crisis I couldn’t tangibly wrestle.
Without my “Jewfro,” people don’t ask me if I’m Jewish, and I don’t have to sound foolish when I struggle to put a label on my spirituality. I don’t trigger frustration and confusion about being raised as part of a faith that neither of my parents wholeheartedly believe in as I stare in the mirror while just trying to brush my teeth. And when my “Jewish hair” starts to grow in again and the label’s in limbo, I start to think: being unattached to both Judaism and Catholicism has let me invent a spirituality of my own, one that feels more authentic to my beliefs than that of either of my parents’. Lacking the rigidity of one religion hasn’t prevented me from believing in God.
But now, when my friends ask me what my natural hair looks like and if they’ll ever see it, even I wonder if I’ll ever stop hiding my roots. Besides, it only takes a few hours in the sun and a blistering red burn to remind me just how Irish I am too.