A little more than a year ago, a Jewish bride named Linda was at one of her sheva brochos–the seven traditional dinners that take place during the week after a wedding–when her grandmother walked in, looked at her, and let out a loud, disapproving gasp. Her mother and father, upon seeing her for the first time since the ceremony, told her she looked ugly. Horrifying, to be exact. The bride sequestered herself in the bathroom and cried.

Linda had become Orthodox over the years despite her nonobservant upbringing. So after the wedding ceremony she had donned a wig, called a sheitel, in accordance with the Jewish law that requires married women to cover their hair. Linda hadn’t told her family about her plans to obey this law because she knew they’d object. But she never expected them to be so rude. The reaction of her non-Orthodox friends was similar to that of her family. You look like a freak in that wig was the message they bluntly conveyed, and soon Linda could no longer look at the wig without visualizing it as a hairy football helmet. After the party she buried it in a drawer and began covering her head with a hat whenever she was in public. And then she got word of Chaya Sara Gurewicz.

Chaya Sara Gurewicz likes to say that she came out of the womb with scissors in her hand, begging to cut her umbilical cord. While she was growing up her cutting fetish manifested itself on hair, or any semblance thereof; she left all of her dolls bald, angered the women whose children she sheared while baby-sitting, and turned her little sister into a guinea pig with an everchanging ‘do.

Now 26, Chaya Sara no longer wreaks havoc with her scissors. In fact, women regularly come from as far away as Ohio, Missouri, and Canada to get near them. Word of mouth has brought Chaya Sara an “almost unmanageable” number of clients in the three years she has been working as a sheitelmacher (Yiddish for wig maker) out of her West Rogers Park apartment. “She’s blessed,” a widowed client named Marilyn tells people. “She looks at a face and she knows how to match it to a wig.” Sheila, another of Chaya Sara’s loyalists, spent 15 years going to one of Chicago’s five other sheitelmachers before Chaya Sara opened up shop. “Chaya Sara is excellent at cutting, up to date with what’s in fashion, and will work on you until you’re satisfied,” Sheila says.

But Chaya Sara’s work, worn daily on the heads of hundreds of women, speaks for itself. She styles wigs so carefully and skillfully that people unfamiliar with Orthodox customs often mistake them for real hair, and Orthodox people sometimes crane their necks to look for signs that her clients are really wearing wigs. Chaya Sara is in demand.

The answering machine at the Gurewicz residence tells callers to leave a message if they are calling for Shalom, Chaya Sara’s husband, but not to leave one if they are phoning Chaya Sara. Instead, they are instructed to call back during her designated business hours. When Chaya Sara is working in her basement salon, the phone tends to ring constantly.

It’s a Friday in mid-July, and the phone has been ringing all morning; its quivering shriek has made one of the several women waiting exclaim, “Uch! I hate the sound of that phone.” Chaya Sara’s assistant, Larissa, is holding a newly washed wig on her fist and combing out the tangles with her other hand in between answering phone calls. Larissa usually tells the caller that Chaya Sara is busy, but Chaya Sara usually takes the call and squeezes yet another frantic client into her overloaded schedule. She is helping her husband support their three children, working full-time until September, when her husband will start a stable job as a rabbi overseeing a kosher deli, so she figures she can stand to be swamped for just a couple more months. A few hundred women in all, Chaya Sara estimates, depend on her to make them look their best–or at least keep them from looking like they’re wearing road kill. Which is why even though it’s supposed to be slow season for the sheitel business, Chaya Sara is as busy as ever.

The religious community has begun a three-week period in which it mourns the destruction of two ancient Jerusalem temples, which occurred centuries apart on the same day, Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av. Despite the lack of cosmetic urgency that comes with a Jewish mourning period, women keep descending the basement stairs to drop off their wigs to be washed for their upcoming appointments (it’s usually two days between wash and style) or to wait on the couch for Chaya Sara. Since a blitz of occasions is scheduled just following Tisha B’Av, and since Chaya Sara typically has a long waiting list–she’s currently booked a month ahead–these women took any opportunity they could to get an appointment.

Chaya Sara’s basement looks like a cross between any small beauty salon–with its fluorescent lights, barber’s chair, and lingering odor of hair spray–and a costume shop, with two long shelves of wig-topped Styrofoam heads. (The wigs belong to clients; after a wig is washed and dried, it is stored on one of the heads until its owner’s appointment.) A corner of the basement is set up to occupy children, including Chaya Sara’s own three, while they wait for their mothers. Fraggle Rock videos, coloring books, and Play-Doh usually suffice, though kicking a Styrofoam head around the floor or bouncing it off a wood-paneled wall has also proved entertaining to some children. Once Chaya Sara quieted a screaming toddler who had exhausted the toy selection by saying, with a lilt in her voice, “Now if you’re not a good girl, Chaya Sara won’t do your sheitel when you grow up.”

Somewhere in the basement, Chaya Sara says, she has a certificate to show that she trained with Claire, a bigwig wig stylist in New York who is responsible for all kinds of famous heads, including Dolly Parton’s platinum pouf. Chaya Sara says she doesn’t display the certificate because her qualifications don’t make a difference to her clients as long as they’re happy with their wigs.

A woman in her early 20s sits in the barber’s chair draped in a red plastic cape. She is Chaya Sara’s favorite kind of customer: she is willing to change her style every now and then. The woman has decided to try a ponytail this time. Chaya Sara believes that a style change is “emotionally healthy” for the client and provides an opportunity for the sheitelmacher to be creative. Most women, however, just come for regular upkeep: a wash when the sheitel beomes grungy from pollution, or a recurling or perming when the fluff has flattened.

To entice her clients to try something different, Chaya Sara has hung glossy glamour shots on the walls of gorgeous women in fan-blown wigs that bear the names Attitude, Princess, Carefree, and Tara. If women want to see more of the latest styles–Darling, Daydream, Sunshine, Fru Fru, or Charisma, perhaps–there are catalogs from three wig distributors (Yaffa, Jacqueline, and Georgie) stuffed in a rack near the couch where they wait for their appointments. But Chaya Sara discourages women from coming to her with prestyled wigs. She likes to do the styling herself, and suggests that most women order Yaffa’s Ten Plus from the New York-based company. It’s a “long, straight, easy-to-work-with, well-made human-hair wig” that Chaya Sara can individualize like a fingerprint by cutting, styling, and perming to a woman’s desire. And if a client wants Delight, Chaya Sara can shape it out of a Ten Plus.

Since Chaya Sara stocks no magazines–only these catalogs and a prayer book–the waiting women usually strike up a conversation. Often they know each other, or know about each other.

Today women exchange recipes for Sabbath dinner, ask about mutual friends, discuss the latest secular fashions–“Can you believe shaved eyebrows are in?” and “Isn’t it funny how supermodel Naomi Campbell wears wigs too?” They also talk about how Orthodox Judaism has been depicted to secular culture: that chauvinist rabbi on Donahue; Hollywood’s unrealistic portrayal of the Hasidic community in A Stranger Among Us.

Invariably, though, the room falls silent when a woman approaches the barber’s chair and Chaya Sara removes whatever she’s wearing to cover her head–a scarf, or an old sheitel. They all stare with curiosity as the bareheaded woman’s face seems to change, often aging significantly, in the absence of the thick, gray-free tresses of her wig. What’s under her sheitel is a woman’s secret. A blond-sheiteled woman may be revealed as a brunette. A clear-complected woman may be scarred or blemished where the bangs of her sheitel fall. A long-sheiteled woman may actually have shortly cropped hair.

The woman in the barber’s chair stares at her jet black hair in the mirror intensely and carefully, like a child examining an insect for the first time. The women on the couch ooh and ahh. It’s beautiful, they say. She turns her head different ways, raises a lock and lets it fall a few strands at a time.

“Does my hair look lighter?” she asks Chaya Sara, who stands next to her, rolling her Hillary-style wig with hot curlers. The wig, as black as the woman’s real hair, sits on a malleable cloth head substitute, which is clamped onto Chaya Sara’s work counter. Hair clips, scissors, combs, and bottles of mousse and hair spray clutter the counter.

“If anything it’s darker,” Chaya Sara answers matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t get any sun under a sheitel.”

Chaya Sara unrolls the curlers and brushes the woman’s sheitel into a low ponytail, securing it with an elastic band. As Chaya Sara fits the ponytailed wig over the woman’s head, they talk about Cleveland, the client’s hometown.

“I once saw this game show where the host says to this guy, ‘Where are you from?'” Chaya Sara says, cutting the ponytail, “and the guy tells him Cleveland, and the host says, ‘Sorry.'”

Laughter erupts from the women on the couch, and one eventually comes to Cleveland’s defense. “It’s actually pretty there,” she chimes in. “There’s a lot of country out there.”

“Like Chicago. Chicago’s so beautiful,” Chaya Sara says. She pauses and then adds, “NOT! It’s also so backward in Cleveland. It’s like the Twilight Zone.”

“Backward” might seem to be an unqualified comment coming from a woman who adheres to stringent religious guidelines that date back more than 3,000 years. But Chaya Sara seems much like anyone of the twentysomething generation: you can tell from her conversation that she grew up on daily doses of television. Though Orthodoxy prohibits her from engaging too fully in the culture that spewed forth Wayne’s World, she likes to keep tabs on what’s in.

For as long as she can remember, Chaya Sara has been interested in fashion and style. She used to spend three hours a day fixing her hair; much of the time was spent with her head upside down in hopes of achieving a fuller look. So when the time came for Chaya Sara to put on a sheitel, she was thrilled. It was dry and full and styled and ready to go as soon as she got out of the shower. She could kiss bad hair days and a tedious daily routine good-bye.

Choosing to be a sheitelmacher was Chaya Sara’s way of mixing her eye for style with her desire to work in the Jewish community. She feels good about helping women to be observant; it is her contribution to the perpetuation of the Jewish religion outside of raising Jewish children. And by styling pretty wigs, she believes she is making wig wearing fun–or at least easier.

In biblical times a Jewish woman accused of adultery was publicly humiliated by having her hair uncovered. She then would have to drink a certain mixture of water and dust as a test of her fidelity. If it made her stomach sick, she was judged guilty of being unfaithful. If she did not fall ill, she was absolved of any wrongdoing. It’s because of this ancient practice that a married woman’s uncovered hair carries the connotation of infidelity.

Even today, the Orthodox community believes it is immodest and lascivious for a married woman’s hair to be uncovered in public. A woman’s uncovered hair is considered sexually provocative, and therefore private. Up until the 19th century, when sheitels became popular, married women covered their hair with scarves and hats. Uncovered hair is legal grounds for divorce, though it is rarely cited as a reason to terminate marriages, according to Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and head of the Chicago Rabbinical Court, which oversees Jewish divorces. In his 40 years as a rabbi, Rabbi Schwartz says he has never had such a case come before him.

Often a married woman, after covering her hair for a few years, starts to feel that her hair is an extremely private part of herself. The thought of exposing it is embarrassing. One of Chaya Sara’s clients says she once took her sheitel off in the rain while on vacation because she didn’t have access to a hair dryer. Although she was pretty sure no one was around to see her, she recalls, “It was the most peculiar feeling in the whole world. It felt as if I was naked, as if I had taken off my shirt.”

“Jews are not prudes,” says another client. “To look at only one part of our culture, like the emphasis on modesty, gives a distorted picture. The Victorian concept of sex is antithetical to Judaism. In fact, it is written in the marriage contract that a man has an obligation to fulfill his wife’s sexual needs. But we Jews have a sense of sexuality as being private. If everyone walked around naked, it would all be bland. American society has lost its sense of modesty, and the truth is, society is bored. It’s like the trend toward natural, organic food. People don’t realize how good it is until they try it again.”

Unmarried women may show their hair. Historically this was so they could advertise their single status and attract a husband. Today, since sheitels closely resemble real hair, making it difficult to outwardly tell who is married and who is single, the tradition is looked upon differently. The sheitel–or any hair covering–is now considered to be a married woman’s personal reminder of her responsibility to be loyal to her husband and to the Laws of Family Purity, which require married women to be modest in dress and behavior. A single woman is exempt from these laws, though she is still expected to uphold certain standards of modesty.

Ironically, many women today wear sheitels that are longer and lusher and, by secular standards, probably sexier than their real hair. One of Chaya Sara’s clients says her sheitels just keep getting wilder. She wears a one-length bouncing chestnut-colored wig that falls to the middle of her back and looks as if it was inspired by a Wella Balsam ad. But Chaya Sara’s clients agree that whether they cover their hair with a ragged scarf or a silky sheitel, the same purpose has been served: they are reminded of their responsibilities.

Religious men also cover part of their hair. They wear a small cap called a yarmulke, which is supposed to remind them that God is above them. A distinction between the practice of men covering their hair and the practice of women doing so is that the former is a custom while the latter is a law. Unlike women, men are not divinely mandated to cover their hair, according to Rabbi Eli Turen, and cannot be punished (though in modern times divorce would be the only punishment) for going bareheaded.

A tan, blond woman now approaches the barber’s chair, standing tall in spiked heels. She looks like she could be an anchorwoman with her perfect bob and thin bangs, tailored pastel suit, thick gold choker, and heavy makeup. She has a bar mitzvah to attend after the mourning period, and is debating whether or not she will get a new, fancier coiffure to add to the three styles she already owns. Something “updo-y and summery?” Chaya Sara suggests. The woman says she likes Chaya Sara’s sheitel, which is slightly layered to eliminate the bowl look Chaya Sara says is endemic to straight wigs. She wears it shoulder-length, the longest she thinks her long face will allow. Every week she scrunches it under a hair dryer to affect loose, “natural” waves. It is mocha-colored with sandy highlights, and looks as if it’s just a shade lighter than her large tortoiseshell glasses. The sheitel’s bangs hide Chaya Sara’s high forehead and round out her oval face. When she tires of bangs, she’ll send her sheitel back to Yaffa and have them cut out and replaced with long strands of hair.

Chaya Sara likes to have two wigs at a time: a good one for everyday and fancy occasions, and a junky one, with a hole in its crown, which she wears under hats. Her everyday sheitel cost $1,600–“an investment,” she says, that should last her five years, about five times longer than “cheaply made” wigs in the $300 price range. Unlike some of her customers’ sheitels–which are either synthetic or a mix of human and synthetic hair–Chaya Sara’s wig is made of all human hair and moves in the wind or with a turn of her head–which is more, she says, than her heavily sprayed hair of the past used to do. European hair, like the three clippings that make up her own sheitel, is the healthiest and best-looking human selection on the market, she says; it is bought in communities where women are so poor that they could never have afforded dyes or perms.

“Here, try it on,” Chaya Sara offers. The blond in the chair is actually a brunette with a sleek ponytail.

There are many interpretations of how, when, and where the law requiring married women to cover their hair should be observed. Orthodox communities have widely accepted the sheitel, though a minority of women will only wear the traditional coverings of scarves, hats, or snoods, all of which still serve as fashionable breaks for women who usually wear sheitels. Some women cover their hair at all times, in their homes, when they sleep. (There’s an oft-quoted Talmudic story about a woman who bore seven pious sons, who all grew up to be high priests. When asked how it was that she had such luck, she replied that the four walls had never seen her hair.) Others cover their hair only in public. Some women show parts of their real hair under a hat or a scarf; others cover every strand. Some shave off their hair. Some women keep their hair covered after they divorce or after their husband dies; others do not. Most Orthodox Jews probably agree, however, that married women are obliged to cover their hair in public, at religious ceremonies, in synagogue, and whenever there is prayer.

Chaya Sara advises her clients to expose their real hair in public on one condition: if they are being attacked. As proof of her theory that whipping off a wig is a deterrent to crime, she cites a story about a woman who exposed her shaved head after confronting a burglar. “It freaked him out. He ran away,” Chaya Sara says triumphantly. Modesty, Jews understand, is secondary to survival.

Reformed and Conservative women, for the most part, have completely dropped the practice of covering their hair. Many of them consider it oppressive. The custom, they argue, expects women to make sacrifices so that men can control their own sexual urges; and using the head covering to advertise their married status is equivalent to the inequality implicit in the titles Mrs. and Mr.

Shulamith Schwartz, one of Chaya Sara’s clients, admits that covering her hair hasn’t been easy. She has been married for 25 years. “Any restriction is a sacrifice of sorts,” she says. “Covering my hair has been difficult. Certainly it was in the beginning. I’m living in a society where hair is the crown of a woman’s beauty. But God commanded it, and I believe it’s for the greater good. I can question the law, but I wouldn’t discard it, or any other law. People who do not follow mitzvoth [commandments] do not retain their Jewishness. God gave us these laws, they are credible, and I have faith that there is ultimate meaning in them.”

Shulamith considers wearing a sheitel more of an inconvenience than wearing other head coverings. “Wigs are artificial,” she says. “I like to feel natural. I prefer to wear a scarf, but because of society’s demands I have to wear a sheitel to work.”

Linda, the bride whose family insulted her at her wedding, will bluntly admit that she thinks wearing a sheitel “sucks.”

“It’s hot and itchy and squeezes my head,” she complains. Chaya Sara says to clients like Linda, who are uncomfortable with the idea of sheitels, “Think of a wig as a great accessory that works to your advantage when you’re too busy to do your hair.”

Linda usually wears a hat, but explains that she tolerates a sheitel sometimes because “it makes my husband extremely happy” and because Chaya Sara introduced her to the glamorous side of wig wearing. Of her new human-hair sheitel that falls to the middle of her back, she says, “It makes me feel very pretty. Truthfully, I look better with it on. It’s the kind of hair I always wished I had.”

“Mazel tov,” the women on the couch say when they learn that the 21-year-old in the barber’s chair is getting married. Chaya Sara crammed the young woman into the schedule on short notice, since her wedding is a mere five weeks away and there’s so much left to do before her sheitel will be ready for her. Chaya Sara is willing to accommodate her schedule to prevent a fiasco like Linda’s from happening to another new bride. No one should feel ugly during what is supposed to be one of the most special times in her life, she figures. A week ago Chaya Sara took the bride-to-be’s head measurements–circumference, ear to ear, front to nape–and sent them to Yaffa, which then manufactured the cap for the sheitel and sent it to Chaya Sara. The bride-to-be is here to see if it fits.

Chaya Sara pulls the cap over her client’s head, tucking under her thick, chin-length hair. It looks as if she’s wearing a bathing cap of lacy lingerie. The cap is beige so that it won’t show under the light brown hair she has ordered. Having grown up expecting to one day partake in this rite of passage, the young woman is calmly going through the motions of picking out her thousand-dollar sign of modesty. She wants her first sheitel to closely resemble her real hair in both style and color. Yes, she tells Chaya Sara, she wants it to be straight. Yes, she wants a part. Yes, the cap seems to fit, except is it supposed to be so close to the ears?

After pinning the cap above the ears for a better fit, Chaya Sara begins to cut swatches of her hair. She will send the cap and the swatches back to Yaffa so they can alter the fit and attach similarly colored hair. Chaya Sara circles the woman, cutting away at all sides of her head and collecting the hair in a pile on the counter.

“It seems like you’re cutting a lot off,” the bride-to-be quietly tells Chaya Sara.

“You won’t even notice. Besides,” Chaya Sara says to the young woman whose hair is likely to be covered for the rest of her life, “it will grow in.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tori Marlan.