Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Unveiling the mysteries of hair covering

This is my latest column from The Chronicle.

When I was first becoming acquainted with the Orthodox practice of married women covering their hair, I remember noticing that one woman I knew sometimes had her hair covered by a cloth head-covering, and other times wore a neat, chin-length hairdo with bangs.

It seemed odd to me that sometimes her hair was covered, and other times it was not. I later found out that her “uncovered hair” was in fact a wig.

Over time, I learned that there are many different customs related to hair-covering, concerning everything from how much of the head or hair should be covered, and in what places and circumstances, to the materials used – everything from scarves and hats to wigs, and sometimes more than one at the same time.

The variety of hair-covering methods is a reflection of different interpretations of halachah, outside cultural influences and personal preferences.

Hair covering is among the most difficult of Orthodox practices to understand and accept, and I sympathize with those who find the practice utterly baffling.

As an unmarried woman who, according to halachah, is not yet obligated to cover my hair, I also find the practice somewhat challenging.

The Torah does not offer a specific reason for hair covering, but in practice this mitzvah is primarily an expression of modesty.

There are opinions in halachah that describe a married woman’s hair as erva, a term that refers to “nakedness,” and indicates that hair has seductive properties. While that idea is difficult for the American mind to grasp – especially since this category apparently does not apply to single women’s hair – even our culture acknowledges the beauty enhancements of hair. Models, for example, generally wear long, luxurious tresses, and letting one’s hair down is a euphemism for relaxing one’s inhibitions.

Of course, wearing a gorgeous shaitel (wig) would not appear to be particularly modest, especially if the woman’s natural hair was not nearly as flattering. However, most women who wear shaitels manage to strike a balance between hair coverings that are comfortable and attractive and those that are unduly attention-grabbing.

In Judaism, when something is covered, whether a person’s body or a religious object, such as a Torah scroll, it is concealed not because it is debased, but because it is special. While halachah permits a married woman to uncover her hair in the presence of other women and immediate family members of either gender, her hair becomes something private and exclusive.

Covering one’s hair becomes symbolic of the idea that there are some things that are to be shared only between husband and wife.

In some ways it is the act of covering that makes the hair special. When something is covered it takes on an aura of mystery and it becomes that much more appealing.

A few years ago, a married friend of mine had a teaching job at a juvenile detention center. When her students realized that she was wearing a wig, they began badgering her to take it off, just once, so that they could see her hair. They were obsessed with seeing her hair, as though it had magical properties.

And that reminds me of another example of modesty. Many Orthodox women do not wear short sleeves and are careful to keep their elbows covered. The idea is that even a woman’s upper arms can be alluring, and the elbow is a good point of demarcation.

Of course, elbows on their own are generally not especially seductive parts of one’s body. A college friend of mine used to say that when she got married, she would roll up her sleeves and ask her husband if he found her elbows sexy. “Hopefully he’ll say yes,” advised another friend.

The first friend has been married for several years now. I once asked her husband what he thought of her elbows, and, in reply, he pretended to swoon.

I’m sure he feels the same way about her hair.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Living vicariously through Jane Eyre

I have long been a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre.” I first read it the summer I was 20. At that point, I was trying to catch up on some of the “classics” I hadn’t already read, and my mom told me that it had been a favorite of hers and of my grandmother.

It took me a while to get into the book, but soon I was enthralled with Jane’s reserved flirtation with Mr. Rochester, and the palpable romantic tension between them, and by the time Jane finally expresses her feelings in the emotional garden scene I was totally spell-bound. Not long after I finished the book, A&E aired its version of “Jane Eyre” with Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton, both of whom were superb. I was so fond of that version, that my mom eventually bought be a copy on VHS. Meanwhile, she bought herself the version with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which also has its charms, but, in my opinion, was not as good.

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 30, I was running errands and looking forward to a couple of days off from work when my mom told me that PBS was airing yet another version of Jane Eyre that night. A friend had recently told me that she liked this version – and was none too sorry that this Mr. Rochester was really more attractive than indicated by the book. So, even though I could not imagine that any version would equal the one by A&E, I decided to tune in.

How wrong I was.

This 2006 production by the BBC is absolutely masterful, and has me wondering how it was possible that I missed its PBS debut in early 2007. Ruth Wilson, who plays Jane, is captivating. At moments she is really a plain Jane, but with sparkling eyes and an animating smile, she is also quite attractive.

She can blend into the shadows, but asserts herself when necessary. And although Jane does not speak much, with her expressive face and mannerisms, Wilson artfully shows when she is embarrassed, exhilarated, devastated and delighted.

While the character of Jane is about 18 in the book, Wilson was 24 when this version was filmed, which was a wise decision. Wilson still has the blush of youth and innocence, but also the inner depth and maturity to convey Jane’s stormy interior.

Toby Stephens, who plays Mr. Rochester, is truly swoon-worthy material. He is wry, sarcastic, troubled, vulnerable, and irresistible. Because Jane and Rochester have many interactions long before they express their true feelings for one another, there is time for their relationship to develop real depth, a rarity in most romantic movies.

PBS aired the first half of the four-hour series on Dec. 30, and the second half a week later. I spent most of that week telling anyone who would listen that I was looking forward to the “exciting conclusion.”

Even though I knew how the story would end, there were still plenty of wonderful moments to enjoy in this adaptation. A day after watching the first half, I watched the A&E version again. While I still enjoyed it immensely, it was obvious that Stephens’ Rochester has significantly more warmth than Hinds.’ (After marveling over his acting abilities, I looked up Stephens online and discovered that he is the younger son of Dame Maggie Smith, and he obviously inherited some powerful acting genes.)

The other important difference between the A&E version and this one is the age difference between the two main characters. Hinds and Morton are probably close to 30 years apart in age, whereas with Stephens and Wilson, there is just a 12-year difference. While in the book the characters are about 20 years apart, I think it is difficult for most modern audiences to fathom a mutual attraction between people of such a wide age gap. Because Stephens and Wilson are relatively close in age, the chemistry between them is much more believable. (And there is no shortage of chemistry in this version!)

And, whereas Hinds overpowers Morton in some scenes (apparently an issue in other film versions of Jane Eyre as well), Stephens and Wilson balance each other well. He is abrupt and moody, and she is reserved, but she never seems to cower in his presence, and from the start he seems intrigued by her ideas and opinions.

The BBC production has caused some to ponder whether Stephens’ Rochester will replace Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy as the thinking woman’s sex symbol.

I certainly have a preference for the brooding Mr. Rochester to the aloof Mr. Darcy, but it seems to me in general that “Pride and Prejudice” is the more popular book, and so is its hero.

In a sense it is really unfair to compare the two books. Jane Austen wrote a brilliantly funny social commentary with a suspenseful and unlikely romance, while Bronte wrote a mysterious, passionate, sometimes outlandish tale.

As much as I like and admire “Pride and Prejudice,” I am drawn to the passions of “Jane Eyre.”

I also identify more with Jane than I do with Elizabeth Bennett.

Elizabeth possessed the confidence that comes of a comfortable upbringing, and she is unabashedly outspoken and opinionated. While I admire her forthrightness – and the charged banter she has with Mr. Darcy, I identify much more with Jane’s quietness and uncertainty.

Jane may seem plain and uninteresting on first glance, but she is smart, strong-willed and fiercely independent. And she has a deep moral resolve that carries her through life’s difficulties.

I can’t imagine myself in Elizabeth Bennett’s shoes, but, like many average looking women who dream of being appreciated by a desirable man, I can easily envision myself in Jane’s place.

Even though Jane and Rochester also banter a fair amount, their relationship is more a slowly growing friendship than a dramatic changing of heart.

One of the most moving scenes in “Jane Eyre” is the garden scene, which I referred to above.

As the story goes, Jane is under the impression that Mr. Rochester is about to announce his engagement to Blanche Ingram. He tells her that he has found a job for her in Ireland, since his fiance does not like governesses.

In this scene, Mr. Rochester says to Jane, “We’ve been good friends, haven’t we?” He then goes on to say that he feels that there is some sort of invisible string that ties him to Jane, and he fears that their connection will be severed when she leaves, causing him to bleed inwardly.

I am particularly fond of this imagery, and the notion that Rochester and Jane share a deep connection that transcends time, space and social class. More than mutual admirers of one another, they are true friends, who help one another in the most unusual of circumstances, and who will continue to care for each other, even if they cannot marry.

When Jane expresses her distress at the idea of Rochester’s marriage to Blanche, she speaks of how much she will miss him, and of how she has enjoyed interacting with him as an equal.

Even though the plot of “Jane Eyre” is a lot more fantastic than that of “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane’s feelings are very real, and that is what is so appealing to me.

Jane, after all, is an expression of Charlotte Bronte’s own passions and pains, and in that sense she is as real as any of us.