Curly hair was a curse. Adolescence onward, I tried blow-drying, gelling, yanking, and otherwise beating my hair into submission. It didn’t care. Like Medusa reborn, my tresses sprouted forth. I wasn’t on trend; my hair didn’t swing with the breeze. I certainly didn’t feel beautiful.
It wasn’t until college that I found a regimen agreeable to both me and my hair. Nowadays I wash and air-dry to a curly head I feel confident about. Plus, I can get it perfectly straight in 20 minutes. Yeah, you read that right.
My congregants usually find me curly-haired, but on a random Shabbat they’ll also see me straightened out. Often a girl and/or her mother will approach me after the service with a burning spiritual question: How did you get it like that? How long did it take? What do you use? They aren’t asking about the sources for my drash, they’re asking about my hair.
After those conversations, I’ll think about conversations us lady-folk had at seminary – the ones about dressing in a way that commanded respect but didn’t draw attention to our looks. We had these conversations in class and informally, all with an eye on practicality (I believe). The motive was to help us women rabbis succeed by commanding the most authority possible, given that the odds were already out of our favor.
So I’ve considered whether it is worth straightening my hair. After all, a huge part of me wishes my congregants would only approach the bimah to talk to me about the drash I gave or ask for some personal guidance – of the spiritual sort. “Beauty tips” aren’t exactly in my job description.
But I still do it. Straighten my hair, that is. And I share my tips when asked (the CHI ceramic straightener is the best; be sure to use a heat protector spray). And sometimes that’s all there is to the conversation.
And amidst this, I wonder if I’ve really ceded my authority. Is it even about “authority” at all?
There are indeed young women who I talk to about the cute new outfit they’re wearing, or the store I buy my makeup in. They are the same girls who, weeks, maybe months later, will come to talk about something not so cosmetic. They come around to talk about their overwhelming lives, their body concerns, their relationship to their parents and friends. I can’t help but think that the simple acts of “girl-talk” lead to a level of comfort. Turns out, being a 28 year old female rabbi is not an obstacle. It’s an asset.
I’ve learned that it’s less about authority and more about authenticity.
This lesson is clearest for me when I meet with a young Bat Mitzvah and her family in my study prior to the service. My favorite moment is when I wrap the talit around her shoulders for the first time and fluff her hair out from underneath. It’s been fettered down by hairspray and bobby-pins, and still it manages to escape in youthful protest. Often the Bat Mitzvah will look at me and say, “does it look okay?” I always respond, “Beautiful.”
And at the end of the service, when we stand in front of the ark, I offer a blessing, taking care to specialize it to the young woman in front of me. Through the weeks, though, I’ve discovered that (subconsciously) a theme arose:
Be kind to yourself. Nurture yourself – honoring all those beautiful traits inside of you. Only when you do that, can you go out into this great big world and make a difference. Make the difference with you first.
It took me weeks to discover the pattern and even more time to figure out why it quietly entered my blessings. As much as I am talking to the Bat Mitzvah, I am talking to myself. A young woman of 13 who needed to know that her curly hair was beautiful, that her changing body was something to be cared for and treasured. I needed someone to encourage me to believe that I was beautiful, special, and worth valuing.
So it starts with beauty tips and mutual gushing over sparkly shoes. In doing so, I hope I’m establishing a connection; an understanding that I once was that girl who was on a spiritual quest of self-discovery, expression, and acceptance.
Once was that girl? Still is that girl. Perhaps we can go adventuring together.
Rabbi Mara Young is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, New York.