For 20 years, Aliza Shor has made her living in Baltimore helping Jewish wives observe the biblical prohibition against exposing their hair to anyone but their husbands.
While Orthodox homemakers go to Shor's wig shop to keep the faith and feel good about their looks, they leave with more than a wash and style.
"I talk of spiritual things," says Shor, the Israeli-born dean of Baltimore's "sheitl machers," Yiddish for wigmakers. "Some women walk in with big stone in their heart and walk out with a smile."
Shor listens carefully and speaks gently, making the person in her chair feel as though she has left a world where ill winds can wreck the nicest "do" and into one where a good, simple brushing will restore order.
If the customer is worried, Shor provides a rock to hold onto from a collection she's gathered from Israel, the streets and seashores -- malachite being especially good for easing pain, she says.
She encourages mothers to bake their Sabbath bread instead of buying it at the store, gives away books about Jewish mysticism, and insists, in her quiet way, that if people would recite a prayer after using the lavatory -- as strictly observant Jews do -- they would be free of contagion-related illness.
While beauty parlors and barber shops are known as places where dirt gets dished, a prominent sign in Shor's shop explains that gossips break 34 of Judaism's 613 commandments.
"I tell them they have to live spiritually," says Shor, born in Tel Aviv 49 years ago. "I always was spiritual, even as a kid. In this job, I have learned I am good at helping people."
Years after someone has visited Shor's basement shop on West Strathmore Avenue with a problem bigger than a wig that won't part properly, she receives "letters sharing with me about their healing and how much I helped them. They stay close to me."
In the midst of such faith, hair spray flies, wigs are held upside down for vigorous brushings, the foul smell of chemicals used to give permanents hangs in the air, and distraught women rush in with their latest sheitl crisis.
Not long ago, a newlywed in a strawberry blond wig scooted down the steps and whined that she couldn't do anything with the bangs in the front. "I can wash it and change it for you," says Shor, taking time away from the rabbi's wife in her chair as an assistant searched the appointment book for a free spot.
As the woman left, another walked in with a baby on her hip and a bag of wigs in her hand that someone had given to her. Shor looked them over the way a trusted mechanic might check out a used car.
Rebecca Kardos showed up with more dire problems. A 23-year-old gentile from Columbia, Kardos is a cancer survivor who lost her hair to a brain tumor and chemotherapy 12 years ago. She heard about Shor from a University of Maryland Medical Center social worker.
"The most beauty on a woman is her hair, and losing it is the most dramatic thing of the sickness," says Shor, who encourages the sick to trust God as well as their doctors.
The hair that came back to Kardos grew in very thin, so she covers it with a wig much different from the usual fare at Shor's -- long, curly blond tresses more common in malls than synagogues.
At Shor's, Kardos receives motherly lectures on how to care for her wig -- "I don't have any hair technique," she laments -- but is lost on the intricacies of Jewish custom.
Even the rabbis have said that of all the Jewish laws governing modesty between the sexes -- the Talmud says that a man is forbidden even to stare at a woman's finger intently -- the covering of a woman's hair could be the most difficult to fathom.
Through the prophet Isaiah, the God of Israel declares: "Your nakedness will be exposed and your shame shall be seen and I will not be entreated by man. "
Female hair, along with a woman's singing voice, any exposed flesh larger than the size of a fist -- defined as about four inches -- has been regarded as a form of nakedness by Jews since at least the fourth century.
When a woman is alone at home, there is no obligation to cover her hair, although it is considered righteous if she does so at all times, and the Bible is rich in stories of good and bad befalling women in relation to their adherence to the obligation.
At a recent lecture on the subject, Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowtiz of Gaithersburg allowed that while hair is not "intrinsically provocative covering [it] shows that there are some parts of a woman reserved just for her and her family."
Many women -- especially among observant Jews in Israel and Hasidic communities around the world -- favor hats. Others use loose fabric caps called "snoods" or wrap their hair in kerchiefs. Invariably, some hair will show and there is endless discussion about how much is acceptable. Among Hungarian Jews, the custom is for a woman to shave her head.
There is also controversy -- generally between the more modern and stricter elements within Orthodoxy -- about women observing the law by covering their hair with wigs, which can run from $150 to $2,000.
Because the spirit of the prohibition is modesty, the sheitl debate often centers on the expense of the wig and the devotion some women put into making themselves attractive in the outside world.
Nechama First of Northwest Baltimore began covering her head when she was married seven months ago. A 32-year-old graduate of a secular women's college in Massachusetts, she describes herself as a feminist and feels secure about herself in her wig.
"The law doesn't say you have to look ugly, it says your real hair that grows from your head is private. I like to cover every hair," First says. "It's your poise and your behavior that give a message and you can certainly look attractive and beautiful. In a truly religious Jewish community, which [is] rare in America, you'll see that the women are powerful and validated and respected. I believe we are more powerful in our modesty than other women are by being out front.
"Physically, it's the same with your hair as it is with your spirit," she says. "There's your inside you only share with close friends and family, not the American way of spilling your guts to every stranger on the bus."
Pub Date: 4/28/97