We just returned from a trip to Europe where we visited family in Zurich and Zagreb, stopping to see some of the terrain as we drove between the two cities. I’ll write more about that journey soon.
What I don’t want to wait to share is this story.
In the days before the trip, I was anxious about how to cover my hair while we were away. I generally prefer wrapping with a tichel (headscarf) to wearing a sheitel (wig), all the more so in the heat of summer and for ease on the road, when sheitel accouterments take up too much space in a small suitcase. Yet I was worried about being seen – being picked out as a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism is spiking, or as a Muslim woman when profiling is a thing, or by anyone whose prejudice makes them uncomfortable with either. I’ve had moments stateside when my scarf has attracted uncomfortable attention. In Europe, I figured, better – safer – to wear a wig and benefit from the anonymity of hair. To look as local as possible, too, to fit in when Americans are not the most beloved of tourists.
Still, I waffled back and forth until the morning of our departure, finally running it by one of my sons, who said, “Don’t worry. Just do you.” So I threw a scarf into my suitcase for variety, tied a second one around my head, and off we went.
For 10 days, it was, thank G-d, fine, though I’m aware it could have gone otherwise. Once, at a Slovenian castle, an Israeli family pulled up next to me and asked in Hebrew where there was parking, no doubt picking me out of the crowd because of my head-covering. Otherwise, no one seemed to notice.
On the second to last day of our trip, I left our hotel room in Italy to see if one of the housekeeping staff was on the floor. I needed a laundry bag. Luckily, I found someone, and luckier still that she spoke some English since I have no Italian.
I’d turned to go when she suddenly asked me if I was from Morocco. She expressed noticeable surprise when I answered, “No, America.” I returned the question, smiling as she said, “I’m from Morocco. The women there wear scarves like you.”
I wish there had been more time, that she didn’t have to get back to work and I didn’t have to pack, so we could carry on the conversation, so I could ask her my many questions. I had not detected at first the lilt of hope I later sensed in her voice, perhaps a longing to happen upon a landswoman with whom she might reminisce.
It did not occur to me to tell her that I’m Jewish or why I wrap my hair. Perhaps she figured it out after, though I don’t know for sure and doubt it would’ve made any difference. I also did not share with her how blessed it was to have felt safe wearing a headscarf during our trip, and that I might not have done so had our itinerary been different, had we gone to London or Paris instead, for example.
Yet I was beyond grateful I had put my wig back on its stand and chosen a scarf, not only for the personal comfort the latter gave me on days when the temperatures reached the high 90s and the hair of a long wig was not stuck to the back of my neck. But also for that fleeting encounter in the hallway of our hotel, a moment between two women, neither from that particular place, who felt at home with one another, their backgrounds and nationalities and beliefs fading into the distance as a scarf, intended to conceal, revealed what they shared instead.
Wishing everyone a restful Shabbos. May G-d continue to reveal Himself in beautiful moments large and small, allowing us to partner with Him as we bring light and love into the world.
2 thoughts on “The Language of a Headscarf”
A beautiful story, Merri. Even here in Los Angeles, in the thick of an extremely large and thriving Orthodox community, I am, for the first time, walking around with a slight sense of foreboding, more aware than ever that as I also usually wear a pre-tied scarf or beret, I am more clearly marked as a Jew and open to unwelcome comments or worse.
It really is terrifying. I have had issues in our area as well, as Jewish as it is. May G-d protect us all.