I first dye my hair in the fall of 2014. It’s a cool, windy fall, the kind that sets me pulling leggings on under my jeans, tugging my jacket closer around myself on my way to Rocky Horror; the island of Manhattan is just beginning to open itself up to me, after a long, nasty spring where I hobbled from classroom to classroom with a broken ankle and a pair of crutches.
There’s a girl in my Gender and Communication class – well, not a girl; she says it’s all right to call her she, and her, but that she’s actually got no gender at all. She has a pair of black combat boots, a green pixie cut, and a sarcastic retort for every boring or bigoted comment someone makes in class, and I fall a little bit in love with her that fall.
Well – not quite love, in the same way that she’s not quite a girl. It’s the peculiar ache in so many queer people’s chests: what is this admiration, this immediate tug of kinship and understanding? Do I want to kiss you, or do I want to talk to you, do I want to be you?
What I want, I decide, is her haircut.
My hair has changed over the years: the dark curls on my head when I’m born, identical to my mother’s; the strands of gold running through my braids when I’m eight and nine; the dirty brown waves that flop like a pyramid around my head as I stumble, acne-covered and brace-toothed, through school. By the time I get into college I’ve cut most of it off, and try to ignore it as best I can: wash and wear, says my hairdresser, and steps back. And not too butch.
At the salon uptown, in the fall of 2014, I feel my scalp prickle as the bleach sets in. When the hairdresser washes it out, I blink up at myself in the mirror: it’s blonde, straight, hangs by my head in limp strands.
I think, I look pretty, and feel anxiety leap in my stomach, though I don’t know why.
And then hours later I step out of the salon, my hair bright purple. I text a friend, I want people to ask for my preferred gender pronouns and my phone number, in that order, and smile to myself. My skull seems lighter, my scalp tender. My whole head feels oversensitive, like a breeze could set my teeth chattering.
Over the course of the next year, my hair is three or four colors: pink, blue, silver, lemon-yellow. I shave the sides of my head, tilt this way and that, try to see if my face looks any better. It doesn’t, particularly – but I tie on a pair of Doc Martens, shrug a plaid men’s shirt onto my shoulders, think, All right. I can live with this.
I’ve never felt particularly connected to my reflection in the mirror. It always seems like an abstract to me, some police-station sketch of what I should look like: eyes, nose, shoulders, skin. It’s interesting insofar as I can dress it up, use it to communicate with the outside world: polka-dot dress, Giants baseball hat, black lipstick, each encodes a message that others can read. This fascinates me. The sheer everyday, mundane reality of owning a body – this is less interesting.
With dyed hair, my appearance is a message that others can read all the time. I luxuriate in this, pick up comments as if every one is a compliment: weird, queer, punk. I become that girl with the purple hair – or pink, or blue; I become noticeable for my appearance, in a positive way, which is something I’ve never experienced before.
When I come home for Hanukkah, my mother and I don’t look particularly similar any more.
Not dissimilar; anyone who sees us can tell how closely we resemble each other. But there’s something in my wardrobe, my stance – my blue eyes, where hers are hazel-brown; my average height, where hers is five-foot-two. My straight purple hair, where hers is dark and curly around her head.
I look less Jewish.
This is new.
I’ve never looked very Jewish, not noticeably. I inherited my skin and eyes from my father, a hodgepodge of Irish-Prussian-Hungarian-Norwegian Gentile whiteness. My nose comes from my mother’s side, the famous Greenstein nose that my zeyde’s mother carried from Ukraine to America, but watered down; the snub to it is from my father’s mother’s side.
And my hair is every which thing it can be, and more. When I run my fingers through it, before it’s dyed, I find that one hair growing out of my head is straight, dirty-blond like my father’s; a hair right next to it is thick and dark, curling in lazy corkscrews.
I am reminded of the story of the man who had two wives. The older one would pluck out his dark hairs as she brushed his hair in the morning, wishing him to appear old like her, while the younger one would pluck out his white hairs, wishing him to appear closer to her age. As for the man himself, well, he went bald.
With a last name like Weverka, I can pass for non-Jewish if I want to. I don’t want to. It’s a source of pride for me, and besides, I don’t particularly enjoy hearing the anti-Semitic jokes and faintly offensive comments that non-Jews seem to target me with whenever they don’t realize their audience isn’t friendly. But I have no interest in appearing straight, either, and then getting the same damn thing from the lowkey homophobes scattered around New York.
I can’t keep coming out over and over again. I can’t choose between the two; I need to look like a queer Jew. But I don’t know what that looks like.
Maybe a queer Jew looks like you!! says a wide-eyed straight Gentile in my Gender and Communication class.
I mean, thanks for the pep talk, I think, but that’s not actually helpful in any kind of practical sense.
In Germany the question becomes a little more moot: that overwhelming marker of foreignness, my American accent, trumps any aspect of my appearance that I could worry about. But the summer after I come back from Germany, in a bathroom mirror with a pair of kitchen scissors, I carefully snip all the bleach-blonde out of my hair.
It’s the first time it’s been entirely its own color in years. It’s brown, and wavy. I’m not sure what I was expecting.
Then I move to Brooklyn’s Borough Park, the largest community of Hasids in the United States.
I love it instantly. I love it continually; I’m on the border of a small Chinatown, a few blocks from a Dominican community, a few more from an Italian community; sitting in the park with my morning bagel and coffee, I see women in tichels, hijabs, niqabs, speaking Yiddish and Spanish and Cantonese, watching their children clamber over slides and water fountains. There is no one here with a culture that matches my own, and I’m delighted by this.
There is no one here with a culture that matches my own, and I think about this as I walk home, through the women with their long skirts and the men with their peyot; as I hover by the wine and the challah at the grocery store, watching the wives sweep groceries into their cart to prepare for Shabbat evening.
They don’t make eye contact with me, or smile, though they nod to each other in recognition of their neighbors. They sweep around me without acknowledging me – not in a mean way, just in an understanding that they belong to a community from which I am excluded.
But I’m not excluded, I want to shout. I’m a Jew, too. I don’t keep kosher – or the Shabbos – I don’t go to services on Saturday mornings. I’m the child of a mixed marriage. I don’t speak Yiddish, or Hebrew. I’ve never been to Israel. But I’m one of you, I’m one of you, I am not a stranger, I stood with you to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Don’t you know me?
My uncovered knees and elbows, my blue eyes. My cropped-short hair, growing wavy out of my head, shouting to all the world: queer, queer, queer. Not distinctly un-Jewish – but in this landscape, not Jewish enough.
I think of the strange leap in my stomach, when I saw it bleached straight and blonde for the first time. The thought: I look pretty. And the anxiety, rolling down my spine, creeping in.