I can tell by the way it hangs motionless in a heavy curtain, glistening with the latest shine-enhancing magic goo.
Jewish Hair. Jewish Hair that has lost the epic struggle of follicle against space-age polymer. Jewish Hair that has succumbed to the unyielding will of heat and a round brush. Jewish Hair that is positively Marsha Brady.
Like a mother easily spots her own child in a crowd, I just know that lurking inside this woman's well-tamed wall of hair is a mass of curls just waiting to break free, like my own.
I don't know her very well and I don't want to be rude. But I just have to know. "What do you use…on your hair?" I ask cautiously.
The acquaintance whispers the name of her favorite straightening balm — one of a barrage of such products flooding the market — like an inside trader whispers a stock tip.
Then, she gives me the name of a woman who can help me, handing me a scrap of paper with a number.
"Tell her I sent you. You can go to her house any time for a perfect blow-dry. She's great for emergencies."
I squirrel the number away, and I stop and think about why my wild hair, big and curly when left to its own devices, would ever pose an "emergency." Suddenly, it seems so silly, this war I wage against Mother Nature, the endless hours with the blow-dryer, the effort and considerable cost of attaining and maintaining the straight hair I covet and always have.
Yet I persist, and increasingly, I notice the same war being waged by other Jewish women, the same dogged conviction to chisel our sometimes pouffy locks into tidy, neat silhouettes.
Of course not all Jews have what I'm calling Jewish Hair, but there is a certain full curly mane often associated with a Jewish look, whether the hair's grower is actually Jewish or not. Think Amy Irving in "Crossing Delancey," or Julianna Margulies in "ER" or Gilda Radner in anything. Or consider possibly the most well-known example, Julia Louis-Dreyfus from "Seinfeld." You may have noticed that she, too, has waged a war against her curls, settling on a glimmering, only slightly bouncy coif that slides her away from Kramer on the crazy-hair scale and positions her closer to the cast of "Friends."
It's likely that as a result of the latter show, stick-straight hair came into vogue — any hairdresser will tell you lots of women are still requesting the look. Those of us with Jewish Hair, or any other variety of hair prone to kinks and volume, have farther to go. And yet, we go.
"You look so Jewish." That's what people say, on those days I surrender to the fluff. That and, "Wow, that's a lot of hair," which somehow never sounds very complimentary. I've been told I look like I just walked out of the Bible, and for some reason, people are always accidentally calling me Rachel or Deborah. Really. And I have to wonder if that's why I bother with the elaborate, bicep-torturing blow-drying ritual. Am I trying to look less Jewish?
The truth is, I think I happen to look better with straight hair. Maybe that's because the dominant culture would have me think straight is better, or maybe, I just don't like my unruly hair the way people with straight hair are always wasting their money on perms. Bottom line: I'd rather not look like an extra from "Fiddler on the Roof." Does that make me a self-hater? Really vain? Lacking in more meaningful uses for my time? Could be a little of each. Can't worry about it too much — I've got an important meeting with a brush and a blazing stream of heat.
A friend of mine is adopted and has a special loathing for people who tell her she doesn't "look" Jewish. Despite the fact that she's from Michigan, Sylvia has taken to speaking with a thick Brooklyn accent, peppering her speech with Yiddishisms. The first time she saw my hair in all its finger-in-the-socket glory, she was shocked that I would voluntarily undo the do.
"You straighten your hair! Whaddya, mishugunah?" she asked, touching it, which is a bad move, because things that go into my hair don't tend to come out with ease. After extricating her fingers, she fluffed my hair out on both sides, belted a few bars of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and said, "I'd kill for this hair. You look so…Jewish."