On the Man in North Hollywood Who Was Tearing Off Women's Sheitels Around Yom Kippur

In November, a man was arrested in California for pulling off the sheitels (wigs) of Orthodox Jewish women. When I saw this news I was angry, just as much because of the way it was handled by the media and commentors as by the crime itself. After all, the crime is not unique. Jewish and Muslim women are regularly assaulted for covering their hair. My anger is with the fact that this kind of crime is rarely discussed as sexual assault and the conversation around these incidents is rarely contextualized within the frame of intersectionality.

The man in question reportedly ripped the sheitels off of at least three--though evidence seems to suggest that there may be more victims who did not report--different women in North Hollywood around Yom Kippur. The perpetrator was clearly knowledgeable about certain aspects of religious Judaism like holy days and practices of modesty, which only makes the crime more insidious.

Most people that I have interacted with do not see the difference between wigs and real hair, nor is it very common knowledge that some Jewish women cover their hair with wigs. This criminal knew, and must be practiced in, spotting Orthodox Jewish women. Likewise, it is important to remember that he committed the crimes around Yom Kippur--the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Sure, many non-Jews know about Yom Kippur, but it is notable that the incidents occurred during such an important holiday, after all he didn’t commit the crime during Chanukah or Passover.

As it should be, the act was classified as a hate crime. However, I’d like to suggest that the crime should also be classified as sexual assault, because likely for the women who were the victims, that is exactly what this was. Often, married Jewish women cover their hair as a sign of modesty, as a married woman’s hair is considered a private, sensual part of her body reserved for her partner, as well as for other reasons. Although it is not clear from the reports if the women wanted to charge the crime as sexual assault, the physicality of the attack cannot be ignored. The criminal’s knowledge of the practice implies at least a subconscious understanding that forcibly removing these women’s sheitels and mocking them is a violation of their bodies, of their right to privacy, and of their physical safety.

Once again we are faced with a case of lack of consent. An example of men who do not understand that a woman’s boundaries are for her alone to define and of a dominant hegemonic culture imposing upon a minority. Unsurprisingly, many of the comments on the reports on social media demonstrated the complete lack of understanding of the severity of this crime.

One commentor on the post by the New York Daily News, claimed authority on the subject of Orthodox Jewish women because they had seen the Netflix documentary, One of Us. According to this commentor, all religious Jewish women are forced to cover their hair, shave their heads, remain in abusive relationships, have many children, and then when they attempt to stand up for themselves or to leave the community their children are taken away from them and their lives are destroyed. While this is no doubt the case for some women in these positions, like Etty, it is by no means the truth that all religious Jewish women live. And while it is important to address the atrocities happening in our world, we should take care not to project these atrocities onto others. And regardless as to whether or not the victims of this crime felt they had a choice to cover their hair, the crime is not valid or justified. A man outside of their community violently tearing off their sheitel is not liberating them, nor enlightening them as to how oppressed they might be. If the public insists on discussing this crime within the context of patriarchal practices in Judaism, then a major point should be how he is taking out the actions of oppressive men on the women who are being oppressed. However, I doubt that his intentions were coming from a place of feminism.  

It is important that we know about and understand crimes of this nature. In so many conversations I’ve been a part of about Jewish representation and anti-Antisemitism, some one says, “Jewish men are more visible than Jewish women because men wear kippot and/or tzitzit. Women who abide by tzniut (modest), more often blend in, their wigs are indistinguishable from real hair, and if they cover their hair with a scarf the hatred directed at them is often mistaken Islamophobia. For a Jewish woman to be recognized as such she must be wearing a Star of David.” As this crime suggests, this is simply not true. While there are cases of Jewish women being mistaken for Muslim in Islamophobic crimes, it is clear that there are women being targeted because of their Jewishness.

The reception of this crime is not only an intersectional issue because it targeted specifically religious Jewish women, but also because it speaks to the way that we process similar crimes committed against Muslim women, women of color, and yes, even men. We forget that hatred can be multi-dimensional and we take crimes at the criminals’ words, rather than the victims’. We only acknowledge crimes that we are frequently alerted to, which is why we must take note when things like this happen. Moving forward, I hope that we can try to better understand the nuances in people’s lives and recognize how complex the problems in our world really are.

Ally Pockrass