Women’s Minyan: A Play

By Naomi Ragen

Toby Press (April, 2006), $12.95


Samson et Dalila

By Camille Saint-Saëns

The Metropolitan Opera

Lincoln Center, NY


Hair in Judaism carries multiple connotations. It is distracting and narcissistic, as when Joseph “plays with his hair” too much and finds his jail sentence under Potifar extended for his vanity. It is a source of shame, as when the 42 young boys mock the prophet Elijah, saying: “Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head,” and Elijah dispatches two bears to eat them. Hair can be a practical liability, as when Absalom gets stuck in an oak tree hanging by his hair and becomes a defenseless piñata of sorts for Joab’s army. And hair can prove a strategic guise, as when Jacob adorns his arms to mimic Esau’s hairy skin in a ploy to “steal” the birthright.

But most basically, hair in Judaism implies two things, power and seduction. They might best be typified by the models of Samson and the sotah (a woman accused of adultery). Samson’s hair is plainly visible to the public as the symbol of his power, while the priest (at her show trial) uncovers the hair of the sotah to signify her powerlessness.

Samson, like Esau, seems to derive strength from his hair (more like a beast than a man) and indeed his downfall lies in Dalila’s betrayal of her husband to the Philistines, who cut his hair. As a Nazarite – who sanctifies himself to G-d by abstaining from wine products, impurity and hair cutting – Samson’s loss of hair represents a serious offense. Only by sincere supplication to G-d does Samson manage to revive his strength one last time to topple the Philistine temple and those in it in a grand suicide-vengeance.

But the Nazarite is easily one of the most peculiar sorts of Jews discussed in Jewish texts. While he seems an ideal form of religious man who separates himself from materialism in pursuit of higher values, the Nazarite in fact must bring a series of sacrifices upon the completion of his Nazarite vows. One of the offerings is a ewe lamb as a sin offering, which begs the question: Why is the Nazarite – arguably the epitome of asceticism – a sinner?

Within this framework of the Nazarite as ascetic sinner, the model of the sotah emerges in Naomi Ragen’s “Women’s Minyan: A Play.” Ragen’s book does not explore women’s prayer. Instead Ragen presents a narrative set in Bnei Brak, where a mother of 12, Chana – who has deserted her family – returns home under police escort in an effort to see her children. Her family and in-laws are furious at her return, blaming her for not only abandoning her family, but also for being guilty of terrible charges (all of which are false rumors) leveled against her.

As the play unfolds, readers (and Chana’s family and friends) learn that Chana ran off in order to save her life from a dangerously abusive husband, Yankele. The women’s minyan – an ad hoc jury that Chana sets up, composed of her relatives and ex-friends – renders judgement in her favor, stipulating that she may be permitted to see her children. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Women’s Minyan is Ragen’s portrayal of hair, both covered and exposed.

As protagonist and villain of the play, Chana is described as simply wearing “a headscarf that covers her hair.” Bluma, her 19-year-old daughter, wears a “carefully coifed wig [which] proclaims her status as a married woman.” Chana’s mother-in-law, Goldie Sheinhoff, sports a gray wig that “exudes great moral power and authority,” while her own mother Frume, wears a “severe version of the traditional headscarf [that] covers all her hair.” Gitte Leah, Chana’s older sister, “wears the traditional pointed turban, called a schpitz, to denote her status. Her clothes are modest, but flashier than the others.” Eta, a neighbor, is dressed in a scarf that “seems to squeeze her face and thrust it forward”; Tovah, the mikvah lady, wears “a head scarf, big glasses and no makeup”; and Zehava, Chana’s friend, wears a “long snood, favored by Sephardic haredi women.” But most significantly, Chana’s sister-in-law Adina, 33, has her hair “cut short in a no-nonsense style and left completely uncovered to show her unmarried status, a stigma at her age.”

In the stage production, Naomi Ragen’s emphasis on hair and hair covering in her characters has a lot to do with the struggles for familial power. Ragen’s story is respectful; it never indicates that hair covering itself is controlling. But it does suggest that for some – the abusive Yankele, for example – women and wives are degraded and demoted.

The Metropolitan Opera production of Samson also picks up on this aspect of hair. Samson is perfectly cast as a large man with a goatee and long flowing curls. Perhaps the most brilliant interpretive move that the Met conducts is to illustrate the tension between Samson and the “conventional” Jews. Samson, as a Jewish super hero, is an outsider of sorts. Jewish heroes tend to be meager in stature; part of the aesthetic of Goliath’s slaying calls for the scrawny David. But Samson is a giant with brute strength, who captures foxes and sends them aflutter in the Philistine fields with torches fixed to their tails.

The Met production portrays Samson as a reckless revolutionary among the sages who is resigned in passive acceptance of G-d’s punishment by the hand of the Philistines. Like the rebellious son at the Passover Seder, Samson – in this production – wears no head covering, even among his rabbinic peers who wear kippas and taliths. This sacrilegious move on Samson’s part is consistent with tension that the Prophets often record between the judges and the prophets.

Samson’s dress then, immediately distinguishes him from his peers. He wears his hair long without head covering, while the rest of the Jews wear short hair and head coverings. This reversal of the implications of the sotah and of the married women in Ragen’s tale is telling. Samson thrives on being different, on standing out, and the same unconventionality (or flashiness) that proves the undoing of the sotah is Samson’s proud uniform.

It takes cutting Samson’s hair back down to size and reducing him to a powerless slave who the Philistines mock at their festivals for Samson to realize that his strength came from G-d, and not from his physical appearance. Stripped of his narcissism, Samson is able to revive his strength.

What is at play in the notion of hair as power is what contemporary metaphysics calls personal identity. Hair, like fingernails, represents parts of the body that are dispensable and thus transitory. When we lose hair or fingernails, we might ask ourselves whether the discarded materials are still parts of us. Jewish law requires that fingernails be burnt or disposed of. Hair carries no such requirement. But perhaps the transitory aspect of hair – attached to us but not inherent – accounts for its illusive power.

Perhaps this is why many chassidic masters called for men to wear their hair short and their beards long. Hair is considered to be symbolic of din (harsh judgment), while beards are symbolic of emunah (belief). The Nazarite’s long hair brings harsh judgments, which is why he must offer a sin offering upon the completion of his Nazarite service. Samson also must seek atonement; and only after he does and enriches his belief, is he reinstated to his leadership role. Only after Chana’s friends and family manage to see through the slanderous rumors that have surrounded her departure are they able to fully appreciate what she has suffered. Thus both Chana and Samson find their hair stripped (symbolic for the former and literal for the latter). Through their shame, both characters achieve a quasi-salvation.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.


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Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.