I used to hate my Jewfro.
As is the case with most curly-haired Jewish people, I would often fantasize about what my hair would like like if it were short, slick and straight, something akin to Alex Turner’s high pompadour or Brad Pitt’s undercut or even Adam Levine’s relaxed waves. I’ve even considered altering the color of my hair and shaving it off completely. The specific tightness and thickness of my curls make it difficult to get a haircut that wasn’t just “long on the top, short on the sides.” It didn’t help either that, along with my last name and the shape of my nose, the style of my hair made my Jewishness stick out like a sore thumb.
This, of course, is not to say that I’m ashamed of my Jewish heritage (far from it). But like anyone who comes from a marginalized background, I had trouble reconciling with the inextricable tie between my identity as a Jew and the hair on my head. Even though I was surrounded by a Jewish community for the majority of my life, my hair was still a constant reminder that I was different.
Jewish or not, big, kinky and dark hair is something that has always been seen as an aesthetic accessory needing to be tamed in order to heed the societal standard of short, straight and light hair. In the more specific context of the Jewfro, the unkemptness of curly Jewish hair on men can often be seen as unattractive, asexual, awkward and out-of-fashion.
Famous Jewish male celebrities like Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jesse Eisenberg and Andy Samberg helped popularize the Jewfro early in their careers, but have long since abandoned those hairstyles for more refined ‘dos. TV characters who sported Jewfros — like Robbie Shapiro (Matt Bennett, “Grey’s Anatomy”), the geeky puppeteer from Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” and Kevin (David Bloom, “CSI: NY”), the lonely pre-teen from Netflix’s “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” — were usually the butt of the joke or simply comic relief, which inevitably reinforces negative, stereotypical representations of Jewish masculinity.
For me, the Jewfro represents a paradox of pride and shame. My parents, sister and I all share curly hair, though each of us possess different textures: My sister’s is bouncy, my mom’s is flowy and my dad’s is rigid (though it was radically bulkier in the ’70s, which resulted in him getting the nickname “Poodle”). Hair is one of the few traits that my family and I can appreciate sharing together, but growing up, that didn’t always feel like enough.
Whenever my hair grew long, I brushed it for what felt like hours, trying to get rid of the knots and cowlicks that refused to be subdued. Trips to the barbershop made for both an exciting and anxiety-inducing experience. On rare occasions, they were humiliating, like when my mother coerced me into getting a haircut one day after school in sixth grade when she saw it was getting too big. As I sat weeping in that chair in the Yellow Balloon Barbershop while my barber ran her coarse fingers through my hair, all I could think about was how I was missing out on playing Guitar Hero and eating popcorn with the boys who were in my carpool. My hair had quite literally inhibited me from socializing.
Moments like those deepened my embarrassment for having a Jewfro. After ninth grade, I kept my hair mostly on the short side and made sure to get a haircut at the beginning of every month. Before embarking on a six-week summer program in Israel in 2013, I asked my parents to give me a buzzcut, since it was a trendy look among my friends at the time. Unfortunately, their attempt at shaving my hair with the incorrect set of clippers in my backyard led to the worst haircut I’ve ever received (sorry, Mom and Dad). The flattened strands, which were later fixed by a professional barber, made my hair lose its curly quality, causing me to briefly consider that perhaps a shaved look was not the best idea in the first place.
In other instances, my Jewfro became a source of actual physical agony. At my first ever “Rocky Horror Picture Show” midnight screening in the summer of 2015, a young woman yanked my hair and proceeded to violently rock it back and forth during what’s known as the “Virginal Sacrifice,” an initiation in which “Rocky Horror” first-timers are subjected to aggressive dry-humping by a crowd of “Rocky Horror” veterans. After it happened and my initial mortification subsided, I tried to laugh the whole thing off, thinking that the more important thing was to just have fun. But I couldn’t shake off how much her grabbing my hair hurt, how painful it was to have something so integral to my identity be violated for the sake of spectacle.
As time has passed, I’ve started to embrace the Jewfro look a bit more. I’ve realized that cutting my Jewfro was both flattening my hair into a more neutral appearance and erasing an important facet of my Jewish identity. Based on the suggestion of a barber I met in New York this summer, I bought American Crew forming cream to help volumize and brighten my curls, and since that purchase, my insecurity over my curls has lessened dramatically. A friend recently told me, after seeing a picture of me on my Instagram story, that my hair looks better when it’s longer. I mentioned that I was thinking about cutting it soon, which was followed by a message of three eye-rolling emojis. Maybe he’s right.
So often we are told to suppress who we are in order to appease the expectations of others or to change ourselves in order to stand out among the masses, and these primal fears can be traced through our need to cut or alter our hair and other parts of ourselves. I used to think that my Jewfro made it harder for me to navigate the straight-haired world, but the more I’ve learned to appreciate it, the more I understand why it’s necessary to who I am and who I am becoming.