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My Frizzy, Curly, Jewish Hair

“Are you Jewish?”

This is not one of the top questions you want to hear from a stranger on Russian public transportation.

I’m sitting on a sweltering trolley-car in Kazan, Russia, riding back to the center of town from the banks of the river. Amid this crowd of strangers, I’m alone in too-big bell-bottoms and I’m clutching a towel. Being a girl, bereft of those “funny little hats” my dad and boyfriend wear, I can only assume it’s the big nose or the sweaty corona of frizz or the matronly bosom that gave me away. Either way—I turn to the man beside me, squinting into his knowing leer, and after a long pause, I nod.

“I could tell,” he says. He leans in further.

“I’m Jewish too,” he says. I can smell herring on his breath, like this is some nightmare, alternate-reality Kiddush club. One of his teeth is missing. “But, you know what? I’m not circumcised.”

Naturally this catches me off guard—I had little interest in what lurked under his brightly colored Lycra shorts. But it’s not the first time someone has keyed in to my ultra-Semitic appearance. It’s hard to ignore, particularly my curly mane, which puffs up like a blowfish at the first hint of moisture in the air, like it’s warding off threats. Wherever I go, my hair gives me away, ungovernable as my stiff-necked people, and as treacherous as our enemies say we are—a fifth column of frizz.

In the past I’ve resorted to creative dyeing. On my gap year, I chopped it short and spiked it with electric purple, and since then, I’ve hidden it under an ever-shifting spectrum of reds, golds, and, once, an unfortunate sallow orange. But even so, it spills resolutely down my forehead—if not a Mark of Cain, then at least a Mark of Cohen. In rural Iceland, I was informed repeatedly that my hair would make “really great dreads.” (Anyone who looked at the rest of my face or body could tell you that this is a “really terrible idea.”) Once, on a bus to Providence, my nose buried in a Saul Bellow novel, I got tapped on the shoulder by the heavyset man sitting next to me. Closer inspection revealed that he’d been listening to Christian faith tapes for most of the journey.

“Are you of faith?” he asked, with a quirk of the eyebrow that suggested he already knew my answer.

“Uh, I guess,” I said. “I’m not Christian, though.”

He nodded, suspicions confirmed, and shot me a look full of saccharine, transcendental pity. “Well, where I’m from”—rural Missouri, as it happened—“a lot of people don’t like you folks. But me, I think that being good with money is a gift from God.”

I quickly protested that I was terrible with money (which is true). Banks laugh in the face of my credit card applications. I once accidentally took home a Spanish-language tax form, and didn’t realize until it was half-filled out. But Mr. Missouri was insistent upon my gifted status, my chosenness, plain as the bulbous nose on my face.

Short of shaving my scalp—something that only one Jew on earth can pull off, and her name is Natalie Portman—or blowing my nonexistent budget on expensive, temporary treatments, it seems that I’ll carry this mark of my Jewishness with me wherever I go. But unlike the mark of Cain, my Biblical forebear, this one seems to tell me that wherever I wander on the earth, part of me will always be right back home in Teaneck, NJ, treading the pavement between Sammy’s Bagels, Schnitzel Plus, and Glatt Express. And yet—something tells me that’s not so bad. If nothing else, it offers up interesting conversation on public transportation. And have you stopped in at Sammy’s? The lox is fantastic. Makes me proud to be a Jew.

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