Only her sheitelmacher knows: Brooklyn wig-makers enlisted to tease out domestic abuse secrets

Shabbat is over in Flatbush, and Georgie, comb in hand, goes to work. In her makeshift salon at home, while Andreas Botticelli sings on the stereo and bewigged Styrofoam heads rest on metal poles, Georgie hovers over a client, expertly flipping the strawberry-blond locks of the customer’s sheitel, massaging the layers of the $1,000 wig into a style Georgie pronounces to be “classic,” like “Hillary’s hair but taller.”

It is supposed to be Georgie’s night out for ice-skating, or for zipping off to one of the city’s kosher vegetarian eateries with her daughter, but for this client, on this night, she makes an exception. She does so this once because, after all, this client is not only a good customer, she’s also a friend.

Such is the sheitelmacher’s life, where bonds are forged as tresses are untangled, where customers visit Georgie as often as every other week for a $60 shampoo and styling of the wigs they wear in keeping with the Jewish laws of modesty for married women. It is a culture where women trade advice and secrets. It is a culture where you might find a Jewish twist (not a French one) on the cliche “only her hairdresser knows.”

Next week, Georgie, who is 51 and known from Melbourne to Midwood by her first name alone, will address a gathering of Brooklyn’s sheitelmachers about one of the more difficult secrets of Orthodox women: domestic violence.

Georgie will speak Feb. 12 at the Grand Ballroom in Borough Park along with others recruited by the Kings County District Attorney’s office. Some 40 wig-makers are expected to attend; some estimates put the number of sheitelmachers in Brooklyn at several hundred.

The program—the first of its kind to deal with wig-makers and the largest in terms of scope—aims to sensitize hairstylists to the issue of domestic abuse in the Orthodox world, to educate them about services to which they can refer clients, and to teach them not to say “this doesn’t happen in our community,” says Henna White, Jewish community liaison for the Brooklyn District Attorney and the creator of the program.

White says that in recent years, as Orthodox Jews began to accept that not every yeshiva boy makes a good husband, and battered women grew more comfortable revealing their painful experiences, the community has learned “how widespread the problem is.”

“I’m so busy with domestic violence calls,” says White, who received a federal grant for Project Eden, a community-based initiative to address domestic abuse in the Orthodox community that includes representatives from the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services and The Shalom Task Force.

White hopes to educate an array of community confidantes, those who become fixtures in a religious woman’s life, and who women might turn to more quickly than a mental health worker.

“After the sheitelmachers, next we’ll do the mikveh ladies, and the daycare workers and the nail salons,” says White. She notes that the DA’s office has already tried the “top-down” approach of sensitizing rabbis and that the new program is adding another layer to the effort.

The purpose of the program, White says, is to make abused women feel less “alone and isolated. If she’s not ready to seek help from mental health professionals, this can be the first step, kind of like a hotline.”

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to encourage victims of domestic violence to come forward,” says Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who says he “grew up in the nightmare” of an abusive home in Flatbush, and is concerned about helping both victims and the batterers.

White chose to start this program with sheitelmachers because it is one of the more organized professions, one that gathers periodically to discuss innovations in wig technology. Georgie will be among the speakers because “everybody thought she epitomized what a sheitelmacher should be,” says White.

Georgie, who wears her auburn hair in a choppy layered look (the result, she says of an experiment with Japanese thermal-ironing gone awry), opened her first salon at the age of 16, two years after emigrating from Budapest, Hungary, where she grew up. Her deft touch with a pair of scissors, or a razor or her latest tool—a pair of seamstress’ shears that leave a zigzag cut—helped her grow into one of the most recognized names in the business.

Until four years ago, Georgie ran a salon with 10 hairdressers and 20 employees in the heart of Borough Park, the Madison Avenue of high-end hair for the Orthodox. Then came marital challenges, followed by a divorce, and as Georgie tells it, her husband ended up with everything, and she with just “three dollars after 27 years of marriage.”

Georgie says it’s fitting for her to speak about domestic abuse after suffering through emotional and financial manipulation, though she seems more comfortable talking about her twin passions, hair and health.

What does Georgie tell a client who hints of abuse at home?

“I usually ask them to change their diet,” she says, running to answer the doorbell. “Give me an angry husband for four weeks and I’ll feed him. Did you ever see an angry vegetarian?”

Georgie is not being flip in her response; she truly believes in the healing power of the right diet.

In telling her life story, Georgie can’t help but to add a few tangential notes. Apparently, kosher kimchee can be found in Boston. Apparently, she can determine a woman’s eating habits by examining her nails. Apparently, “a well-dressed professional woman needs four sheitels: one on the head, one in the sink, one on standby and one in the box.”

The problems in Georgie’s marriage began with an elevator accident that sent her husband to Kings County Hospital for a year. Georgie says she stayed by his bedside all the while, nursing him back to health. But “when he came out of the hospital something snapped and he became a terrorist,” she says.

She had to start over, setting up shop at home, where customers find easy parking in her driveway, where they can sample Georgie’s squash soup with seaweed and oatmeal in the kitchen, and where they can schmooze about the latest in sheitel fashion and discuss life dreams and disappointments in front of the antique gilt-framed mirrors in the makeshift salon.

In a profession that weaves the bonds of friendship inextricably into its work, it makes sense that Georgie agreed to speak at the Feb. 12 conference because, as she says, “I just love Henna White. I don’t know how to say no.”

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