Has the Headband Become a Jewish Symbol?

An investigation of #HeadbandNation, a trend in which Jews wear headbands not purely as fashion accessories, but as Jewish head coverings.

A few years ago, I started wearing headbands in addition to kippot, which I have long donned with ambivalence. I joined a growing number of women and nonbinary Jews who wanted to religiously cover our heads in Jewish observance, but never felt fully at home with the most visible options available, which are almost all deeply gendered and siloed along denominational lines.

In Jewish tradition, men begin wearing kippot as early as age three; modern non-male Jews also wear kippot, but the kippah is still often perceived as masculine.  And traditionally, women who cover their hair do so only after marriage, using wigs, scarves or caps. The specific size and type of kippah, wig, scarf or hat worn often aligns with denomination — Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Yeshivish, Chabad or a variety of Hasidic groups.

Enter #HeadbandNation, a term that has come to encompass the organic, grassroots growth of people wearing headbands not purely as fashion accessories but as Jewish head coverings. The headband first appeared in Jewish spaces in the Modern Orthodox world, where women began to don it after marriage. But its use has since grown well beyond that. No longer exclusively a marital hair covering, the headband has become increasingly popular among women and nonbinary Jews in the egalitarian Jewish world.

In early 2020, I saw the practice anecdotally discussed for the first time, and it made me wonder: If the headband has become a Jewish symbol, what does it represent? For egalitarian Jews who wear headbands, is it an extension of the practice of wearing a kippah? An extension of the practice of women covering their hair after marriage? Something more?

In an attempt to explore these questions, I embarked on an informal research project, curious to better understand how those who wear the headband for religious Jewish reasons understand its primary function. In observant Judaism, there is a strong norm for men to cover their head, at minimum when saying sacred words (prayer, studying Torah) and at maximum all the time, as a symbol of Jewish identity, often understood as deference to God. The most common head covering to serve this function is a kippah. Jewish laws and historical norms around head covering for women are primarily about modesty and covering hair after marriage. Traditionally, “feminine” head coverings like wigs, scarves and even headbands have long been associated with post-marital practices, and are commonly called “kisui rosh.”

The popularity of the headband in egalitarian Jewish spaces disrupts the kippah- kisui rosh binary. Which tradition more strongly influences headband wearers in the egalitarian Jewish world?

I constructed a survey about the head covering and distributed it through Facebook groups, listservs, and survey participant-led outreach. Anyone who identifies as an egalitarian Jew (this does not necessarily rule out those who spend time in Orthodox spaces) and sometimes wears headbands (not just for fashion) was welcome to participate. I received 88 responses — not quite enough of a data set for statistical analysis, but enough to see some trends.

I discovered that the headband is increasingly common in non-Orthodox, religious communities, particularly among younger women. The survey pool ended up being over 90% women, with a number of trans/nonbinary participants. Over 85% of respondents were between ages 21 and 39: Rocking a headband is not new, but it is certainly popular among millennials and Gen Z. The majority self-identified as Conservative and/or Trad Egal/Halakhic Egal, though a handful of participants self-identified as Open and/or Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionists, Reform, or Just Jewish. Most of the participants were married (about 62%), but marriage did not emerge as a defining event in adopting this trend. Slightly less than half of married participants took on wearing a head covering in conjunction with marriage; the rest had already been wearing a headband for religious reasons by the time they got married.

I learned how headbands have come to fill a religious need in American Jewish life. Many of the participants reported that they wear them among other head coverings, including hats, scarves and/or kippot, which they wear while praying, studying Torah and/or leading a Jewish community. People often decide whether to wear a headband, as opposed to another type of head covering, based on context and practicality: their hairstyle, the weather, or the activity they will be doing. The headband is sometimes chosen because it works better in their professional context, reflects their denominational context, or is seen as more in line with their preferred gender norms. Some women like the idea of covering their hair, for example, but felt the kippah to be uncomfortably masculine — the headband could serve a similar function to the kippah, but in a way more in line with their gender experience.

Interwoven with all of these considerations is the reality that women and queer people face disproportionate scrutiny of their appearance — whether they wear a headband, a kippah or no head covering at all. The choice of head covering can affect what assumptions an outside observer makes: That a headband might be read as less obviously Jewish appeals to some for whom the kippah draws attention, while it poses challenges for others who want to be recognized as Jewish. On top of this, headband wearers often have to consider expectations about appropriate workplace attire, the need for head coverings to stay put (when wrapping tefillin or caring for children, for instance), and questions about how various head coverings might be perceived on dates or in other social settings.

But the Jewish reasons to wear a headband, like the reasons to wear other head coverings, were broad and theological. Though some participants wore them all the time and others only sometimes wore them, there was one overwhelmingly popular reason behind the practice: respect for God. Communal norms also played a major role.

Interestingly, when asked whether, for them personally, the headband functioned more as a “kippah” or “kisui rosh (hair covering),” 76.1% of participants answered “kippah.” In other words, the headband is no longer primarily a symbol of marital status. In non-Orthodox contexts, it has come to function as a head covering more similar to the kippah.

The practice of wearing headbands in the egalitarian Jewish world has emerged as a way for non-male Jews to cover their heads in a manner reflective of their religious practice and identities. Though the primary impetus for wearing a headband is not gender, the choice to do so is inseparable from one’s various experiences of the world, which are often highly mediated by gender. The headband trend in the egalitarian Jewish world reflects how individual practice informed by communal awareness can become a norm.  I love that my choice of head covering is inspired by my relationships both with God and with other Jews. For headband enthusiasts, kippot loyalists and casual observers alike, the headband serves as a reminder that the evolving nature of Jewish tradition is not only in our hands, but also in our wardrobe.

Talia Kaplan

Talia Kaplan is a passionate organizer, educator, and spiritually-oriented community builder. She is pursuing rabbinic ordination and a master’s in Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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