“Even if I had to go back and bring my head down to earth – I would still say yes again and again and again”
I sat down with Shifra Ross, a religious Jewish woman, a newly-wed and an aspiring teacher to chat with her about young marriage, religious Jewish culture and what it means to be a wife. Shifra’s lifestyle is uncommon to most Jewish South Africans, her young marriage and strictly orthodox Judaism that she follows is out of the ordinary. She married her husband at the young age of twenty. As a married woman, Shifra wears a wig (known as a sheital in Yiddish) to preserve her natural beauty for her husband and maintains a modest lifestyle, this includes her fashion choices and the way in which she interacts with other people.
Being a religious Jew in such a secular community can often be a trying task. There are so few people who understand the meaning behind what Shifra does and reasons why she lives the way she does. Shifra explains that “it gives me a greater sense of pride; you have to be knowledgeable because people always ask you questions”. She explains that dressing modestly and putting on a sheital is not a task anymore, “I dress modestly because I want people to not look at what I’m wearing or reflect on my personality because of my clothing but rather get to know me”.
But dressing modestly was not always something that she celebrated. Shifra discusses how growing up in an ultra-orthodox home had its restrictions. She desperately wanted to fit in and wearing modest clothing all the time made her think that she was an outcast. However, as soon as she realised that her clothing did not hinder her friendships in any way, she began to take pride in her individuality and her connection to Judaism was able to flourish.
Shifra’s natural beauty and selfless attitude towards others permeates through the way in which she effortlessly answers the questions that I put before her. We chuckle at times
and we laugh about school memories, when she used to wear a skirt over her pants and take her skirt off just as she got to school on civvies days. But developing pride in her religion allowed this “rebellious childhood” to slowly be a thing of the past and pave the way to being a beautiful religious woman and getting married at such a young age.
Shifra and Benyamin dated for a short four weeks before he proposed. Although Shifra adds “I don’t think it was the age that contributed to my decision and I don’t think I took that into account at the time” she giggles, “it was more about the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with”. Shifra explains that as you get older, you become an individual and as you grow more “layers are created [to your personality]”, but if you get married young you are “able to grow in an individual way and reflect it onto each other. It gives me a sense of guidance.”
We chatted about married life, the meaning behind modesty and being a good wife. Married Jewish women are supposed to cover their hair. Recently, young and modern woman have decided to wear a sheital instead of a scarf or a beanie. Women wear a head covering as a means of preserving their true beauty which exists purely for the eyes of their husband. It is believed that a woman shares her aura through her hair in a spiritual way and when her head covering is taken off, her husband is able to see her beauty and spiritual qualities in its most natural and pure form. Shifra laughs as she explains “I look at myself in the mirror and I am like hey – this is a religious girl following the ways its meant to be.”
She explains that her Judaism is in total alignment with her other beliefs, smiling “I live my life the moral and virtuous way”. She explains that being the perfect wife is like an art work – it’s something I am always working at. She says that when she is the perfect wife, she’ll let me know how to be one, but striving to act appropriately towards other men and showing other people that she is married is what she strives to achieve on a daily basis.
Shifra is currently studying education through UNISA and has wanted to be a teacher
ever since she could remember. Teaching comes naturally to her, it’s something she does every day through educating people about her modest lifestyle. Her ability to inspire others on a spiritual level is something that holds immense importance in her life. “My life has changed for the better, I always have someone next to me, fully committed to me and supports me. I don’t know…it’s like having a permanent partner in crime”. Shifra surrounds herself with people who understand her life choices and laughs as she explains “I don’t think people would be critical in front of my face, I surround myself with people that understand and support me through everything.”
And as Shifra and I recall ridiculous school memories and munch on some kosher Toblerone, I can see the genuine happiness in Shifra’s life. And she reminds me that even if she was thinking logically and her thoughts weren’t clouded by the sheer excitement of Benyamin’s proposal, she assures me that she made the right decision.