In the fall of 2009, Helene Rosen, her husband, Yoni, and eight of their eleven children moved from Baltimore to Cusco, Peru, to harvest human hair.1 Helene is a forty-four-year-old Orthodox Jew and self-proclaimed “master sheitel designer” who began making wigs fifteen years ago, for ten dollars an hour; her custom hairpieces now sell for up to two thousand. “You can bring me any wig,” she said this past winter, sitting at the table in her spare dining room in Cusco, “and I can tell you how old it is, how much it has been worn, and if it has ever been repaired. I can tell you everything about it.” Helene first encountered sheitels, which Orthodox women have worn since the nineteenth century as an alternative to covering their hair (as Jewish modesty law dictates), in 1995. She had moved to Lakewood, New Jersey from Israel, where most Orthodox women wear headscarves called snoods rather than wigs.
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