The Clerk and The Headcovering – Marjorie Ordene

Through the scratches on the Plexiglas window of the dreary Brooklyn post office where I waited to apply for a passport, I could discern several worn sheets of yellowed paper taped to the drab wall. One read, in large black print, filling the entire page, “This is God, and I will be handling all your problems today. I will NOT need your help.”  Another depicted the Lord himself, in a medieval suit of armor with arrows pointing to His various attributes. At the bottom, I could just make out the words, “The Gospel Society.” I wondered how the above might apply to getting my passport.

 It had been more than a year since my last attempt. On my first trip, to a different post office, equally gloomy, I had waited on a long line only to find out that I didn’t have the proper identification. On my second try, I was tripped up by a form, (actually lack thereof), permitting me to apply for a child’s passport without his father’s presence. Those two attempts had been so unpleasant that it had taken me a year and a half to return. As I waited, thankful to be out of the August heat, I resolved to keep my cool no matter what this Gospel-reading, nit-picking bureaucrat hit me with. Finally, I looked up from my own Book of Psalms and saw a ponderous, brown-skinned woman with straightened dark hair, the ends stiff and flat like freshly cut straw.  She wore a shiny navy acetate dress that puckered slightly around the collar.

 “Oh, hi!” I said eagerly. I started to push my envelope full of passport forms through the slit, but she was gone. I opened up the yellow envelope and pulled out the contents. I removed the extra photos and the list of official passport processing centers in Brooklyn. When I looked up, there she was. “I hope I have everything,” I said. That morning, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to check over the instructions on the passport application. All that fine print made me nervous. The lady began looking over my papers. For a minute, I thought, this is really going to go through.
    “You have to get your picture taken again,” she said, a bit too quickly, as if she were pleased to be wrapping up the transaction without having acquired any additional paperwork.

I wasn’t about to be defeated on this point—I knew better.

“Why?” I asked, looking at the snapshot of myself in a flowered scarf, wispy black and gray bangs poking out in front. “Did they change the law since 2002?”

“You can’t have your hair covered.”

“Look at the yellow paper,” I said, pointing to a yellow legal paper with a handwritten note on it. The woman at the last passport office had made me write it.

“This doesn’t look like a real religious head covering,” the passport lady said, reading my letter.  

So now the U.S. Passport Office is ruling on religious head coverings? 

Ever since I’d gotten married at the age of 39, I’d been struggling with the religious requirement that Jewish married women cover their hair. I wasn’t bothered by the reason for the hair covering—that I’d simply accepted as a commandment. The question was how. Did I wear a wig, a hat, a scarf, a turban? Before the wedding, everyone, from the wife of the diamond dealer who sold us my engagement ring to my future sister-in-law, kept nudging me about the “sheitel,” Yiddish for wig. Most religious Jewish women in America cover their hair with a wig. It looks like hair, and no one asks any questions, whereas if you wear a hat or a scarf, you stand out. I turned to the passport lady.  “Maybe it doesn’t look like one to you,” I said, “but it is.” The woman set her jaw.

I knew what she was thinking. A religious head covering should be black and severe like the Muslim hijab. By contrast, my flowered scarf seemed more like a fashion statement. In fact, it was my black snood that had gotten me in trouble crossing the Canadian border at Niagara Falls. The customs officer, taking in my dark brows and eyes under the black snood, demanded sternly, “Where were you born?” and “Where do you live now?” I had been dozing off and awakened to find myself under suspicion of Islamic terrorism. It’s amazing how much trouble a head covering can cause. But what kind of Islamic terrorist travels with her Jewish husband and son? I guess the yarmulke was the right kind of head covering. Those two didn’t get so much as a glance.

As the passport lady considered my photo, I stood steadfast and silent, my hair covered with a pale blue scarf, knotted at the side, tails streaming down in front and back. I’d started covering my hair this way shortly after my son was born. A woman in my Torah class had worn it that way and I’d liked the style. My only innovation, and the only controversial part, was the bangs. Most Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair so that nothing sticks out. My niece explained to me that a certain amount of hair, that equal to an ancient measurement known as a “tefach,” (about the size of a clenched fist), may be seen. Since my bangs are smaller than a tefach, my preferred head covering is “halachically” (legally) correct. However, my cousin, who perhaps had a stricter upbringing than my niece, tells me that since no one really know how big a tefach is anymore, it’s better not to take chances. Was the passport lady siding with my cousin? I continued to wait. 

At length, the woman returned to my papers. It was hard to tell what she was thinking. Perhaps she was accepting me as a religious woman like herself. That would be an interesting juxtaposition—the Gospel lady and me. Yet, I do find that since becoming religious, I seem to have more in common with religious people of any persuasion than with secular people of my own.

When the passport lady finally spoke, it was matter-of-fact. “Your driver’s license?”

I reached in my handbag for my black vinyl card case.  It wasn’t there. I looked in my leather card case, my wallet, and every compartment of my handbag. I emptied the contents of my handbag on the narrow window ledge. I handed over my license.

“Do you have any travel plans?”


“Is this your permanent address?”


Finally, she passed a new passport application through the slit. My son’s
photograph was stapled to it.

“Fill this out, just like the old one.” Was it my imagination or did I sense a subtle shift in the passport lady’s attitude? In that little extra phrase, “just like the old one,” I felt a change, from adversary to advocate. The passport lady was helping me! At that moment, she seemed positively angelic, all-bountiful in her Gospel suit, sitting behind her Plexiglas shield. Who would have guessed that something as simple as a head covering could have caused all this trouble? Years ago, head coverings were much more conspicuous. I remember my husband’s aunt saying that she had no choice but to wear a wig for business. When once she showed up in a turban, rumors started flying that she had cancer.  Nowadays head coverings, from the white linen turbans worn by the Sikhs to the colorful ones worn by African Americans, to the variety of head scarves worn by Muslims and Jews, are almost commonplace. Beware of assigning meaning—they can mean anything from a fear of heaven to fear of frizz. 

I rummaged in my bag for a pen and did as I was told. Then I saw my downfall. The space for the Social Security number was circled. I did not know Ari’s Social Security number. The card was at home in the file drawer.

“I won’t be able to finish this today,” I told the lady. “I don’t have his Social Security card.”

“Can’t you call someone?” Now she actually seemed disappointed. 

“There’s no one at home,” I said. “I’ll come back.”

“All right, then,” she sighed, “and also bring a note stating that your son is wearing a yarmulke for religious reasons.”  (Was there any other reason?)

When I returned home, I found the card in the file cabinet and hastened to complete the passport application, filling in Ari’s Social Security number and writing a statement for him on the yellow legal paper just below my own.

The next morning, I was at the passport window when it opened at 10:30.   At precisely 11:15, I approached the window. My friend the passport lady was in uniform today. She wore a navy canvas apron with the United States Post Office insignia on the front and a matching white and blue striped shirt. Her stiff hair was gathered up in the front and held together with a tiny pink plastic barrette in the shape of a newborn baby. I slid Ari’s completed passport application under the Plexiglas. 

“Where’s the extra photo?” she asked, after reviewing the papers.

My brow furrowed. “Extra photo? I thought it was extra. I left it home.”

The woman let out a sigh. “You need that.”

“Can’t I go home and get it? I don’t live far.” There seemed to be some kind of rule against leaving unfinished applications at the office.

“You’re sure you’ll come back?” she asked. 

“Of course! Why wouldn’t I?”

“OK,” she said reluctantly, “go ahead then.”

Ten minutes later, I was back with the photo. After making the required payments, my job was complete. 

Two weeks later, our passports arrived in the mail. It had taken two years and four trips to two different post offices.  In the process, I had learned:  always read the fine print, carry your Social Security card, and never argue with bureaucrats, (especially those sporting God-flyers); but most impressive, I had convinced a United States Passport official that a flowered head scarf with bangs revealed is a “real religious head covering.” Despite this assurance, if I ever do travel overseas, I think I’ll do the prudent thing and don a wig.


Marjorie Ordene is an integrative physician and nutritionist in private practice in Brooklyn. Her essays, short stories and poetry have appeared in Tablet, The Sun, Lilith, Op-Med, Aish, Ami, Mishpacha and elsewhere. “I have always loved writing. I feel it gives you a chance to take a second look at past experiences, often turning the not-so-good into the quite wonderful.”

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