On her first trip to Israel, Lillian Lee found that locals consistently spoke to her in Hebrew. They assumed her to be a Sephardic Jew.
Actually, the owner of Lillian Lee Salon and Spa in Teaneck is a practicing Catholic and knows only two Hebrew phrases, courtesy of her customers: Baruch Hashem (blessed is God) and todah (thank you).
She also knows one key Yiddish word: sheitel-macher (wigmaker).
“I’m probably the only Puerto Rican sheitel-macher you’ll ever meet,” laughs the vivacious Lee, who came to Israel on business.
|Lillian Lee and Kobi Aviv in Aviv’s salon.|
After years of fixing, coloring, styling, blow-drying, and selling wigs to Orthodox women at her hair salon, Lee was dismayed at what she calls declining workmanship and worthless warrantees. Now she has a commitment not only to introduce wigs from prominent Israeli manufacturer Galit Italia to New Jersey, but also to partner with the company in manufacturing wigs of her own design.
“Probably 90 percent of my clientele is Orthodox, and I would say about half of my business is wig-wearers,” Lee said. “Their wigs get colored and highlighted and styled just like their hair. I came up with the idea of trying to start my own collection, and I’m very excited with the quality and construction of the Galit Italia product and with everyone who works there, from the CEO down to the secretary. I’m hopeful the Jewish community will support this line, because it is from Israel and not from China.”
While she was in Jerusalem, Lee took a sort of mini-course with Galit Italia’s wigmakers and repair staff, and showed them a styling trick or two of her own. She toured many of Israel’s Christian sites and did the hair of several former customers who have moved to Israel.
“There are so many Teaneck people living here,” said Lee, whose business was named “salon of the year” and “color salon of the year” in the Jewish Standard’s 2013 Readers’ Choice Awards.
“I have eaten Shabbos dinner with them, and I have gone to their weddings. They’ve made me so much a part of the family that I made a point to catch up with those who have made aliyah.” (Okay, make that three Hebrew phrases.)
Lee even spent a day working her own chair at Kobi Aviv Salon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.
“My former customer Rachel Heimowitz goes to that salon,” she said. “When I posted on Facebook about coming to Israel, someone wrote, ‘Bring your scissors; my sheitel looks horrible.’ Rachel suggested coming to the salon as an American guest artist, and since it’s what I love to do, I did it. Rachel was the go-between, and Kobi was happy to do something fresh and new.”
Lee has Joy Weinstein Sklar of Bergenfield and her stepmother, Melody Weinstein, to thank for launching her into a business driven by an unlikely demographic.
“I used to work in a hair salon in Manhattan next to Stern College [the women’s undergraduate division of Yeshiva University] and I quickly got great attention from a lot of the girls,” Lee said. One of those girls was Joy Weinstein.
“In 1993, Joy told me she was getting married and was going to have a wig on her head and could I cut it exactly the way I cut her hair. I thought nothing of it – Joy explained why they do this, and somehow it seemed natural. I look at [a wig] as hair on top of your hair.”
Lee ended up coiffing the Weinstein women for the wedding in her Bergenfield house. Word of mouth led to many other local Jewish wedding gigs for the hairdresser.
“Twenty years later, I’ve done those women’s daughters’ bat mitzvahs and weddings,” she said. “It’s been awesome.”
In 1997, another client, Reva Judas, took Lee to Brooklyn to see how the wig business works. “I thought I was in another country,” she recalled. “A woman started talking to me in Hebrew, until Reva explained I was not Sephardic but Puerto Rican.”
Before opening Lillian Lee Salon and Spa in 2005, Lee owned a salon in Dumont and then worked at Christine Valmy in River Edge. She is the Latina spokesperson and platform artist for the LakmÃ¨ color line from Spain. “In my business I have Muslim, black, and Orthodox employees, and it’s the most harmonious, beautiful team,” she said.
About 11 years ago, Lee founded a charity, Do Wonders, enabling customers to donate used wigs for young women undergoing chemotherapy. “The majority of the women who come to me through Do Wonders don’t have health insurance and have kids and have to work, and want to look good,” Lee said. “Hair is such an important thing in a woman’s life.”
Lee, who is the single mother of two children, added that she is fascinated with Judaism and suspects she really does have some Sephardic blood, perhaps from Jews who hid their identity during the Spanish Inquisition. That suspicion was strengthened by her emotional reaction to being in Israel.
“I guess I’m an honorary Jew at this point,” she said half-jokingly. “I came here for this wig mission, and from that developed all these amazing experiences.
“If I stayed longer I could definitely find a husband,” she laughed.