Sisterhood Blog

A Mikvah Lady Turned 'Lice Lady'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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As soon as the phone call came from my daughters’ school yesterday, the itching started. My knees, my shoulders, my scalp, it all itched, because the Lice Lady, doing one of the several school-wide checks she is periodically brought in to do, had found the little buggers in my girls’ hair.

Turns out, my itching wasn’t just psychosomatic. I had ‘em too, as did my son. So last night, after stripping all of the beds in the house and starting what has felt like 100 loads of laundry, off we went to one of the Lice Ladies of Brooklyn, Shayna Brown.

The living room of Mrs. Brown’s modest apartment, where she has raised nine children, who now range in age from 31 to 7 years old, had been turned into a nit-picking salon.

One wall was covered with family photos and pictures of famous rabbis, the other with the long row of bookcases filled with volumes of the Talmud and other rabbinic commentaries on the Torah that is a feature of nearly every devoutly Orthodox home.

Standing behind the plastic-slipcovered chairs in which we were seated, Shayna and two of her daughters – one married to the son of her best friend and fellow locally famous nit-picker, Abigail Rosenfeld, the other home for the Jewish holidays from her seminary program overseas — worked on my kids and me for nearly three hours.

Mrs. Brown started her career in nitpicking some years back after working as a mikvah lady, she said. You can’t immerse in a mikvah if you have lice or nits, and so she got good at examining women’s heads. After awhile she plunged into the work full time, exchanging the modestly remunerative work of mikvah attending for what must be (at least based on the Benjamins I handed over last night) the far more lucrative field of nitpicking.

Nitpicking in Brooklyn is an industry in which Orthodox ladies dominate. Mrs. Brown has some 30 schools, both public and Jewish, which hire her to come in and check their students at regular intervals, in addition to the near constant stream of families coming in for treatment once she’s found trouble.

The experience was as pleasant as it could have been. The Browns are a lovely family, and having that much Pantene hair conditioner shmushed into your follicles does leave the tresses soft. Mrs. Brown and her colleagues cover your head with Pantene and, taking a fine-toothed metal comb to it, comb it out and out and out. The lice and their eggs stick to the white conditioner and get combed out together.

Just when I was most of the way through the laundry and vacuuming carpets, couches and mattresses and washing all of our hair brushes and combs in hot water and laying them out to dry and putting all of my daughters’ hair accessories in ziplock bags and remaking all the beds, today’s New York Times landed on our Brooklyn stoop. There, in big bold print, was the headline of Jane Brody’s personal health column: “Parents, Relax. Don’t Keep Them From School. It’s Just Lice.”

Relax? Too late!

Oh well. Next time. It had been seven years since we last dealt with this plague, but since lice are so pervasive, I’m sure there will be a next time. By then, hopefully, I will have bought stock in Pantene.


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