The start of the new Israeli school year often marks the return of lice, those aggravating, wingless insects that spend their entire lives feasting on the human scalp.
The pests are such a common scourge in the scalps of Israeli schoolchildren that they won the attention of novelist Meir Shalev, who in 1990 penned a comical children’s book called “Nehama the Louse.”
“On the head of one boy, there was once an egg… the egg was very small… only a louse could come from an egg so small,” wrote Shalev.
It’s an unfortunate truth that a lack of clear regulations and a deep-rooted fear of insulting parents and students has created a nation of head-scratching schoolkids, as classes become divided between kids whose parents check regularly for lice and kids whose parents don’t. Ever.
Feeling itchy yet?
It’s a pestilence that has created an entire industry of lice shampoos, lice kits and nit-pickers — people who clean heads for a living.
“There are no school nurses any longer” to check for lice, said Keren Friedman, 48, the owner of Wish&Wash, a Tel Aviv salon that picks nits. “It wasn’t fun for the kids, and they didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Now, the people who do treatments are the ones who suffer, and the ones who don’t care, don’t. They just don’t deal with it. The kid with the clean head meets the dirty head and that’s how they get it.”
The Education Ministry’s regulations regarding lice checks, which date from 2012, recommend teaching children about checking for lice and how to prevent it. It also stipulates that teachers should tell parents privately and discreetly if a student has lice.
A teacher can turn to the school social worker if a student isn’t taking care of his or her lice but a student should never be embarrassed, have their head checked by a teacher or be told to stay away from school.
In the US, kids are generally sent home from school if they’re found with lice, said Pnina Itzkowitz Neustadter, a professional nit-picker in Hashmonaim, a largely religious, English-speaking settlement near Modiin.
Neustadter began her own lice-checking career in Manhattan working for Licenders, a professional service with salons in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. She eventually moved to New Jersey where she continued checking heads for lice at local Jewish day schools.
Still, even American schools are changing their attitude toward the itchy pest as parents also can’t afford to take off work if a child with lice is sent home from school, said Neudstadter.
In Israel, there’s no such rule. At most, teachers will send notes home telling parents if a wave of lice is sweeping through the classroom.
“My mother remembers being checked for lice and if any were found, you were sent home,” said Neustadter of her Israeli-born parent. “But over the years, they stopped checking. Parents were losing days of work staying home with kids who had lice.”
Nit-pickers like Friedman and Neustadter have similar ideas about how to tackle the pesky problem. Neustadter pointed out that Israeli schoolkids receive some of their vaccinations in school, as well as hearing, eyesight and dental checks, and it would make sense to add lice checks.
“They should try it at the beginning of the school year, making it mandatory to bring the kids in and get checked,” she said.
“If the schools took a stand on lice, there would be less of it,” said Friedman.
Asked about instituting lice checks in school, the Education Ministry had no response.
There are some Israeli private schools that demand clean heads. Friedman was asked by one Tel Aviv school to do a lice check, but the parents were so thrown by the possibility that they ended up all doing it themselves.
One Rehovot parent, Chaya Cadaner Hitin, hires a neighborhood nit-picker to go over her daughters’ scalps twice a year.
“It’s illegal for a kindergarten teacher to say to a mom, ‘Your kid has lice,’” said Cadaner Hitin. “So when everyone is itching, they write a note, telling everyone to check heads. It’s a very frustrating cycle. It means combing daily, and because of careless moms, the lice doesn’t end all year.”
Cadaner Hitin grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and remembers being isolated as a pariah the four times she had lice during her childhood. She said the problem in Israel is augmented by families with kids across the grades, who keep sharing lice. Parents are busier, with less time to invest in something like checking for lice daily with combs.
“It’s an absurd cycle,” she said. “If the teachers could just tell parents directly, it would help prevent the endlessness of it all. It would need to be a reform from the level of the Ministry of Education.”
There are many Israeli parents who want their kids to have clean heads at the start of the school year, said Friedman. They’d rather not do it themselves and end up paying for nit-picking services during the summer months. There’s also a rush in the earlier part of the summer, when Israeli kids attending American summer camps want to be sure they don’t head to the US with a head full of nits.
“I have a huge amount of customers during the summer,” said Friedman. “People have more time so they want to deal with it.”
Most nit-pickers believe in the simple process of conditioning and combing through hair to find the tiny bugs.
“No fancy shampoos or chemicals,” said Neustadter.
Still, it’s a tough bug to get rid of. It requires patience and painstaking effort to comb out the nits and lice, followed by washing bedsheets, pajamas and towels. Hairbrushes also have to go.
Despite the existence of many shampoos advertised to get rid of lice, neither Friedman and Neustadter uses them.
“I just use conditioner and a lice comb,” said Neustadter. “I section the hair and comb it, and then combine the sections and keep combing. That’s basically it.”
It’s a similar process at Friedman’s Wish&Wash, one that takes approximately 40 minutes to one hour. Friedman charges NIS 230 for long hair and it includes two appointments, while Neustadter charges NIS 200 a hour.
Once the hair has been combed, it’s rinsed of the conditioner, blown dry and then the nit pickers do a visual check of the head.
The treatment, which can include a haircut at Wish& Wash — another skill that Friedman picked up along the way — is the simple, painstaking process of examining customers’ scalps, checking for lice and their eggs, which are attached near the base of a host hair shaft and which can infest a host head.
Friedman, 48, opened Wish&Wash in 2012, after considering the idea for years and figuring that if she didn’t open a salon combating lice, someone else would.
“It’s a market that creates millions,” she said. “There’s nothing dangerous about it, and the drug companies would lose money without this market, so there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The demand was there from the outset, as hers was the first Tel Aviv salon that offered lice-cleansing services. Friedman found she didn’t even need to advertise, as every media outlet wanted to report on the salon’s opening.
“There were a lot of skeptics, too,” she said. “People said, ‘Why should I pay someone to handle my kids’ lice? How is it different than what I do at home?”
It’s true that ridding a head of lice is a painstaking, slow process, and one that kids — and adults — find frustrating and embarrassing. That’s because there is no easy fix.
“I’ve been doing this for more than five years, and I’ve seen everything,” said Friedman. “There are parents who say it doesn’t bother their kids, and the kid has open wounds on their head. These are parents who do a pedicure and manicure every week, we’re talking about regular families in terms of budget and spending.”
Neustadter started her business after writing a comment in a social media thread about lice, where she signed off as “former lice lady.” When she first moved to Israel 11 years ago, she was told to forget the idea of running a lice check business, and she instead turned to real estate. But that thread brought clients and she now works exclusively as a lice checker.
She’s seen pretty much everything in her decades of lice-checking, including one second-grader whose teachers thought she had ADHD because of her incessant moving around. It turned out the second-grader had a head full of lice and, once treated, was able to focus on her studies.
No one questions that having lice is unpleasant, said Friedman, and getting checked is an uncomfortable process.
“People stopped worrying about it and unfortunately it’s hard to reinstate it,” said Neustadter.
But when the itchy pest takes root in kids’ scalps, it spreads from head to head, and that can create a classwide or schoolwide problem.
“Israelis have just gotten used to lice,” said Neustadter.