Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Henna's a Jewish Thing?": Jewish Henna in North America Today

I have just returned from HennaCon and I’m full to bursting with henna excitement… Wow! Another extraordinary experience. It was amazing to be around so many amazing artists and a great honour to share my research with them.

A blog reader emailed me with a question (what an awesome idea! Feel free to do the same!). She writes: 
"How much Jewish Henna do you see happening in the States? From your documents and research, it seemed like there is much more going on in the Jewish Henna world overseas than in the States but I would love to hear your point of view!"

A great question. It depends on what we mean by ‘Jewish henna’... 

First of all, there are many Jewish communities from henna-using traditions throughout North America (some especially concentrated, like the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles, Moroccan Jews in Montreal, and the Syrian and Bukharan Jewish communities in New York). However, like in Israel, traditional Jewish henna ceremonies are not (and cannot) be practiced as they were in “the old country”. So while many North American Jews from henna-using backgrounds are interested in having henna ceremonies, they are faced with the same issues as their Israeli relatives: so much cultural material and knowledge has been lost in the generational gap, and even within their own communities many henna traditions may not be remembered.

I am honoured that my research has been able to help many couples from Jewish henna-using backgrounds (whether through my work in person or online) incorporate henna traditions into their wedding ceremonies. Especially in North America, where non-Ashkenazi Jewish identity is even less visible than in Israel, henna ceremonies can be an important way to affirm one’s connection to their family and heritage.

A henna ceremony in NYC for a Jewish family of Persian origin

There are professional henna organizers in the States (mainly in the Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities) who fill a similar role to their counterparts in Israel. Henna parties are not as universal as in Israel, but they are certainly still popular.

Children at a Jewish day school after a henna workshop
I have also met many Ashkenazi Jews in North America who are interested in Jewish henna traditions and who have incorporated them into their weddings or other ritual occasions. In some aspects, henna may be more prominent in North America than in Israel, because of the significant South Asian diaspora here; many Ashkenazi Jews (including myself!) first encounter henna through Pakistani/Indian/Bengali friends, classmates, co-workers, or neighbours. And based on the reception I receive when I speak about Jewish henna traditions at Jewish conferences, schools, synagogues, and youth groups, many North American Jews are tremendously excited to learn about the ways that henna has been important for Jewish communities. 

My book of modern Jewish henna designs,
available at Henna Caravan
I've also spoken to many henna artists who confirm that Jewish clients in all areas of Canada and the USA are hiring henna artists for belly blessings, bar and bat mitzvah parties, family events, weddings, and community celebrations. Sometimes they might know about Jewish henna, sometimes not (and it might be part of the henna artist's job to share what they know about henna's history in Judaism). Some of these occasions might be (adaptations of) old traditions, and some might be innovations... but all of them are part of the ongoing story of Jewish henna!

To be sure, the population of Jews from henna-using backgrounds is perhaps smaller here than elsewhere, and there’s less attention paid to non-Ashkenazi Jewish culture. But at the same time, in many ways the Jewish community in North America is equally (if not more) engaged in cultural creativity and re-imagining what Jewish ritual and community life can look like. So in conclusion, there’s lots happening with Jewish henna here in Canada and the USA! Jump right in and be a part of it!


ValentinaCosta said...

Noam, this is such a helpful and engaging post! It is great and exceptional to see artists like you that are truly dedicated and passionate about the research and sharing knowledge as well. Inspirational and motivating! Thank you!

Calvins Mom said...

Hi! Lovely article! Do you know of any Jewish Henna Organizers in the Boston Area?

Unknown said...

Curious about something, would an Ashkenazi Jewish woman be appropriating henna in any way by using it in their wedding?

Anonymous said...

Not if you are intent on preserving tradition and don't just see it as a beauty thing. I have a weird feeling I have Sephardi ancestors who may have switched to Ashkenazic traditions in the past. My dad does not look Ashkenazim. You never know what happened in the past.