Monday, December 9, 2013

"This Extraordinary Phenomenon": Algerian Jewish Henna via a Hebrew-Christian Missionary

While looking through some old files last month, I re-found an old story that I had come across years ago, about Jewish henna in Algeria! It was so interesting that I decided to write an article about it to submit to a journal! I’ll let you all know how that goes… In the meantime, here’s a little taste for you to see how my research happens.

The story was published in The Church of England magazine in March 1858, and comes from the correspondence of Rev. J.B. Ginsburg, who at the time was the representative for the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (or London Jews’ Society, or LJS, for short) in Algeria.

Ginsburg was born Baruch Ginsburg — a Jew — in Kiev, around 1826. His father, Saul Ginsburg, was a rabbi, and trained his son for the same role. After his father’s death, Baruch left Kiev and traveled through Europe, seeking a spiritual home. He finally found it in a Hebrew translation of the New Testament; he converted to Christianity in Strasburg in 1847 and then moved to England to study in a theological seminary. In the 19th century, there was a widespread movement of “Hebrew Christians,” Jews who had converted to Christianity but maintained their ethnic identity as Jews, and often served as missionaries to their unconverted brethren (in this post, I mentioned another well-known Hebrew-Christian missionary, Joseph Wolff). 
A drawing of Ginsburg discussing religion
with rabbis, from  the missionary journal
"Jewish Advocate for the Young," 1877

Ginsburg, interestingly, didn’t go back to Europe, but instead to Africa! In 1857, he was appointed to the LJS Mission in Constantine, Algeria; this story takes place in September 1857, just after his arrival. He tells of coming across “four Jewish females, one of them carrying a plate filled with ‘henna,’ in the midst of which was a lighted tallow candle, surrounded with eggs. This extraordinary phenomenon, I thought, must be a religious ceremony” (pg. 246). He therefore stops to watch, and then proceeds to follow the procession, noting that the woman leading it uttered “loud shrieks… clamorous and frightful gesticulations” with her hand by her chin. They arrive at a small house, where a henna ceremony for a Jewish bride is taking place. This is, in fact, one of the oldest eyewitness descriptions we have of a Jewish henna ceremony; normally travelers only were able to see brides who had already been decorated. Unfortunately the utility of this source in reconstructing Algerian Jewish henna traditions is limited not only by Ginsburg’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings but also by his explicit ideological motives in retelling this story.

So what can we learn about 19th century Algerian Jewish henna traditions from Ginsburg’s narrative?

Jewish Algerian girl with hennaed nails,
late-19th century
He describes the bride, who was 13 years old, “almost enveloped in chaplets, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and chains, their eyebrows blackened with kehol, and their fingers and toe-nails coloured red with the above-mentioned henna” (pp. 246-247). If her hands have already been hennaed, it appears that this is the second of several henna ceremonies; as we see, this night is for hennaing her hair. This ceremony, also known in Moroccan communities as azmomeg or nhar at-tarf al-byad (Malka 1946, pg. 55; Ben-Ami 1974, pg. 16), was practiced by until the mid-20th century, and is remembered today (Allouche-Benayoun 1999, pg. 206; Wasserfall 1999).

Ginsburg describes how the bride’s hair is covered with henna paste, wrapped in ribbons, and left for a week: “it was to retain the colour, and remain in a dishevelled condition for eight days” (pg. 247). While this is going on, he observes, “the bride’s relations and friends cried bitterly; and the rest talked loudly and laughed.” This is typical for henna ceremonies, which were community celebrations; nonetheless it was expected that the bride’s family would display some (ritualized) displays of sadness and even despair. The bride’s mother would sing emotional laments for the loss of her child who was moving away. One example, provided by Ben-Ami (1974, pg. 64)
While the tamzwarat [bridal attendants] comb her hair, the bride cries: 
‘O thankless father!
Why have you given your daughter
To the top of the mountain?
Why did you not say
My daughter is young
She will stay close to me!’ 
Her father responds to her, while crying:
‘Give the girl to her cousin, 
She will come back and return to her mother.’

Interestingly, Ginsburg adds that at the end of the week, the rabbi would perform “the religious ceremony of the marriage, which had already been performed by the civil authorities” (pg. 247). That is, the Jews of Constantine would have their marriage registered with the civil authorities first, and then perform the week-long traditional festivities, concluding with the religious ceremony of qiddushin. This testifies to the tension already present in the Algerian Jewish community between local religious custom and the European colonial presence. Algerian Jews would become progressively more and more “Francized,” culminating in the naturalization of Algerian Jewry (as French citizens) by the Crémieux Decree in 1870.

Jewish woman with hennaed nails,
Algiers, late-19th century 
After the ceremony is done, Ginsburg comes into full missionary force, interrogating the shamash [caretaker] on whether this ‘minhag’ [custom] with “the hideous gestures of the crier and the washing of the hair” (pg. 247) would lead non-Jews to think that the Jews were a great nation, wise and righteous (citing Deuteronomy 4:7-8) or wicked and foolish, having abandoned God (citing Jeremiah 2:13). Ginsburg does not consider whether, for example, Algerian Muslims would think it perfectly normal for Jews to have a henna ceremony, since they in fact would likely hold a similar ceremony themselves. In any case the shamash had no reply, except to shrug his shoulders and say, “It is a minhag.”

So in summary, we know that in 19th century Algeria:

  • the Jewish community of Constantine celebrated marriages with henna ceremonies — one for hennaing the hands and feet, and another for hennaing the hair;
  • the henna was brought in a procession to the bride’s house, with a candle in the middle;
  • the ceremony of hennaing the hair was similar to the Moroccan azmomeg ceremony: her hair was covered with henna paste and wrapped up with ribbons, to be left for a week;
  • the bride, who was married young, exchanged sad songs with her family, while her friends and community celebrated;
  • the Jewish community also had their marriages registered with the French civil authorities;
  • Algerian Jews thought positively of henna ceremonies as a minhag [custom] of their community, and did not respond to missionary attempts to abandon it.

All in all, some useful evidence of henna traditions among Algerian Jewish communities in the 19th century. Click here if you want to read the full story as it appears in the magazine.

Allouche-Benayoun, Joëlle. The Rites of Water for the Jewish Women of Algeria: Representations and Meanings. In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, ed. Rahel Wasserfall, University Press of New England, 1999, pp. 198-216.
Ben-Ami, Issachar. Le mariage traditionnel chez les Juifs marocains [The Traditional Marriage among Moroccan Jews]. Studies in Marriage Customs, ed. by Issachar Ben-Ami and Dov Noy. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1974, pp. 9-116.
Ginsburg, James Baruch. Algeria—Marriage Ceremony—Feast of the In-gathering. Church of England Magazine: under the superintendence of the Clergymen of the United Church of England and Ireland, vol. 44, pp. 246-247. London: William Hughes, 1858.
Malka, Elie. Essai d’ethnographie traditionnelle des Mellahs: ou croyances, rites de passage, et vieilles pratiques des Israélites marocains [An attempt at a traditional ethnography of the mellahs: or beliefs, passage rituals, and old customs of Moroccan Jews]. Rabat: Imprimerie Omnia, 1946.
Wasserfall, Rahel. Community, Fertility, and Sexuality: identity formation among Moroccan Jewish immigrants. In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, ed. Rahel Wasserfall, University Press of New England, 1999, pp. 187-197.

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