Thursday, January 30, 2014

Henna in the Academy: Upcoming Presentation Schedule

I'm very grateful and excited to have the opportunity to present papers at three academic conferences this spring, so I thought it might interest people to know where I'll be and to get a glimpse of what my more formal academic work looks like. It's one thing for me to write blogposts and teach at henna conferences, which is certainly lots of fun, and another thing altogether to be able to frame my work as a productive area of research in current academic discourse — still fun, but challenging in a different way. I am, and have always been, so grateful to have the opportunity to research henna formally, and I hope that my work proves to be of benefit to all — henna artists, the academy, the Jewish community, and anyone interested in how religion, history, bodies, and art intersect. 

I don't know if the conferences are open to the public (I doubt it), but of course, if I'll be in your town, I'd be happy to meet up! I should also note that in between these conferences I will also be teaching at the Henna Gathering, March 28-30, in Hartford, CT!

I've copied the titles and abstracts below... I hope this gives you a little taste of what an academic analysis of henna looks like. If you're particularly interested in one of the papers, the conference proceedings might be published, and there may be another way to get it to you.

February 20-21: University of Indiana-Bloomington

“Not a Single Memory Left”: 
Jewish henna and the malleability of memory
Many Jewish weddings, in Israel as well as North America, include a ceremony known as the “henna night” (leil haŠł•inna). These ceremonies today are largely practiced by Jews of non-European origin — the Jewish communities of North Africa, the Levant and Mediterranean basin, and Western, Central and Southern Asia — although they have spread to Ashkenazi communities as well. The discourse around (and during) henna ceremonies appeals to memory as a crucial factor in their continued importance. Participants are instructed to ‘remember the traditions’ and applauded for their work in ‘keeping the memories alive.’ At the same time, it is clear that the form of these ceremonies has undergone a process of evolution, modification and reinterpretation over time, especially in the past six decades since the ‘aliya of these communities. This paper explores what is being remembered, what is being forgotten, and what it means for young Jews to remember places they have never seen.

Moroccan henna night, Israel, 2010
In this paper I argue that these ceremonies demonstrate how memory is not so much a telling of ‘the past as it was,’ as it is a telling of ‘the past as it might have been’ — that is, the effect of memory constructs its truth through cultural serviceability rather than historical accuracy. This paper will probe the nature of Jewish cultural memory, and the relationship between memory and cultural change, through a close reading of data collected in research on contemporary henna ceremonies, including observations at henna ceremonies in Israel and North America, conversations with the participants and hosts, and interviews with henna organizers. A comparison between historical records of Jewish henna ceremonies in texts and pictures, and henna ceremonies as currently performed, shows that the contemporary ceremony differs significantly from its predecessors in both material and theoretical aspects. The narratives of participants and organizers alike acknowledge their own role in reshaping and recreating new traditions while at the same time insisting on their role in preserving and passing on the importance of ethnic and cultural memory.

March 6: Concordia University, Montreal
Henna’s a Jewish Thing?
Jewish henna ceremonies and religious creativity

Jewish couple, Rabat, ca. 1911

At a henna party hosted by a Hindu student group at an American college, one participant said to the author (upon learning of the author’s research on Jewish henna traditions) with surprise: “henna’s a Jewish thing?” A year later, in Jerusalem, at a henna ceremony for a Moroccan-Israeli couple, an elderly participant remarked to the author (in response to a question about the similarities to non-Jewish henna ceremonies): “Do non-Jews do henna? No, no, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Henna is only a Jewish thing.” This contrast illustrates both the power with which communities claim ownership regarding particular rituals and practices, as well as the invisibility of the cultural symbiosis embedded in the genealogy of those practices. This paper investigates instances where Jewish communities in the Diaspora developed henna ceremonies — a practice shared with their non-Jewish neighbours — expressing unique Jewish meanings and applications, thus challenging simplistic binaries of defining ‘Jewish’ or ‘non-Jewish’ ritual.

Jewish henna ceremonies are often described using the language of ‘borrowing’ or ‘adoption,’ but this model does not do justice to the ways in which Jewish practices come in being at the boundaries between communities. Rejecting a static and essentialized model of culture, where a homogeneous Jewish community absorbs pre-existing forms from its homogeneous surroundings, this paper explores how both Jewish and non-Jewish henna ceremonies represent unique innovations formed out of the continual intermingling of diverse populations. Using examples drawn from fieldwork and historical records of henna traditions among Jewish communities in North Africa, Yemen, Persia, and India, this presentation pushes towards a consideration of the pluralism and dynamism of religious communities and their ritual creativity.

April 4-6: University of Texas-Austin
Making Meaning Skin Deep:
The changing valence of henna in Jewish culture

Yemenite henna night, Israel, 2010
While observing a pre-wedding henna ceremony in contemporary Israel, the author noted that the bride, a young Yemenite-Israeli woman, donned plastic gloves so that the henna would not stain her skin. This simple gesture points towards a larger shift in Jewish communal conceptions of henna’s materiality. For centuries, Jewish communities in North Africa, the Levant and Mediterranean basin, and Central and Southern Asia, used henna on ceremonial occasions to mark and protect participants. The tangible henna itself was central to the proper and successful performance of these rituals in multiple arenas: the substance of the powdered leaves, the artistry of the henna patterns, and the lasting henna stain on the skin. Today, while henna ceremonies have taken on renewed importance in contemporary Israel; the role of the substance of henna is much less legible. This paper will consider changing practices of henna use in Jewish communities in their traditional contexts, their interactions with colonial powers, and after their ‘aliya [immigration] to Israel.

Using examples drawn from fieldwork in Israel, and historical records of henna traditions among Jewish communities in North Africa, Yemen, and Central Asia, this presentation pushes towards a consideration of the shifting valence of material substances in religious communities. Jewish henna ceremonies are often described as ‘traditional,’ and indeed, they share many elements with the traditional practice of Jewish henna ceremonies as performed in the Diaspora. At the same time, it is clear that the form of these ceremonies has undergone a process of evolution, modification and reinterpretation over time, especially in the past six decades. In focusing attention on the changes in Jewish communal interaction with the materiality of henna, this paper explores how those changes relate to the evolving nature of Jewish ceremony.


Wendy Rover, Rovinghorse Henna said...

Awesome! So important.

Unknown said...

Thank you for taking time to post this.. I love reading about henna use in different cultures.

Flavia said...

I so enjoy the results of your research, thank you .