Friday, August 29, 2014

How do You Say Henna in Yiddish? A Russian Jew Discovers Henna and Other Encounters

I am super excited to be offering henna at the Toronto-based Ashkenaz Festival, a celebration of contemporary global Jewish arts and culture, and spreading awareness of the long and rich history of henna in Jewish communities around the world.

Ashkenaz began as a festival of Yiddish music; Ashkenaz literally means ‘Germany’ in Hebrew and refers to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, known as Ashkenazim. While my own family is of Ashkenazi background, my work with henna has led me to the Jews of North Africa, Yemen, Central Asia, and elsewhere — that is, the non-Ashkenazi world.

When people think of "Ashkenaz", the first images that usually come to mind are Yiddish (the Judeo-German language historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews), klezmer music, the shtetl, the Lower East Side, Fiddler on the Roof... But usually not henna.

Thus, some of my friends thought it was surprising that I would be offering henna at a festival called “Ashkenaz,” and one even asked somewhat sarcastically, “Well, how do you even say henna in Yiddish?” 

The truth is that I myself never imagined that I would come across Yiddish in my henna research… Wrong, as usual! In honour of the upcoming festival I thought I’d bring up a few fun points of encounter between henna and Yiddish. If you've always wondered how to say 'henna' in Yiddish, wait no longer! And feel free to stop by this weekend if you're in Toronto.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Henna For Peace: Body Art of the Yezidis, Christians, and Jews of northern Iraq

With all the terrible news coming out of Iraq these days I thought I’d take a departure from my research on Jewish henna and North Africa to cast a quick spotlight on some of the body art traditions of Iraq’s ethno-religious minorities.

The news is difficult to bear, and it’s especially hard to feel helpless when faced with so much violence and destruction. If you’re moved to donate to aid organizations working in the area, I know that the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East has been doing amazing work in the refugee camps, as has UNICEF and the Iraqi Red Crescent. Of course, if you feel political action is necessary, you may wish to reach out to your local member of parliament, senator, or other government official. And if you’re looking for some more background, I found these maps very helpful.

A map of ethnic groups in Iraq (purple = Kurdish, yellow = Sunni Arab,
green = Shi'a Arab, and others), by Dr. Michael Izady.

But this is a blog about body art, so I thought I would devote some space to body art traditions in the region among minorities in northern Iraq: Yezidis, Christians, and Jews.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Henna, Hamsas, and Eyes, Oh My: The Eye as Motif in Moroccan Henna

I’ve settled back from Morocco but I’m still going through my henna photos… One interesting thing I’d thought I’d post about is the use of the eye symbol — l‘ayn — in Moroccan henna.

The eye is a well-known symbol of protection across North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and Central Asia, appearing on jewelry, textiles, ceramics, amulets, and other crafts. It is an ancient motif, appearing on objects and crafts from ancient Egypt (especially as the eye of Horus) as well as Greece, Rome, and other ancient sites throughout Europe and the Levant.

The symbolic idea is that the eye looks back and breaks the stare of the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye, known simply as l‘ayn among Muslims, and as ‘ain hara‘ among Jews, is an ill-defined negative negative energy which can cause problems ranging from financial problems to physical ailments and even death. There are actually different aspects of the eye — a general, powerful negative spirit which exists independent of human action, which is attracted to certain objects or behaviors (which one might term "The Evil Eye"), and a sort of curse or spell which can be placed (purposefully or inadvertently) on someone by another person (which one might term "an evil eye"). People can invite an evil eye with prideful and boastful behaviour, or have an evil eye cast on them by a jealous relative or spurned neighbour.

An eye amulet for sale in a jewelry store in Meknes.
The Eye was feared by all, and people would go to great lengths to avoid being given an evil eye. Both Jews and Muslims have proverbs to the effect that the Evil Eye is the most frequent cause of death (cf. Stillman, 1970, pg. 82, and Stillman, 1983, pg. 487). 

It can be avoided or deterred in a number of ways — amulets, rituals, prayers — and of course, henna is an especially powerful deterrent, especially when depicting the image of an eye.

Westermarck writes: “Besides the fingers of the hand, there is another means of throwing back the baneful power, l-bas, which emanates from an evil eye, namely, the image of an eye. If baneful energy can be transferred by the eye, it can obviously also be thrown back by the eye. The image of an eye, or a pair of eyes, is therefore very commonly used as a charm” (1926, pg. 459). Sometimes even actual eyes — birds’ eyes or fish eyes — were used as protective charms (Stillman, 1970, pg. 89).