Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ringing It In: henna traditions for celebrating New Year's

With 2014 fast approaching, I thought I’d look at some of the ways that henna has been used to celebrate the New Year.

Some of you may be familiar with the “Persian New Year,” Nowruz, celebrated at the Spring Equinox (March 21). This ancient holiday is Zoroastrian in origin but is celebrated today by many ethnic and religious groups, including also Muslims, Alevis, and Baha’is, throughout Central Asia. There are many fascinating customs associated with Nowruz, including a table set with seven symbolic items each starting with the letter ‘sin’ (in Persian); jumping over a fire as a celebration of the victory over darkness and a cleansing beginning for the year; and many delicious traditional foods.

A young Nasser al-Din Shah, ready for Nowruz
Henna is also a traditional part of the festivities! French traveller Gabriel Bonvalot noticed in Salyan (today in Azerbaijan) that men, women and children would get their hands, feet, beards, and hair hennaed for Nowruz (Bonvalot, 1889, pg. 27). British archaeologist James Theodore Bent noticed the same in Izadkhvast, Iran, describing how “no Persian however poor would enter on a new year without some new garment, and they all looked particularly clean, for it is the custom on the day before the feast for every one to go to the bath, to have his hair dyed black and his nails dyed yellow with henna” (1890, pg. 328). Similarly, the missionary Samuel Graham Wilson, whom we’ve met before on this blog, described the Nowruz customs he saw in Iran in 1895, including the “Haft Sin” plate; he notes:
As the great day approaches, every man says to himself, “Well, to-morrow is Noruz. I must get my head shaved, go to the bath, dye my hands, nails, and beard with henna, put on a clean skull-cap, and see if the tailor has my new coat ready. I must buy some sugar and tea, tobacco and candy, and then I shall be ready for all comers.”

This usage has continued into recent times. Ethnomusicologist Veronica Doubleday, who lived in Herat, Afghanistan, in the mid-1970s, describes how her friends hennaed their hands and feet for Nowruz (1988, pg. 66). And henna is still used to celebrate Nowruz today, as noted by Nasim Fekrat; and it’s not just people who get henna! Hushang ‘Alam wrote in the Encyclopedia Iranica that “the mane and tails of horses, donkeys, and mules were hennaed in Shiraz during the Nowruz until a few decades ago” (2003). I haven’t seen any sources describing Baha’i or Zoroastrian henna for Nowruz but I’m fairly confident they would share in these traditions.

Hennaed donkeys, Iran, 1956. Photo by Inge Morath.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

More Moroccanalia: Moroccan Body Art in the 20th Century

I had a great time talking about Moroccan henna with Kenzi and Nic on the Caught Red-Handed podcast Google+ hangout. We answered questions for two hours! What a blast. You can watch it on YouTube here. I had shared with them some of the inspirations that I’ve found in older photographs, drawings, and articles on North African body art, and I thought I’d share them here too.

Brides in Marrakech, Bruno Barbey, 1987

The elaborate geometric designs associated with Fes can be seen in tourist photos from the past few decades. It’s especially interesting to look at photos from the 80s and early 90s, before henna in the public sphere shifted in response to increasing tourism. This photo, by Bruno Barbey, was taken at the royal wedding of Princess Lalla Asmaa and Khalid Bouchentouf in 1987, when Moroccans from around the country gathered in Marrakech. The design is classic Fassi style, tightly packed, with lines and zigzags as essentially its only elements. Note also that her fingernails are not hennaed, but rather painted red with Western nail polish, blending Moroccan and European sensibilities.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Kina-What? Jewish Henna Traditions in Turkey

 A henna-friend recently asked (on Facebook) whether I could offer some sources on Turkish Jewish henna traditions. Always happy to oblige! The truth is, there aren’t a lot of records of Jewish henna traditions in Turkey. I’ll present here what we do have, with reference to other communities where necessary.

A few background notes: first of all, the modern country of Turkey is not quite the same as what was historically known as “Turkey.” Even in the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire included much of what is today Greece and the Balkans, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq. Thus, colonial travelers would describe their observations about (Muslim) Turks living in places like Salonica [Thessaloniki], Damascus, Jerusalem, or Mosul.

The other note is that there is no one “Turkish Jewish” community, but several different layers: most of Turkey’s Jews were Sephardi Jews, descended from the Iberian exiles who arrived in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. These Jews generally spoke Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and settled in Constantinople (today Istanbul), as well as other parts of the empire: places like Salonica, Cairo, Damascus, Safed, and Sarajevo. However, here are (or were) also other communities: Must‘arabi Jews (Judeo-Arabic speakers), mostly in the south-east, near the Syrian border; Ashkenazi Jews (Yiddish speakers), some of whom had migrated to Turkey in the Middle Ages but also more recent arrivals; Kurdish Jews (Neo-Aramaic speakers) living in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey; and Romaniote Jews (Judeo-Greek speakers), living mostly in Greek areas (Corfu, Crete, Salonica, Ioannina) but also in Turkey proper.

Jews from Bursa (the woman on the left is wearing her 'indoor' clothes,
the woman on the left is in a yashmak for walking around the city).
From Les Costumes Populaires de la Turquie, 1873

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?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hanukkah O Hanukkah: henna traditions for housewarmings

A couple of my dear friends have moved into a new house (just down the street! yay!) and asked me if I would do henna at their housewarming party… Little did they know that henna housewarming parties are actually an old Jewish tradition!

But what does this have to do with Hanukkah? Well, the holiday takes its name from the fact that the Temple was rededicated after the victory of the Maccabees: in Hebrew, hanukkat haBayyit, ‘the dedication of the House’ (which in modern Hebrew now refers to any housewarming).

So while I have never come across any specific henna traditions for Hanukkah in my research, there is a Jewish custom connecting henna with housewarmings, so I thought I’d present it here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

From the Henna Files: new discoveries in henna research

So I haven’t written a blogpost in a few weeks, not only because I’ve been super busy, but also because I’ve been trying to decide what to write about: I’ve made a few “henna discoveries” in the past few weeks and they’re each worthy of a blogpost… So I’ve combined them into a research update post, as it were, and if anyone’s interested in one of them in particular, let me know (just comment here or on Facebook, or email me) and I’ll expand! 

So, without further ado, a glimpse into the week of a henna researcher: 

Henna in Pylos: not so much…
For some time, when I teach about the early history of henna, I have been mentioning that some scholars have suggested that the Mycenaean dyeing industry, located on the Greek island of Pylos, used henna as one of the ingredients in their dyed/perfumed oils. Chief among them is Cynthia Shelmerdine, who first suggested the idea in her paper “Henna in Mycenaean Perfumery,” presented at the American Philological Association annual meeting in 1983, and expanded upon in her 1985 book The Perfume Industry of Mycenaean Pylos. Her suggestion is that the word e-ti (vocalized possibly as ertis) refers to henna (via a complex philological argument involving a 5th century botanist) and thus these oils were possibly dyed with henna (more likely than being perfumed with henna flowers, which would likely not make the long trip to Pylos from Judea or Egypt where it was grown). 

A Mycenaean tablet in Linear B from Pylos

But now, the discovery: one of Shelmerdine’s students, Mary Jane Cuyler, has published an article re-examining the evidence, which (although published in 2010) I just found now: “Rose, Sage, Cyperus, and E-ti: the adornment of olive oil at the palace of Nestor,” published in Kosmos: jewellery, adornment, and textiles in the Aegean Bronze Age (2010). She argues that the textual evidence is so weak that it would require really strong archaeological support, which it doesn't have: it is unlikely that the oil was dyed with henna, since henna doesn’t really dye oil (being a fat, rather than a protein). You’d think that would be self-evident, but that’s the way academia works (sigh). So she did an experiment, demonstrating that henna mixed with water (or even wine) will dye skin and wool, but henna mixed with oil essentially does nothing. Therefore, she concludes, “henna was probably not infused in olive oil, and therefore the identity of ertis is again open for interpretation. It is likely to have been an aromatic that works synergistically with sage and may have been a plant native to Western Messenia” (pp. 661). Nothing like a good old-fashioned experiment! I guess it’s time to revise my henna history presentation…

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Take Some Henna, and Call Me In the Morning": henna in a medieval Jewish medical thesaurus fragment

I’m gearing up for the Henna Con conference in California next week — I am, as always, so excited and honoured to be included as a presenter. I’ll be teaching four different classes: one on the ancient history of henna, one on henna in Judaism, one on henna and gender variance (including these dancers!), and one on henna in al-Andalus and the medieval Mediterranean.

In preparing for that last class, I came across this interesting image and I thought I’d share it! I’ll be using it in my presentation for sure. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about it, but I’ll try to provide as much context as I can here.

This document comes from the Cairo Geniza, a massive collection of Jewish documents of all kinds (letters, receipts, biblical texts, philosophy, poetry, community records) from the 9th-19th centuries, that was found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. It was ‘discovered’ in the 1890s — people always knew it was there, but in the 1890s and 1900s Jewish scholars (first the Giblew sisters, and then Solomon Schechter) acquired the documents, took them from Cairo to their various universities, and began analyzing and publishing them. The Cairo Geniza is probably the most important Jewish discovery of modern times (alongside perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls) and certainly in the field of medieval studies. All in all approximately 300,000 documents (many of them in fragments) have been identified; there are still thousands of documents that have not been catalogued or translated (see Hoffman and Cole 2011 for a popular introduction).

Solomon Schechter cataloguing Geniza fragments at Cambridge, 1895

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pictures of Persia: henna in the photography of Antoin Sevruguin

While looking for documentation of Persian Jewish henna, I came across the photographs of Antoin Sevruguin, and they were so wonderful that I wanted to share this resource. I realized that my intention in starting this blog was to share things that I find as I go along my research, not to go out of my way to research new posts (which is what the last few posts have been). So here’s a short(er) post with some awesome photos! Enjoy!

Antoin Sevruguin was a Georgian-Iranian who operated a photography studio first in Tabriz, and then in Tehran, from the 1870s until his death in 1933. He also traveled around the country on various expeditions taking photographs of monuments, archaeological sites, and the various peoples and cultures of Iran. He was a celebrated photographer in his day both in Iran and abroad, although many of his photographs were distributed without attribution (for example, in the 1921 National Geographic issue on Persia), and unfortunately thousands of his negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1908. For more information see the biographies here and here.

The Smithsonian collections in the Freer Sackler Museum of Asian Art contains about a thousand photographs attributed to Sevruguin, including glass plate negatives and albumen photoprints. They have all been digitized and you can sort through them here by searching “Sevruguin”. This is an amazing resource for visualizing 19th and 20th century Iran!

I trawled through them myself and found lots of interesting instances of henna, including several photographs that were identified as Jews — there is sometimes a discrepancy between Sevruguin’s handwritten notes on the negatives and the curator’s identification; in those cases I went with Sevruguin’s notes, since the museum’s identifications often seem problematic (a issue also noted by Armstrong-Ingram, pg. 412). Now onto the photographs! And please check out the archives yourselves!
Jewish village girl, ca. 1875

This photograph was already familiar to me, but I didn’t realize it was by Sevruguin, so it was a delight to come across it again. It shows a Jewish village girl bedecked with elaborate silver jewelry, a large floral wrap ('abayye), and hennaed fingernails. 

Her large disk and sheath amulets suggest that she is from the western part of Iran, perhaps near Kermanshah, Tabriz, or Hamadan, all areas with large Jewish communities. Sevruguin's first studio was in Tabriz; did he photograph her there? Or was this picture taken on one of his photographic expeditions? 

It is likely, because of her threaded eyebrows and forehead ornament (mu-band), that she is a newlywed bride; her hennaed nails suggest that it is about a month after her wedding (Sahim's description says that she is "dressed up for her wedding," 2002, pg. 180, but given her hennaed nails it seems likely that the photo was taken a few weeks after the ceremony). 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Resistance is Futile: Henna in Reverse, Part II

This is part two of the series that we began last week investigating sap and wax resists. Those techniques use a liquid mixture that is drawn on the skin and dries, while the techniques we’re looking at in this post use malleable materials like fabric and dough to shape the designs that will block the henna.

One basic type of this resist uses a simple dough (flour and water) that can be rolled out into thin strands and arranged on the skin. One example of this technique comes from the descriptions of Bahraini wedding ceremonies in the 1970s recorded in Holes’ work on Bahraini Arabic dialects (2005, pg. 164):

Over the following two days [before the wedding] a specialist woman artist (xaḍḍaba [lit. painter]) applied henna to her palms, fingers and feet. This process was called ḥannat ‘ağin [dough henna]. A thin dough would be rolled, twisted and applied to the bride's skin in geometric patterns, leaving some of the skin bare. The red henna dye was then applied to the dough and skin and allowed to dry overnight. In the morning the dough was removed, leaving the henna pattern on the skin. The process was repeated on the third night, known as lēlat il-ḥanna, in order to make the henna tattoos [sic] stand out even more clearly. During these two days, special ditties accompanied the laborious process of decorating the bride.

This technique is apparently still practiced in the Arabian peninsula today; Penni AlZayer described it as she saw it being done in the 1990s in a rural village in al-Sharqiyya, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. She writes that the hennaya [henna artist] worked by “rolling bits of dough from the bowl beside her into very long thin strings,” and then she “arranged and pressed simple spirals and geometric patterns first onto the palms of the bride’s hands and then the soles of her feet” (AlZayer, 2005, pg. 4). After the patterns were finished, the hennaya covered the bride’s hands and feet with henna paste and let it dry.

Kurdish Jewish woman shaping bread dough,
Israel, mid-20th century
Interestingly, a similar technique was practiced by the Jewish community in Sandor (or Sundur), a small village in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. An elderly immigrant from Sandor described the patterns, including celestial imagery in the palm and spirals around the fingers, that she remembered from her wedding in the 1920s (Sienna, 2011, pg. 88):

They would draw here [in the palm], like a moon, a beautiful drawing. [Noam: how would they do it?] They would make a dough, take dough, and put it on a little bit at a time. They would do it here [on the hands], whatever designs they wanted, and then they would put henna on over it... And then they would do the fingers, one by one, a little dough here [in a spiral], so that it would look nice. [The woman doing the henna] would bring the dough, take a little bit, roll it out thinly, thinly, and then put it on the hands, and then henna [on top]. And then [when it was dry] she would wrap [the bride's hands] up in cloth, so that she wouldn't move [and smudge the henna]. It would come out so beautiful, bright red, a strong colour.

While Henny Harald Hansen describes a Kurdish bride with palms “painted with a sun, a crescent moon and a star” (1961, pg. 130), it is not clear whether that was done with a resist or whether it was simply drawn on the skin. No other description of henna from this region includes reference to a dough resist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the technique was known and used by women in Turkey and Pakistan as well. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Resistance is Futile: Henna in Reverse, Part I

Inspired by a comment in an online group for henna artists, I thought I’d explore some of the historical records we have for what might be called “resist henna”: using a impervious substance to create patterns on the skin and then applying henna thickly over it, so that the pattern remains unstained against a darkly-hennaed background. This technique creates bold and striking patterns, since the thick henna ensures a dark stain, and is especially helpful if the henna is grainy or not well sifted.

This post is divided into two parts. In this week's installment I’ll offer some sources for sap and wax resists, and in the next part I’ll look at string and dough resists.

For sap and wax resists, designs are usually drawn on the skin with a stick dipped in some liquid mixture that, when dry, will block the henna stain. M. Vonderheyden observed in the 1930s that Ouled-Naïl women in Algeria patterned their henna by dropping candle wax on their hands and covering it with henna, so that they had “white spots against the brown stain” (1934, pg. 46). 

In 1949 Raymond Mauny, a French researcher at the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire in Dakar, published a brief comment in Notes Africaines, explaining that on his way to Kiffa, Mauritania, he saw women who hennaed their hands “not with a simple application as is the custom in most Islamic countries, but having made geometric motifs to a most beautiful effect” (1949, pg. 116). One of them described the process to him as follows:
We take a stick with ash, mixed with gum or the sap of euphorbia, and we draw with that mixture the spots that we want to stay white. Then we apply the henna over the whole hand, which we then wrap with the large leaves of the tourja (Calotropis procera).

Mauny supplies the following photograph, noting that the left hand had been doubly hennaed, and the right hand only once.

Woman with hennaed hands, Kiffa (Mauritania). From Mauny 1949, pg. 116.

It looks like the designs here were made with multiple techniques: sap resist for the stripes and triangular pieces on the sides of her hands, while the diamond/cross shapes on the top and bottom of the right hand appear to have been drawn on directly, probably with a stick; her fingers, of course, have been solidly dipped (with a nice sharp line from the resist defining them at the bottom). The designs are clearly visible and very striking — anyone want to give them a try? Maybe I'll recreate them for another post.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Would You Trade Henna for a Bible?: Missionaries and Merchants in Qajar Iran

In research for my last post on henna use among gender-defiant Jewish dancers in Central Asia, I came across Persia: western mission, the memoirs of an American missionary named Samuel Joseph Wilson. In it he includes an amusing story about henna that I thought I would share here. I found his life-story fascinating, so I begin with it before describing the incident.

Dr. Samuel Joseph Wilson was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 11, 1858. He was apparently a intellectual prodigy, graduating at 18 with a B.A. from Princeton. He then went to Western Theological Seminary (then in Allegheny, PA, today merged with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), received an M.A. in 1879 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1880. He left right away for Persia, where he spent the rest of his life as a missionary. He worked hard to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity; while his books are filled with his success stories, though, he had little long-term impact on the religious life of these communities. 

He competed for converts with the new faith of the Bahá'u'lláh, what is now the Bahá'í faith, and he eventually wrote a book exploring its history and theology (Bahaism and Its Claims, 1915). He was also the author of a popular book on Persian culture (Persian Life and Customs, 1895), a fictional romance set among Persian Armenians (Mariam: a romance of Persia, 1906), and a series of lectures on Islam in the modern world (Modern Movements Among Moslems, 1916). 

In 1916 he was sent to deliver relief funds from the Red Cross to Armenian refugees from the Ottoman-sponsored genocide in eastern Turkey; working in difficult conditions and a cold winter, he fell ill with typhoid fever and died. The Princeton Alumni Weekly records that the cable with news of his death “came as a great shock,” especially for his family who had stayed in the United States “since it was too dangerous and difficult for them to return to Persia under present conditions” (1916, pg. 52).

The Mission School in Tabriz, of which Wilson was the principal, and where he died, aged 58.
Photo from Wilson, Persian Life and Customs, 1895, pg. 306.

American missionary Robert Elliot Speer called him “one of the ablest and most courageous” missionaries and noted that “his long life of fidelity was crowned with its rich reward” (Speer, 1917, pp. 191 and 194). He was a popular speaker and skilled linguist, translating church literature himself into Armenian and Azeri (Anderson, 1999, pg. 743). 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Dancing Before the Altar": Henna and Jewish Dancing Boys

The recent “Got Henna” contest at Mehandi.com (#7) featured the recent arrest of nine men in Khartoum, Sudan, under suspicion of homosexual activity, one of the pieces of evidence being the possession of henna.

That got me thinking about the complicated history of henna use among men, and a specific phenomenon common across the world: male-bodied individuals who perform a alternative gender identity, feminine in presentation but not identical to ‘womanhood,’ often culturally sanctioned as a third gender category. It is almost impossible to make any further generalizations — this phenomenon is manifest in a wide diversity of different places, and in different times. Some readers may already be familiar with one example, the hijra of India. There is a fabulous map of gender-diverse cultures from PBS here

Since many of these groups overlap with henna-using areas, there are a number of interesting connections that we might explore (perhaps this will be the first of a series of posts?). For this post, I want to look at an interesting photograph of Jewish dancers, possibly hennaed, in Iran. But first some background:

Saqi carved on relief
Syria, 13th century
By the Middle Ages, a phenomenon had become common throughout the Islamic world: young boys* (usually between six and eighteen) who dyed their hands with henna and put kohl under their eyes, curled their hair, and wore women’s clothing. They served as cup-bearers, bath attendants, and especially as dancers. 

They had a variety of names: in al-Andalus they were known as saqi, ‘cupbearers’, in Ottoman lands as tellak (‘masseur’), yamaki or köçek (‘little [boy]’), in Arabic-speaking areas as khawal (‘servant’), and in Persian-speaking areas as bacha (‘boy’). For lack of a better term, I will refer to them here as ‘dancing boys.’ It is interesting, though not surprising, that these boys were most often from religious and ethnic minorities: Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Roma (Gypsies).

*A note about gendered words and pronouns: while they performed in feminine accoutrements and were sometimes indistinguishable from girls to observers, it seems that they were nonetheless consistently seen as boys rather than a fully separate gender. How they identified themselves is not known; the few accounts we have of their life after ‘growing out’ of dancing indicate that as adults they lived as fully male in every way. I therefore refer to them as male throughout this essay.

There are interesting testimonies about these boys in medieval poetry and legal literature (again, perhaps another post), but for this post I want to focus on records from the (early) modern period that relate to this fascinating photograph — the only photograph, to my knowledge, to depict Jewish dancing boys.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Now Joseph Was Of Beautiful Form and Beautiful Appearance" [Gen. 39:6]: Henna in a Mashhadi Persian Manuscipt of Yusuf and Zulaikha

Inspired by a comment on the last post that one of my readers has been looking at Persian poetry, this month I decided to look at some Persian Jewish henna. Specifically, I have been fascinated by the henna shown in an unusual Judeo-Persian manuscript, held in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, MS1534. The manuscript is available online in a high-resolution scan via the Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky Digitization Project. In this post I go over the history of the manuscript and offer some analysis of its historical context. If you want to see the henna, just skip right down to the bottom.

According to the colophon [scribal inscription], the book was calligraphed by a scribe named Eliyahu ben Nissan ben Eliyah, known as ‘Gurgi’ [the Georgian], and he completed the book on the Jewish date of 12 Av, 5612 corresponding to the Muslim date, Dhu al-Qa‘dah, 1269 A.H. (this corresponds to Tuesday August 16, 1853 C.E.). What is most interesting, though, is that the book was written in the city of Mashhad — we’ll get to that in a moment.

Colophon giving name of scribe (lines 3-4)
The text is a transcription of the tale of Yusuf [Joseph] and Zulaikha [Potiphar’s wife], as told by the great 15th-century Sufi poet and philosopher Nur ad-Din ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Jami in his work Haft Awrang [Seven Thrones]. The text is written in Judeo-Persian, in this case meaning Persian transliterated in Hebrew characters; the Judeo-Persian dialect spoken by the Jews of Persia had differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, but this text is written in Jami’s classical Persian but transcribed in the Hebrew alphabet. There is another version of the story of Yusuf and Zulaikha, written in Judeo-Persian by a Jewish poet named Shahin.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Her Fingers Stained Red from the Blood of the Slain": henna in medieval Hebrew love poetry

Today on the Jewish calendar is the 15th of the month of Av, or Tu beAv, which in ancient times was celebrated as a festival of love. The Mishna [compendium of rabbinic discussion, ca. 200 CE] records (Ta‘anit 4:6) that young women would go out to the vineyards to dance under the full moon in white dresses, and young men would choose their wives there. 

This holiday comes after the sombre commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, and we now move into a period known as the Seven Weeks of Comfort, which bring us to the New Year. In the liturgical calendar, the prophetic reading for this Shabbat contains the line (Isaiah 49:16) where G!d declares to the people of Jerusalem that G!d’s love for us can never fail: “Behold, I have engraved you onto the palms of My hands; your walls are in front of Me always.” That verse inspired the following design:

Henna and photo by Noam Sienna, 2008

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Introduction to Eshkol haKofer

Welcome to Eshkol haKofer! This is a space for me to blog about some of the interesting tidbits that I come across in my research of Jewish henna traditions.

The title of the blog comes from the Hebrew Bible, Song of Songs 1:14, which reads:

אֶשְׁכֹּל הַכֹּפֶר דּוֹדִי לִי בְּכַרְמֵי עֵין גֶּדִי
eshkol hakopher dodhi li bekharmei ‘ein gedhi
A cluster of henna blossoms is my beloved to me, in the vineyards of ‘Ein Gedi.

This simple metaphor is the beginning of the multimillenial story of the henna plant and the Jewish people. The study of Jewish henna touches on many different issues: the relationship between organized religion and folk culture, the social integration of Jews in the Islamic world, and the ways that Jewish communities adopt and adapt cultural forms from their surroundings and invest them with Jewish meaning. 

My research will draw on insights from history, rabbinic literature, anthropology, art history, and other fields. At its core, it seeks to understand the impact of henna use in its various manifestations on the spiritual and social lives of its Jewish practitioners. Thus the study of Jewish henna extends from contemporary Jewish couples marrying today in Toronto to colonial travelers writing about the exotic “Oriental Jews,” from medieval rabbis discussing whether henna stains constitute a ritual barrier for immersion to that nameless beloved and their henna bouquet in the desert, so many years ago.

Ein Gedi is an oasis in the south of the Land of Israel, west of the Dead Sea. Today it is a natural park which provides a sanctuary for a number of animal and plant species. In biblical times, it was renowned as a production centre for perfumes, one of which may have been made from henna flowers. 

Botanical drawing of Lawsonia inermis.
From Sonnini, Voyage dans la Haute et Basse Egypte, 1799.

Josephus, a Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, writes (The Wars of the Jews, 4.469):
καὶ μελιττοτρόφος δὲ ἡ χώρα: φέρει δὲ καὶ ὀποβάλσαμον, ὃ δὴ τιμιώτατον τῶν τῇδε καρπῶν, κύπρον τε καὶ μυροβάλανον, ὡς οὐκ ἂν ἁμαρτεῖν τινα εἰπόντα θεῖον εἶναι τὸ χωρίον, ἐν ᾧ δαψιλῆ τὰ σπανιώτατα καὶ κάλλιστα γεννᾶται.
This land [around Jericho] feeds honeybees; it also bears the balsam which is the most valuable of all the fruits of that place, and henna [kupros] as well as myrobalanus [?]; so that it would not be a mistake to call this place divine, since the rarest and most excellent plants grow here in abundance.

And 1,800 years later, when the English clergyman and naturalist Henry Baker Tristam (1822-1906) went on a natural history expedition to the Holy Land in 1863-4, he found henna bushes still growing wild in the area (The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine, Undertaken With Special Reference to Its Physical Character, 1865, pg. 299): 
The camphire of Engedi, mentioned in the Book of Canticles, we identified in a pretty shrub, with bunches of graceful pink-white blossoms, which was already in flower in some sheltered nooks, and called El-Henna by the Arabs, from which they procure the Henna dye — the Lawsonia alba of botanists.

Like Josephus, I believe in the sanctity of the place where henna is to be found, and I suspect that we have much to gain from our quest of that “rarest and most excellent” of plants. I invite you to join me on this journey! Suggestions, comments, questions, and criticisms are all warmly welcome. And feel free to follow us on Facebook for the latest updates!

Henna blessings,
Noam Sienna