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

Ashkenazi Jews had no henna traditions, even in Turkey; I have not yet seen any evidence of Romaniote Jewish henna use, even though henna was used by (Christian) Pontic Greeks living in Turkey (Halo, 2000, pp. 185-186). This post focuses on Sephardi and Must‘arabi traditions (you can read more about Kurdish Jewish henna here).

In the 19th and early 20th century, henna was used in Turkey by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women as a cosmetic, using it to dye hair and nails. Muslim men also used it to dye their beards, although this was generally not done by the Jews. Henna was usually applied in the hammam, where women might also remove their body hair (with an alkaline depilatory), have a massage, and catch up on gossip. One American traveller describes the process (De Kay, 1833, pg. 370):
The khennah is steeped in wine for several days, and is then applied in its wet state around the fingers and toes, where it is secured by a wrapping of vine-leaves. The patient, for so she may be called, is then put to bed, and on the following morning the dressings are removed, and the operation is finished. The fashionable reddish-yellow stain has appeared, and lasts several weeks.

A "henna stone" for women to rest their feet on while having their soles hennaed, Iran,  mid-19th century

He adds that it is used by Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, and that children dye their palms as well. According to De Kay, hennaed nails were considered to be the nicest when they had grown out halfway, so that there was a half-moon of new nail contrasting with the hennaed tip.

Henna was also used for weddings; the henna ceremony was known in Turkish as kina geçesi [‘the night of the henna’], but among Turkish Jews it was generally known by its Ladino name, noche de alhenya (the word alhenya itself is a loanword into medieval Spanish from Arabic).

The great Jewish Turkish scholar Avraham Galanté (1873-1961) describes Jewish henna ceremony in Smyrna [today Izmir] as follows (Histoire, 1937, pg. 106):
Pour célébrer un mariage, on procédait de la façon suivante : Un jeudi soir, le fiancé envoyait à la fiancée du henné, mis dans un plat, entouré de bougies minces en cire, allumées, le tout enfermé dans un fanal. Cet envoi précédé de musique, était accompagné des parents et amis du fiancé. Le henné était destiné à la fiancée, qui devait teindre ses doigts et en distribuer à ses parentes et amies. Ce soir s'appelle notché de alhenya (nuit du henné) et signife le commencement des fêtes du mariage.

To celebrate a marriage, they proceed in the following manner: Thursday night, the groom sent henna to the bride on a platter, surrounded by thin wax candles, lit, and all enclosed in a lantern. This gift, preceded by music, was accompanied by the parents and friends of the groom. The henna was intended for the bride, who would dye her fingers and distribute it to her parents and friends. This night was called notché de alhenya (the night of henna) and signified the beginning of the marriage celebrations.

This is similar to how one of my interlocutors, an elderly Must‘arabi Jewish woman, described the henna ceremonies she remembered from her childhood in Urfa [Sanliurfa] — the guests would come to the bride’s house, where there would be singing and dancing. The mother of the bride would knead the henna with water and put it on a tray with candles. Then it was applied to the bride’s hands along with silver coins, and wrapped up in embroidered cloths. The guests would then apply henna to themselves; they would take their henna off after an hour, but the bride would keep hers on all night so that she would have the strongest colour.

Jewish woman in Istanbul, 1917
In Sephardi communities in Greece and the Balkans, the henna night often took place in the mikve, the ritual bath; henna was one of the presents given to the bride to take to the bath, along with soaps, perfumes, and embroidered cloths. Generally the bride's fingertips or fingernails were hennaed, and the women celebrated with sweets and the singing of special songs praising the bride's beauty, known as las kantigas del banyo, ‘the songs of the bathhouse’ (Molho 1950: 25).

Unlike some other Jewish communities (in Morocco, for example, or Yemen), among Sephardic communities henna was not generally understood as a magic symbol of protection or transformation, but was seen as primarily cosmetic, as well as a symbol of celebration and happiness. As I noted above, henna was also used in daily life as a popular ornament for colouring fingernails and hair.

Already in the 19th century, the influence of European ideas about fashion and bodily appearance led to a decline in henna use: Charles White noted in 1844 that “the custom of tingeing the nails with henna has been abandoned [in Constantinople] by ladies of quality, who for the most part adopted thread-gloves” (1846, pg. 195). Henna faded quickly in Turkey after the revolution of Atatürk in 1922 and the subsequent ‘modernization’ of the Turkish government, language, and culture. While it has made a comeback in recent decades, it has lost most of its traditional significance (Ustuner, Ger, and Holt 2000).

Similarly, Turkish Jews today, both in Turkey and elsewhere, celebrate a henna night before weddings, but much of its importance has disappeared. In fact, the henna itself may not be necessary! In the early 1990s, Rachel Amado Bortnick reported that while the “henna night” is now widely observed among Jews in Izmir, Edirne, Bursa, and Istanbul, it is simply a pre-wedding party with music and gifts for the bride, and no henna is applied.

Bortnick, Rachel Amado. The Jewish Women of Turkey. Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review, Vol. 15, no. 2, 1993, pp. 96-101.
De Kay, James Ellsworth. Sketches of Turkey in 1831 and 1832. New York: J & J Harper, 1833.
Galanté, Abraham. Histoire des Juifs d’Anatolie: les juifs d’Izmir [History of the Jews of Anatolia: The Jews of Izmir], vol. 3. Istanbul: Isis Yayimcilik Ltd, 1937.
Halo, Thea. Not Even My Name: From a Death March in Turkey to a New Home in America. New York: Picador, 2000.
Molho, Michael. Usos y Costumbres del los Sephardies de Salonica [Customs and Practices of the Sephardi Jews of Salonica]. Madrid: Instituto Arias Montano, 1950.
Ustuner, Tuba, Guliz Ger, and Douglas Holt. Consuming Ritual: Reframing the Turkish Henna-Night Ceremony. In Advances in Consumer Research Vol. 27 (eds. Stephen Hoch and Robert Meyer), Association for Consumer Research, 2000, pp. 209-214.
White, Charles. Three Years in Constantinople, or, Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1844. Vol. 3. London: Henry Colburn, 1846.


thenewsarah2012 said...

Just a phenomenal post! As an historian and a Jew I am drawn to this type of detail. Thank you so much, now I want to henna my hair like Jewish Turkish women from the ottoman empire did.

אסתי said...

Thank you for this articulate and well researched post. My maternal roots are Turkish/Greek/Spanish. The Greek contingent may have originated in Worms [Germany], having migrated to Greece following the First Crusade. The Spanish branch is all but Jewish royalty. The ancestor is Rabbi Abraham Zaccuto, who served the King of Spain and later the King of Portugal, before migrating across North Africa to Turkey's more pacific shores.
Thank you for giving me this gift of colour. I can more easily conjure the past, and can almost hear my grandmothers and their grandmothers singing.