Monday, February 24, 2014

Jews with Tattoos? Tattooing Traditions of the Beta Israel

In looking through some statistics for my blog, I discovered that seven people have found my blog by searching “beautiful Ethiopian women.” At the risk of increasing that number, I thought I would devote some time to traditions of body art among the Jewish communities of Ethiopia. While henna is used among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Ethiopians, in this post I’m going to go (a little) out of my field and talk about tattooing.

The origins of the Ethiopian Jews are murky and, to my mind, irrelevant to this discussion (but see Kaplan 1992, Parfitt 1999, or Weil 2011 for some approaches). Suffice it to say that by the 19th century there was a large community of Jewish Ethiopians, living mostly in the areas of Gondar, Wegera, Semien, Wolqayt and Shire in Tigray (yes, there is both a Gondar and a Shire in Ethiopia; no, it is not Middle Earth). A related community is known as Feresmura or Falashmura, Jews who had converted (or been converted) to Christianity in the nineteenth century, but maintained a separate communal identity. Ethiopian Jews are also known as Beta Israel, ‘the House of Israel’ (an older term, Falasha, literally ‘exiles,’ has been largely rejected by the community).

Ethiopian Jews in Israel celebrating Sigd, Jerusalem, 2010.
Photo by Noam Sienna
In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel practiced a Torah-based form of Judaism — that is, without the additional customs, explanations, festivals, and practices of rabbinic Judaism as codified in the Talmud and later scholars. Since coming to Israel, they have largely been assimilated to the structure of normative Judaism; the Feresmura have also reverted to Jewish practice in Israel. Some excellent introductions are here, here, and here.

One of the most striking features of the Ethiopian Jewish community is their tattooing. Historically, the vast majority of Jewish communities generally refrained from tattooing, even when living in environments with established tattoo traditions, due to the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus 19:28. Technically, in the Biblical context this was a prohibition on imitating Canaanite mourning practices of cuttings and tattooed inscriptions for the dead. The rabbis, however, eventually identify this with any form of putting ink permanently under the skin, whether writing or drawing, for any purpose. While I’m on the subject, let me remind everyone that tattooing, while thus prohibited, does not disqualify one from burial in a Jewish cemetery or access to any other Jewish service (so hopefully that myth can finally be busted).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Henna History: Now in Hebrew!

An Israeli friend made a special request if I could translate my post on Yemenite Jewish henna into Hebrew... Here it is! Feel free to share with any Israeli or Hebrew-speaking friends.

שלום עליכם! המאמר הבא הוא תרגום המאמר האחרון שכתבתי בבלוג שלי, שאני מנהל בדרך כלל באנגלית. אני חוקר באוניברסיטת טורונטו, מתמקד בטקס החינה ומסורותיה בקהילות ישראל, בצפון אפריקה, המזרח התיכון, ומרכז אסיה. אתם מוזמנים לקרוא יותר על המחקר שלי בבלוג הזה, או באתר הרשמי, ואשמח לשמוע מכם באי–מייל או בתגוביות. ואנא תסלחו לי על העברית, שהיא לא שפת אמי, ואני בטוח שעשיתי טעויות רבות.

הנושא היום: מסורות החינה של יהודי צנעא, תימן.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lost and Found? Henna Art Among Yemenite Jews

I recently corresponded with a lovely Israeli art student interested in the patterns of Yemenite Jewish henna. I’ve written a little bit about them before but I thought I could expand them into a longer blogpost of their own. Then Sunday night I went to a lecture about Yemenite Jewish history by Professor Isaac Hollander, and I decided that I definitely needed a whole blogpost… Maybe even two.

The Jewish community of Yemen was one of the oldest and most vibrant of the Diaspora, probably dating back to the first centuries of the Common Era, if not even earlier. The earliest records we have of Jewish henna use in Yemen go back to the beginnings of the Islamic period, from the Kitab al-Muḥabbar of Muhammad ibn Habib (composed ca. 840 CE). After that, however, there is a long silence — I have not found any mentions of henna in Yemen until the modern period.

The use of henna among both Yemenite Jews (known as Temanim in Hebrew) and Muslims is described in the travelogues of a number of European writers (Niebuhr, 1772, pp. 65-66; du Couret, 1859, pg. 213; Saphir, 1866, pg. 81), and it is mentioned by Yemenite Jewish scholars as well (Saliḥ, 1779, 2:127; Qarah 1827).

But we still haven’t heard anything about henna patterns (Jewish or non-Jewish)! The earliest record that I’ve seen of henna patterns in Yemen comes from Freya Stark, an indefatigable British explorer (and an incredibly brave woman who travelled alone through the Arabian deserts and Central Asia at a time when few women dared do so). 

Hennaed hands, Ḥaḍramaut, late 1930s. Stark, 1938, pg. 180
She published a series of popular books on her travels, and included some descriptions of henna patterns that she saw (1936, pp. 47, 213):

[At a wedding in Makalla]: The palms of [the women’s] hands [were] reddish brown with heavily scented henna and oil and painted outside in a brown lacework pattern, like a mitten.

[In Tarim]: [The Sultan’s 10-year-old daughter] stood gazing at me, shy and gorgeous, her little hands done in lace patterns and wheels of indigo with henna tips; her hair in seventy-five plaits at least, fluffed out on her shoulders in curls.

Amazingly, Stark also includes a photograph of a woman’s hennaed hands (with the paste on), taken in the late 30s in the Ḥaḍramaut. She describes how the pattern is made “by an artist who lets a thin thread of the paste drip from her forefinger, guiding it into patterns as it does so” (1938, pg. 180).