Friday, December 19, 2014

Say Yes to the Dress: Jewish Henna Clothing

I often get emails asking me what to wear to a henna ceremony, or if I provide traditional costumes for henna ceremonies. I don’t yet (I wish I did!), but I thought I would devote a blogpost exploring some of the traditional clothing associated with Jewish henna ceremonies.

Here are some examples of the traditional clothing worn at Jewish henna ceremonies across the world. Some of this was generally similar to the festive clothes worn by their Muslim, Hindu, or Christian neighbours, depending on the area, although much of it was uniquely Jewish. Often the “henna dress” would be worn for the wedding as well, and often at festive celebrations thereafter, but sometimes it was worn only on this one occasion.


Keswa kbira, Rabat, late 19th century.
In the Jewish Museum, NYC.
In most of northern and central Morocco, the henna night was the time of the traditional festive dress, known in Judeo-Arabic as el-keswa el-kbira, “the Grand Dress.” In Haketía (Judeo-Spanish), it was known as the traje de la berberisca, “the dress of the Berberisca,” a term for the henna ceremony; the dress itself was also sometimes called berberisca

While this is derived from the word Berber, it is clear that the dress came with the Sephardi megorashim [exiles] to Morocco — it was not worn by the Amazigh Jewish communities of southern Morocco. I'm still not sure where the word berberisca became attached to the henna ceremony... I wonder if they called it berberisca because it was modeled after, or was seen as resembling, the henna traditions of the indigenous Moroccan Jewish toshavim.

The dress, which shares some similarities with medieval Spanish clothing, actually has eight parts: a skirt (zeltita), a bodice (ktef), a short-sleeved jacket (gombaz), separate long sleeves (kmam), a woven silk belt (hzam), a silk scarf (panuelo or fechtul), embroidered shoes, and a headband. The fabric is velvet, usually red or blue, with gold and silver embroidery. The various motifs (suns, roses, trees, birds, etc.) all add to the significance of the dress and its symbolism on this ritual of passage. It would continue to be worn after the wedding on holidays or other celebrations, and of course it would be passed on in a family from mother to daughter.

Simy Monsonego in her keswa kbira,
Fes, ca. 1941.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bon Appetit: Jewish Food for Henna Parties Around the World

I am in the middle of writing another blogpost, but I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Rabbi Gil Marks, a prominent scholar of Jewish food history, in Jerusalem this past Friday. 

Gil Marks receiving the James Beard Award, 2005.
His books have not only enriched my own cooking, but have inspired me to think about how to combine scholarship, public outreach, and active practice in my own academic work — his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food in particular is a model for the kind of book I dream of writing about Jewish culture. In his memory I decided to devote this post to some of the food associated with Jewish henna ceremonies.

Around the world, Jewish communities developed a rich culinary tradition that braided together Jewish values and practices around cooking and eating with local foodways and ingredients, along with those acquired along their migrational history (this same dynamic, by the way, is at play with Jewish henna traditions as well!). Of course henna ceremonies, being significant lifecycle moments and community celebrations, were accompanied by food — sometimes a whole meal, sometimes just snacks and sweets. Here are a few recipes that might have appeared at a Jewish henna ceremony a century or so ago: