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.


San'ai bridal costume, early 20th century,
reconstructed by Rabbanit Bracha Kapach and
the Tzadoq family, in the Israel Museum.
Another very well-known henna outfit is the San‘ai costume with its elaborate headdress, called tishbuk lulu [crown of pearls]. Of course, the costume worn at the henna differed from area to area — the Habbani Jews of the Hadramaut, and the bildi Jews of north and western Yemen, all had their own outfits, catalogued extensively in Carmela Abdar’s beautiful work Ma‘ase Roqem. But the costume of San‘a has become the dress associated with the Yemenite henna ceremony in Israel today.

Like the Moroccan keswa lkbira, the San‘ai outfit had a number of components, each with its own name and symbolic meaning. The large triangular headdress, the tishbuk lulu, was traditionally assembled for each bride individually (while today it is one rented piece), comprising silk ribbons embroidered with pearls, coral, and agate; pieces of silver filigree jewelry (a specialty of Yemenite Jewry) and amulets, gold coins, floral garlands, and sprigs of rue (shadhab) and basil (reihan), aromatic plants also seen as having protective qualities. 

A large floral print silk scarf (wardiyye) covered the back of her headdress, and numerous necklaces framed her chin, nest, and chest. She wore a woven brocade dress (jallayeh) with wide sleeves, and underneath it special embroidered leggings which were unique to the Jewish community. In fact, the traditional henna patterns for Yemenite brides were related to the motifs of her embroidery.

Yemenite Jewish couple after the first henna ceremony, San'a, 1930s.
Photo by Yehiel Haibi.


I haven’t seen many descriptions of a particular type of dress worn for the henna ceremony in the Persian Jewish community — it seems they wore a generally festive outfit — but I came across this example of a dress specifically for the henna in a book I was reading recently. If it reminds you of a ballet tutu, you’re right! After the Qajar shah Nasser al-Din travelled to Paris in the 1870s, he fell in love with ballet, and made all the women of the royal harem dress in ballerina outfits; this sparked a tutu craze for pleated short skirts which swept over Iran.

Henna dress for Mashhadi bride, Merv, ca. 1900.

This outfit, with a sheliteh [skirt] and shalvar [pants], was made for a henna ceremony for a young bride of the Etessami family, who was married in Merv (Turkmenistan) around 1900. Her family had fled to Merv from Mashhad (northeastern Iran), where the Jews had been converted to Islam in 1839, but lived secretly as Jews. In order to preserve their community, they betrothed their children to each other at a very young age; this bride was married at 14.


Similarly, I haven’t seen much about a particular dress for the henna ceremony among Iraqi Jews, but the Israel Museum has (at least) two dresses labelled specifically as “dresses for the henna” from Baghdad. They are both made of silk satin or velvet, with tinsel embroidery. The first was made for Dakhla Rahel Mu‘allem, who was married in Baghdad in 1891 at the age of 11. The second was made for Messouda Bashi Salman Yehouda, who was married in Baghdad in 1904.

Henna dress for Dakhla Rahel Mu'allem,
Baghdad, 1891, in the Israel Museum.

While the embroidery and fabrics are drawn from local tradition, the cut indicates the growing influence of European fashion. The influential Baghdadi rabbi Yosef Hayyim (1835-1909), also known as the Ben Ish Hai, published a Judeo-Arabic pamphlet in 1906, Qanun al-Nisa [Laws for Women], in which he described how the women of his time were adopting European-style dresses; he approved of them since they kept everything modestly covered except the head, neck, and hands, even permitting women to keep their hair uncovered since in this context it did not cause improper thoughts. By the mid-20th century, most Iraqi Jews had adopted European clothing, and photos of Baghdadi henna ceremonies from the 1940s and 50s show everyone in suits and Western-style dresses.

Henna dress for Messouda Bashi
Salman Yehouda, Baghdad, 1904,
in the Israel Museum.
Of course, many of these outfits are no longer worn, or if they are, they are rented for the evening as a ‘costume.’ In Israel (and to a lesser extent in North America and Europe) there are companies that specialize in organizing “hennas” — what that means is that they provide the costumes for a henna ceremony, usually of a specific group (northern Morocco, for example, or San‘a in Yemen) and sometimes costumes for the guests as well, and they usually also bring music (either live or taped).

Sometimes these companies are really just renting costumes — gauzy Aladdin-style wraps and sequined pants — but often they have managed to preserve or recreate a traditional henna outfit, sometimes of extremely high quality. 

Nonetheless, there are of course still many changes — for example, almost all Yemenite henna organizers today have a chestpiece with all the necklaces and amulets sewn on, so that it can be put on and taken off all at once rather than one at a time. And of course, the outfit is rented for an evening rather than being passed down or made by a family member. But I still think it’s wonderful that young people getting married today have access to these traditions.

What do you think? What would you want to wear to a henna ceremony?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am so glad to find this. I have been a henna artist for 10 years and have found very little research on Jewish henna traditions. Even the company where I buy my henna says they don't have a Jewish design booklet because the tradition was wiped out. My family is Sicilian Jewish (Neofiti Italkim Jews who were converted to Catholicism after 1492). It has been hard finding our true cultural identity after so many years of assimilation. I plan to carry on cultural traditions of my family origin as Italkim (Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from Tunisia).