By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director
As creative director of Harif, I normally spend my time campaigning to the wider community for recognition of the plight of the Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. So often I am listening to sad stories of murders, fleeing in the night with a single suitcase and re-starting life in a sandy ma''abara camp. So it''s a pleasure to sit in the cosy North London homes of some these families, flicking through their photo albums to see their offspring celebrating their weddings and barmitzvahs with dazzling henna ceremonies.
Harif (the association of Jews form the Middle East and North Africa) are collecting community photos for the exhibition Celebrating the Sephardi Community in London. We are joining the established Klezmer in the Park event on 9th September to bring a ''Sephardi Twist'' to Regents Park. We are also busy creating a beautiful henna tent from a mix of exotic fabrics so that visitors can experience the ceremony.
The Persian Henna Ceremony of Shira Joseph Photo courtesy: Dalia Hajioff
Some of the events I''ve seen are in the homes of the bride''s family and others in lavish hotel settings. The pictures show the bride and her family dressed in traditional brocaded kaftans, often passed down from mother to daughter, heavily bejewelled and tables laden with platters of sweets, sugared almonds and candles as the centre piece. Some ceremonies are women only whilst others are mixed, with the men being exotically dressed in embroidered djebellas and tarbush (fez) hats. At the Moroccan wedding hennas I’ve attended the couple change into traditional costumes during the evening and being carried on amariya thrones above the crowd, with the guests giving a blast of ululations to the happy couple. The bride’smother then sets up home in the exotic tent and applies henna paste to the hands of the guests to bring luck and mark the occasion. The stain stays on the palm of your hands for at least five days, and is a symbol to your friends and work colleagues that you''ve attended a recent simcha.
Photo courtesy: Dalia Hajioff
Although not all communities like their hands being stained. Iraqi Jews wrap the henna in foil balls and wear them on their fingertips. Ashkenazi bride Carol Shelamy (née Elman), who has been married for 30 years to her Adeni husband Eitan, told me that all those years ago she wore gloves for the ceremony so as not to stain her hands.
After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, many people were made to feel ashamed of having ''primitive'' hennas in Israel. It was not until the late 70''s that previously neglected cultural celebrations began to experience a revival. "Arabness" was discouraged in the newly founded State as it tried to carve out a new Jewish identity. But in the last few years, along with the Mimouna festival and the popularity of Mizrahi music, it''s now entering mainstream Israeli culture. Noting how many Moroccan homeware shops have cropped up in Tel-Aviv on my recent visit, the owner of one told me that people were buying all the trimmings for henna ceremonies. "Even the Russians are having them now," she explained.
As Noam Sienna of Henna by Sienna recounts: "Today, the revived henna ceremony is very different than its historical predecessors. One of the main changes to the henna ceremony has been in its length and timing. While in the Diaspora, the pre-wedding festivities often lasted a week or more, in Israel they were severely compressed due to constraints of money and time. The application of henna to the bride, whether done over a period of three days, as in Yemen, or whether done multiple times over a two-week period, as in Morocco, was reduced to a single evening. The timing of the henna ceremony was moved from the night before the wedding, or a few days before the wedding, to the week before the wedding or even earlier. Furthermore, where formerly the groom may have been henna-ed in a separate ceremony in a separate location, in Israel the two ceremonies were joined, so that the groom sits next to the bride and is henna-ed with her."
Come and see for yourselves as we at Harif hope to create the ambiance of the henna in central London whilst the bandstand plays a mixture of live Klezmer music mixed with Sephardi bands. More info here
Michelle Huberman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org