Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Henna's a Jewish Thing?": Jewish Henna in North America Today

I have just returned from HennaCon and I’m full to bursting with henna excitement… Wow! Another extraordinary experience. It was amazing to be around so many amazing artists and a great honour to share my research with them.

A blog reader emailed me with a question (what an awesome idea! Feel free to do the same!). She writes: 
"How much Jewish Henna do you see happening in the States? From your documents and research, it seemed like there is much more going on in the Jewish Henna world overseas than in the States but I would love to hear your point of view!"

A great question. It depends on what we mean by ‘Jewish henna’... 

First of all, there are many Jewish communities from henna-using traditions throughout North America (some especially concentrated, like the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles, Moroccan Jews in Montreal, and the Syrian and Bukharan Jewish communities in New York). However, like in Israel, traditional Jewish henna ceremonies are not (and cannot) be practiced as they were in “the old country”. So while many North American Jews from henna-using backgrounds are interested in having henna ceremonies, they are faced with the same issues as their Israeli relatives: so much cultural material and knowledge has been lost in the generational gap, and even within their own communities many henna traditions may not be remembered.

I am honoured that my research has been able to help many couples from Jewish henna-using backgrounds (whether through my work in person or online) incorporate henna traditions into their wedding ceremonies. Especially in North America, where non-Ashkenazi Jewish identity is even less visible than in Israel, henna ceremonies can be an important way to affirm one’s connection to their family and heritage.

A henna ceremony in NYC for a Jewish family of Persian origin

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Take Some Henna, and Call Me In the Morning": henna in a medieval Jewish medical thesaurus fragment

I’m gearing up for the Henna Con conference in California next week — I am, as always, so excited and honoured to be included as a presenter. I’ll be teaching four different classes: one on the ancient history of henna, one on henna in Judaism, one on henna and gender variance (including these dancers!), and one on henna in al-Andalus and the medieval Mediterranean.

In preparing for that last class, I came across this interesting image and I thought I’d share it! I’ll be using it in my presentation for sure. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about it, but I’ll try to provide as much context as I can here.

This document comes from the Cairo Geniza, a massive collection of Jewish documents of all kinds (letters, receipts, biblical texts, philosophy, poetry, community records) from the 9th-19th centuries, that was found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. It was ‘discovered’ in the 1890s — people always knew it was there, but in the 1890s and 1900s Jewish scholars (first the Giblew sisters, and then Solomon Schechter) acquired the documents, took them from Cairo to their various universities, and began analyzing and publishing them. The Cairo Geniza is probably the most important Jewish discovery of modern times (alongside perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls) and certainly in the field of medieval studies. All in all approximately 300,000 documents (many of them in fragments) have been identified; there are still thousands of documents that have not been catalogued or translated (see Hoffman and Cole 2011 for a popular introduction).

Solomon Schechter cataloguing Geniza fragments at Cambridge, 1895