For Jew­ish Is­raelis of Ye­menite her­itage, re­viv­ing a past

The Buffalo News - - WEDDINGS - By Malin Feze­hai

At a re­cent henna cel­e­bra­tion at the Yemeni Her­itage Cen­ter in Rosh Ha’Ayin, Is­rael, the bride had three en­sem­ble changes, each rep­re­sent­ing a city or re­gion in Ye­men. Although both the bride and groom were raised in Is­rael, hon­or­ing their Yemeni her­itage was im­por­tant to them.

“I am Ye­menite on both sides, and it’s a cel­e­bra­tion of my wed­ding,” the bride, Meyrav Ye­hud, 24, said. “These are my roots.”

The henna cer­e­mony, a prewed­ding event that has been a tra­di­tion in Asian, North African and Mid­dle Eastern cul­tures, in which women paint de­signs or, in this case, place dye onto the skin of the bride and her guests, was held about a week be­fore the wed­ding. In Ye­men, the henna dye was be­lieved to sym­bol­ize fer­til­ity; the deeper the color of the dye, the bet­ter it was for the woman. In some cases, they would ap­ply it for days.

In a town that in the 1950s served as an im­mi­grant tran­sit camp for Jew­ish Ye­menites, mem­bers gath­ered in an elab­o­rately dec­o­rated venue meant to echo tra­di­tional life in Ye­men, com­plete with a fake well and pho­to­graphs of the new Yemeni im­mi­grants in Is­rael. The town was over 1,000 miles from Ye­men’s cap­i­tal city of Sanaa, which in­flu­enced the most strik­ing look of the night: a tall cone-shaped head­piece, the tash­buk, tra­di­tion­ally made of pearls and flow­ers, ac­ces­sorized with sil­ver and gold jew­elry.

It was “heavy and it hurts,” Ye­hud said. But she added, “It’s why you do the henna; it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Dur­ing the last few decades henna cer­e­monies have re­gained pop­u­lar­ity in Is­rael’s Ye­menite Jew­ish com­mu­nity as an ex­pres­sion of pride in the her­itage and tra­di­tions of Ye­men. A cul­ture is be­ing formed again around the tra­di­tional as­pects in­clud­ing the bride and groom’s gar­ments, which are rare and costly – dresses with jew­elry start at about $14,000.

Henna cer­e­monies were pop­u­lar in Yemeni so­ci­ety, with Jews and Mus­lims shar­ing the cus­tom. In 1949, Jews from all over Ye­men were air­lifted to Is­rael in a year­long ef­fort known as Op­er­a­tion Magic Car­pet. (Smaller num­bers came ear­lier, pre-state, from the end of the 19th cen­tury, and in sub­se­quent mi­gra­tions.) Many tried to bring tra­di­tional bridal gar­ments and jew­elry, but be­cause of their weight, most of the items were left be­hind. Dur­ing the early years af­ter the found­ing of the state, Jews em­i­grated from over 80 coun­tries and from sev­eral eth­nic groups, forg­ing a new Is­raeli iden­tity that was often fa­vored over the lan­guages and other as­pects of di­as­pora iden­ti­ties. Mizrahi Jews from North African and Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries were often looked down upon by the Ashke­nazi es­tab­lish­ment and pres­sured to leave their di­as­pora cul­ture be­hind, and thus, henna cer­e­monies be­came smaller and more dis­creet among the Jew­ish Ye­menite com­mu­nity.

That changed some­what in 1965 when the Is­rael Mu­seum in Jerusalem fea­tured an ex­hibit of a Jew­ish bride from Sanaa, Ye­men. Show­cas­ing the gar­ment was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause it hon­ored a part of the di­as­pora cul­ture. But it wasn’t un­til the late 1970s, as a re­sult of a po­lit­i­cal shift in Is­rael, that peo­ple started talk­ing about eth­nic pride in Is­rael.

Carmella Ab­dar, a pro­fes­sor in folk cul­ture at the He­brew Univer­sity in Jerusalem and Achva Aca­demic Col­lege, said that in con­tem­po­rary Is­rael, the head­piece is made in ad­vance for the bride. But tra­di­tion­ally in Ye­men, ar­ti­sans would as­sem­ble the head­piece by hand on the bride her­self, who couldn’t move for hours.

By the de­sign of the dress, the bride takes the shape of a tri­an­gle. “The shape is very cen­tral in the ma­te­rial cul­ture of Ye­men,” said Ab­dar. Tri­an­gles sym­bol­ize the woman’s fer­til­ity and are be­lieved to have supernatural pow­ers, but she said that in mod­ern Is­rael, the cer­e­mony has more to do with “eth­nic iden­tity than mag­i­cal pow­ers.”

In Ye­men, there were many sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Mus­lim and Jew­ish brides. The prac­tice of dye­ing hands and feet has been used for cen­turies in In­dia, Pak­istan, Africa and the Mid­dle East; Jews adopted the tra­di­tion from their Mus­lim neigh­bors. Ab­dar said Jew­ish jew­el­ers in Ye­men would make jew­elry for both Mus­lims and Jews. They also added some dis­tinctly Jew­ish touches, like the neck­lace-like labeh, worn below the chin, and stacked bracelets.

When the cel­e­bra­tion of­fi­cially be­gins in Rosh Ha’Ayin, the bride and groom stand below a talit, a Jew­ish prayer shawl, as they make their en­trance.

They are sur­rounded by en­ter­tain­ers who have adorned the cel­e­bra­tion hall with sym­bols of old Ye­men and who are also dressed in cos­tumes rem­i­nis­cent of Yemeni clothes, even wear­ing fake payot or si­monim, which are side­locks, which were once the sig­na­ture look of Yemeni Jew­ish men. One man blows the sho­far, a ram’s horn, to fur­ther wel­come the cou­ple.

To­ward the end of the evening, the im­me­di­ate fam­ily gath­ers on stage, and guests watch as the henna paste is mixed, speeches are made and songs are sung to praise the bride. The bride ap­plies the henna paste to the palms of her guests. Once dried and re­moved, the henna paste will leave an or­ange tint, show­ingth­atthey­have­been­toa cel­e­bra­tion.

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