Someone Else's Simcha / Shmuel and Re'ut's henna ceremony: Tradition, tradition!
A young couple embraces a traditional Middle Eastern prenuptial rite; the wedding is almost a footnote.
Location: Hod reception hall, Ramle
Time: 7:30 P.M.
In the neighborhood: A sooty street lined with clothing stores (signs in Hebrew, English and Russian) closing down one by one as dusk descends. Jewish and Muslim women with head coverings stroll along one sidewalk. Across the way, the Franciscan church with its massive stone structure and clock tower dominate the reddening skyline, otherwise occupied by dull, gray two-story buildings.
Venue: Stairs lead down from street level to a main reception hall, where a dozen or so round tables are arranged, leaving a wide aisle. The left side of the hall is taken up by a massive table draped with an ornate golden cloth and platters of sweets and cakes, along with oversized Moroccan coffee pots. Further on stand two gold-and-silver sequined thrones (a.k.a. talamuns) on Moroccan carpets, surrounded by ottomans and an ornate golden table.
Underfoot: Large, industrial-gray ceramic tiles, outlined in black.
Simcha: Re'ut and Shmuel's henna ceremony.
Fact #1: Mazal, producer of the event (Hafla Hafakot) and an encyclopedia on henna: "The ceremony started thousands of years ago, when the groom's family would visit the bride's family the night before the wedding. Because women wore veils in public, they would mark the bride with a red paste made from the henna plant, to prevent the groom from marrying a different woman."
Home: Re'ut (22, cosmetics saleswoman, studies medical cosmetics) and Shmuel (25, manager of office supplies warehouse, business student) were both raised in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, situated 20 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv, and adjacent to Ramle. They live together in Shmuel's parental home, hoping to save enough to buy their own place. Plans? Re'ut: "I’d like to stay in Lod since my mother's here, but there's no economic future in Lod."
A brief history of time: The two spent most of their lives as next-door neighbors.
Shmuel: "I never noticed her until about six years ago." Flashback: Following a breakup, Re'ut was given Shmuel's number. She called to ask him out, but nothing really happened. Some time later, during a holiday, when they were both hanging out in the street with the rest of the neighborhood kids, the sparks between them began to fly.
Number of guests: 150. Shmuel: "Only close family and friends. Not like a wedding, where it's all the same, just 'place the ring, break the glass, and let's go home.' This is our tradition and roots." Around 550 guests are invited to the wedding in two weeks.
Family history: Shmuel, the eldest of two children and the only son, is the first of his generation to get married ("It's a lot of pressure. Everything has to be just right"). Re'ut, the fourth of five children, is the second to marry. Her eldest sister tied the knot 10 years ago ("Now she has five children of her own"). Her sister's prenuptial event was held at home and attended only by close family ("It was much smaller, more intimate").
Fact #2: Re'ut's family is of Turkish and Libyan extraction, and doesn't mark hennas. Re'ut: "Hennas are actually held for the bride, not for the groom. But because Shmuel is Moroccan and Tunisian, and because I'm so attached to his mother, I said 'yallah, let's have a henna.'" Good decision? "I didn't necessarily want it, but with all the planning, the henna has become more meaningful than the wedding."
Rites: After changing outfits twice during the evening (#1: White and gold traditional outfit, vest, and cap for Shmuel and matching dress for Re'ut; #2: Green and gold outfit for Shmuel, and green dress and top combo for Re'ut), the couple puts on their henna garb, with Shmuel sporting a white outfit with red vest and cap, and Re'ut donning a purple dress with gold trimmings.
The two are raised in his-and-hers silvery palanquins (the height makes Re'ut a little nervous), marking the beginning of the zafa – a traditional parade prior to the henna itself, in which the up-raised couple is followed by family members and children all dressed in colorful traditional garb (kaftans for women, galabiyas for men).
Band members accompany the procession with drum, Tunisian flute and singing. After a short run of the hall, the parade reaches the "throne room." Family forms a tight ring around the wedding thrones, as Re'ut's mother Clara (46) presents a gold chain to Shmuel while Shmuel's mother Rachel (46) gives Re'ut a gold necklace. A friend sticks a 200-shekel bill to Shmuel's forehead.
A rite symbolizing fertility and prosperity then commences: Re'ut spills a jug of rice on a platter and tosses it at the merry crowd; Shmuel spills a jug filled with 10-agorot coins and throws them at Re'ut (Overheard: "You're throwing agorot? Throw dollars!").
Ornate henna bowl garnished with shekels and candied almonds is brought out and the grandmothers apply the red paste to the couple's palms. Re'ut is handled by her smiling maternal grandmother Mazal (67), while Shmuel's henna is applied by maternal grandmother Fortuna (82) and paternal grandmother Perla (72). Family and friends unleash a barrage of ululations, as all the women and young girls rush to apply henna on their own hands to mark the occasion.
Music: Dance-floor Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) pop (Re'ut's uncle Rafi impresses the crowd by dancing while balancing a bottle of vodka on his head). Prior to the henna ceremony, DJ plays several Turkish songs (Re'ut: "For my grandmother").
Food: Appetizers: Beetroot salad, hummus, pita, pickled veggies, fried cigars; first course: spicy St. Peter's fish, burekas, and mixed grill; mains: grilled chicken, schnitzel, kebabs, and white rice. Piles and piles of traditional sweets, all made by Re'ut's mother Clara along with a separate table filled with mufleta pancakes, honey, and Clara's homemade jams (including one made from pomelo skin).
Drink: Lemonade, orange juice, and coke. As the evening rolls on, vodka bottles and cans of Red Bull become the standard.
Fact #3: Mazal the encyclopedia: "In the past, a lot of people, maybe except for Moroccans, were made to feel ashamed of having 'primitive' hennas in Israel. But in the last few years it's been making a comeback. Even Ashkenazim are having them now."
Word in the ear: Clara: "It's true that we've never really had hennas like this, but a henna is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and in this day and age, when weddings are hardly a once-in-a-lifetime event, it adds something special."
In my spiritual doggy bag: The ability to find strength and confidence in one's traditions and background, instead of an incessant quest for the new and unique.
Random quote: On the street, taking a cigarette break, a guest in a black shirt and pants addresses a family member dressed in traditional white galabiya and fez: "Wait, you're Turkish?" To which he answers: "Does it look like I'm from Los Angeles?"
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