Someone Else’s Simcha Shalev and Yahel’s Henna Party - Set Up, in a Good Way

A young couple of Yemenite extraction celebrates the successful matchmaking skills of a mutual friend and the formation of a new home.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Elyachin community center

Time: 8 P.M.

In the neighborhood: An early-autumn chill filters through dried leaves dangling from aging eucalyptus trees, standing erect along one of the quiet residential areas of Elyachin, a small town just south of the coastal city of Hadera. Streetlights illuminate rows of red-roofed homes, with the evening’s utter stillness intermittently broken by celebratory shouts coming from a small structure at the top of a nearby hill.

Venue: A low structure near a branch of the local religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement. Inside, past a short, stern corridor draped with eye-popping red and traditional baskets, a wide room is filled with plastic tables and chairs. On the far side, under the white gaze of office-like florescent lights, a luxurious red-and-gold ceremonial tent is set up, replete with sofas as well as traditional copperware and colorful baskets.

Simcha: Shalev and Yahel’s henna ceremony

Number of guests: 100

A brief history of time: Shlaev, 23, a phone technician, was born to Mazal and Netanel Ben-Moshe, raised in a religious-Zionist home with little sisters Coral and Shir-El in Netanya. Yahel, 22, who is studying occupational therapy, was born to Yitzhak and Yehudit Simchi, and raised religiously in Elyachin with her three older sisters – Ya’ara, Yonit and Re’ut.

Shidduch: Upon completing his military service, an unsuspecting Shalev went to get some post-army educational counseling. His counselor, a young woman and a friend of Yahel’s, brought up a friend of hers she thought he would like to meet, and the ball got rolling.

As is customary in their circles, the traditional but still informal shidduch, or arrangement, was slowly brought to fruition. First there’s the initial okay (Yahel: “I asked her a lot of questions”), then the first talk and finally the first date. Yahel: It’s not like a Haredi shidduch where the families coordinate everything. You just get the two sides together if you think there’s a match.”

For that auspicious occasion, Shalev decided to go all out and take his bride-to-be for a nice ride around her hometown of Elyachin and a walk through the park. More meetings were to come, but the outcome was quite clear. Yahel: “Tell him what you said after the first meeting!” Shalev: “It was after the second! But she said it too. I told a friend that it looks like it’s heading toward a wedding.”

Proposal: Not really. Shalev: “Listen, there are all kinds of couples. Generally, I think there’s no point of proposing when you talk about it so much, no real surprise. So we just talked about it … and that was it. A kind of decision.”

Rites: In a separate room, Yahel and a flock of friends, as the two groups of friends prepare for the big evening, donning the extravagant attire ahead of the first zafa, or parade, symbolizing the bride’s departure from her mother’s home. The guys, giddy in their blue-and-white attire, horse around, taking pictures of their hats with built-in prosthetic Yemenite-style side curls. Shalev, checking himself out in the mirror, smiles at his golden attire: “All’s that’s missing is a horse.”

A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin.
A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin.
A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin.
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A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Shalev and Yahels henna ceremony.

Over on the girls' side, the ladies, wearing red head scarves and flowing black galabias, surround Yahel and her towering gilded headdress. Ofir of Mehozot Teiman productions: “She has about four kilos on her head right now.” Yahel: “Heavy, heavy.”

To the side, a few older local ladies sing traditional songs detailing the sorrow of the daughter’s departure from her mother’s home, banging away on darbukas and empty olive-oil drums. Shalev: “People think Yemenites use olive-oil drums because they’re poor, but it’s really because Yemenite Jews were forbidden from playing musical instruments so as to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

Soon enough, the boisterous zafa is under way from the side room to the main hall, with baskets of lit candles lighting the way. One of Yahel’s friends takes a photo of herself with her pink-covered iPhone. Ending up near the stage, sparklers light up the smiles of some surprised old ladies, reflecting in their tin drums.

The DJ calls everyone to the dance floor, sending a semi-panicked Shalev to the DJ booth, explaining the need to separate the men from the women before dancing commences, even though a few family members got a head start. Yahel: “I have uncles who do it [separate], and another side that doesn’t. Some people accept that, some don’t, but it was our decision and that’s our way.”

A partition is quickly set up, as the women, well, most of them, disappear into the enclosed area, with Yahel’s multistory headdress bouncing above. Some eating, and before you know it, everyone’s gone to prep for the second zafa, after which the men sit in a circle at the foot of the stage as Yahel and the girls surround them with soap bubbles, smoke and sparklers. Partitions, dancing, repeat.

Finally, the henna ceremony itself commences atop the stage in the luxurious tent, including the rudimentary tips for a happy marriage (“don’t be stubborn,” “a male child!”) and the spreading of the henna paste of every dry palm in the house. A few older ladies rush to the stage, hoping to get a cup of henna for good luck before going home.

Music: Traditional Yemenite, and the run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern pop megahits.

Food: Sweets, sweets and more sweets: Assorted salads and bread for starters. Main course: Chicken schnitzel, braised beef and oven-baked fish fillet.

Drink: Soft drinks, fizzy water, beer, coffee and tea.

Word in the ear #1: Yahel, on the benefits of being set up: “It was a risk, but it turned out better. Because [my friend] didn’t know what she was doing, and we didn’t exactly know what we were doing either.”

Word in the ear #2: Shalev, on his initial resistance to hold a henna: “As far as I’m concerned, we [the Jewish people] came to this country and decided that we were forming a new generation of what you can call sabras, and there are certain customs we should preserve and some that are, okay, just another custom.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That the presumed binary between a secular relationship based on love and a religious one based on community constraints is really a long, gradual continuum of life choices and beliefs.

Random quote: One young boy to another, noticing that the older boys, dressed in traditional costumes, had already advanced to the first zafa: “Quick! The Yemenites got away from us!”

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A henna ceremony held for Shalev and Yahel, a couple from the small central Israeli town of Elyachin. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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