The Wows and Hows of an Ashkenazi Girl’s Henna

My fiance almost fell over backward when his Moroccan family said they wanted to throw me a henna party. We agreed on one condition: Keep it low key.

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When my husband and I first broached the topic of holding a henna (pronounced “hina”) party before our wedding in Israel last month, I honestly didn’t know what it was.

I am an Ashkenazi Jewish girl with roots in Poland, so I was quite unfamiliar with the concept surrounding this Moroccan celebration that my husband’s family wanted to host for me. I had seen pictures of friends’ hennas, but I had never actually attended one. All I really understood was that the affair is like a Moroccan engagement party of sorts, replete with costumes.

I soon learned that a henna is something much deeper. It’s a party held before a major life event, including a bar or bat mitzvah, or a wedding. During a pre-wedding celebration, the oldest member of the family smudges henna on the palms of the bride and groom’s hands, and, according to tradition, this will provide the couple with good health and fertility. In essence, I discovered the henna is much more than a simple engagement party: it is a traditional event aimed to bestow upon the couple elements of a happy life.

Now, my husband was at first apprehensive. He didn’t want an over-the-top celebration, and if we were going to have a henna party, he and I both wanted it to be a family-only event.

While the henna's guest list remained limited, preparations for the event grew beyond our expectations. My husband’s father, a home-taught chef, prepared gorgeous platters of food - both traditional and modern - and his mother and sisters sat for hours perfecting party favors and choosing costumes for us and my whole family.

My then-fiance and I grew worried: How would the non-Moroccan members of our families react to the glittering gold tablecloths, the ornate caftans, and the Moroccan music? Would this henna turn out to be the unraveling of our families?

Of course, in the end, it wasn’t. In fact, the henna was an undisputed grand success: from my Swiss nieces dancing the night away to Middle Eastern music to our families truly bonding together by engaging in a fun ritual, the henna was a highlight of our wedding week, and a night my husband, our families and I will never forget.

Indeed, embracing this fun event – the costumes, the ceremony, the music and the food – injected some old tradition into our modern, secular lives.

It was precisely this that set the henna as the perfect backdrop for our wedding, for our wedding was itself a balancing act between tradition and modernity. On the one hand, it was important for us to move forward from old rituals that serve no purpose today — from sacrifices to slavery, almost every religion and nation has a dark past. While on the other hand, preserving our past and heritage helps us remember our families and our culture in ways that modern life simply does not enable. The henna served these goals two-fold, by allowing us to do something subtle while still preserving those unique elements of Moroccan Jewish culture.

Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, DC.

Women's hands being painted with henna.Credit: Reuters / Haaretz Archive

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