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Adventures in Israel: Yemenite Henna Ceremony

Israel is full of culture! While most might think of the Jews as one people, the truth is that there are many ethnic groups within the Jewish culture — Yemenite, Moroccan, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc.

Last month, my family and I moved onto a moshav (a farming community) near Akko which Yemenite Jews established in 1950. With no idea what kind of people we were about to live among, we prayed that we weren’t making a huge mistake. Thankfully, our apprehension eased as we began meeting the neighbors. Despite the language barrier and sticking out like sore thumbs with our stark white complexion, everyone has been really sweet and welcoming. On our first day in the new house, our neighbor came over with a lovely bottle of wine and cake to introduce himself and wish us a peaceful Shabbat. Later that week, my parents had him over for a dram of whiskey, and they spoke for three hours!

Everyone knows everyone here, creating a sense of family and belonging as you walk through the streets and observe what’s happening. Our landlord’s family are also some of the nicest people you’ll meet. Before moving into the house, they were already inviting us to their wedding! Thinking it was one of those empty western phrases like, “We need to hang out sometime,” or “Oh, you should totally come,” we didn’t take them too seriously. That is until we got a formal invitation to attend a traditional Yemenite henna ceremony — a pre-wedding gathering that celebrates the bride leaving her family to cleave to her new husband.

After a quick Google search to learn about the customs of the ceremony, my mom and I got ready for the party in nervous anticipation. Completely out of our comfort zones, we prepared for the evening to be our coming-out party — our moment to make an impression on the community. Sure enough, as soon as we arrived, the groom’s father embraced us and led us to a table full of young men who live on our street. Only one of them spoke English, and he quickly took us under his wing, looking after us the entire night — refilling my mom’s wine glass, telling us about life on the moshav, ordering food (he got me cow’s brains – gag), asking us to dance, and explaining the different elements of the ceremony.

The event hall was full of color with space for a dance floor, tables for the guests, and a large display of curtains and cushions for the henna, which took place toward the night’s end (see pictures below). Broken into four parts, the night paid homage to the bride and groom’s cultures with outfit changes in-between. While most religious ceremonies can be awkward, this evening organically flowed through each part, beginning with a Yemenite entrance and dance, followed by a Moroccan-styled celebration. As the music and glee escalated throughout the night, it was apparent how important and stunning these people’s customs and love for one another were. It was an honor to be welcomed into such an intimate setting usually reserved for close family and friends. Two moments that stick in my mind were when the groom’s father told me that we were now their family and when the groom spotted me in the crowd and gave me a hearty wave hello.

It was an experience to remember. I am still in awe of it all and looking forward to seeing what the wedding will be like. Though the henna stain has faded, the memories remain close to my heart. Moving was not something my family was excited about, and we would never have chosen to live where we are; yet, God has an interesting way of leading you to a place you least expect.

 

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