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  • Henna by Sienna

    By Debby Brodsky
    December 2, 2011
    Section: Features


    The Brandeis Sephardic Initiative hosted a henna night Thursday, to educate students about the centuries-old practice of henna applications in the Sephardi Jewish tradition.

    The Brandeis Sephardic Initiative is in its second semester on campus. A cultural club under the Hillel umbrella, they are dedicated to Sephardic culture, and are open to anybody, whether they’re Jewish, Sephardi or neither. “Sephardi is a term limited to Jews from Spain, Portugal and North Africa,” said Jacob Chatinover ’12, Brandeis Sephardic Initiative’s campus relations coordinator. “The term needs to expand to the Orient, meaning Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt, too.”

    Noam Sienna ’11, the highlight of the evening, spoke to students about his extensive studies of Jewish henna practices while presenting the research behind his senior thesis, exploring Jewish henna ceremonies and the politics of heritage. Sienna, a current Brandeis ’12 master’s student in education, described ancient and modern customs surrounding henna, while simultaneously explaining the benefits of natural henna powder for the skin.

    “Jewish henna is paradoxically one of the least known, and most well-documented traditions,” said Sienna. According to Sienna, his thesis is the most extensive work ever written on Jewish henna. Although there have been works compiled on Jewish henna traditions of specific countries, Sienna’s thesis is the only compilation of Jewish henna traditions from all around the world.

    “I am one of the few people who can do this,” added Sienna. “I have the cultural and linguistic background, and I speak over 10 languages.”

    Sienna’s thesis is primarily in English, but includes excerpts of French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Latin and Classical Greek.

    Sienna’s fascination with henna began during his first-year orientation. “I was introduced to henna by a friend of mine, and thought it was cool. I immediately discovered that there were Jewish roots to the tradition, and now I have been studying it for four years. I try to always have henna on one part of my body.”

    While the most common places for henna application are the hands and feet, Sienna explained that he has also applied henna to the bellies of pregnant clients as part of life cycle ceremonies. “I offer henna for life cycle ceremonies such as births, marriages, bar and bat mitzvahs, ending a period of mourning or even to celebrate new jobs,” Sienna said. “Henna is a fantastic way to mark ritual occasions, and offers an opportunity for people to gather together.”

    According to Sienna, the earliest record of henna use is in Egypt, where ancient mummies have been recovered with traces of henna on their nails and in their hair. Henna is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, as well as in the Hadith, or reports of the statements and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Throughout the centuries, henna traditions have followed Jewish cultural groups as they have migrated and been expelled from countless countries. Wherever and whenever henna application is practiced, however, its significance has always been threefold. “Henna is culturally endowed with the idea of beauty, being a powerful and protective agent and it is seen as a symbol of transformation,” Sienna said.

    Of henna’s various religious and cultural significances, most significant is that it remains on the body for weeks, as a constant reminder of the meaning of the ceremony past.

    Like the henna plant, which transforms from a leaf to a powder to a paste to a stain, when a bride is covered in henna before her wedding ceremony, the henna is said to transform and disguise her from demons looking to harm her. Once the henna fades, she is a married woman safely protected in her husband’s house.

    To conclude, Sienna stressed the importance of avoiding labels. While most Jewish communities that practice henna application are labeled as Sephardic, the countries of origin of these communities are far too varied and wide-spread to earn just one label. While many believe henna to be a practice originating in India, according to Sienna, henna was only introduced to India 500 years ago, and has become a popular practice from Bollywood exposure during the past 50 years.


    More posts by Debby Brodsky