Prenuptial henna ceremonies… …making a vivid comeback among Yemenite Israelis

JERUSALEM — Guests begin to trickle in for the henna ceremony, or hinne, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the WIZO Club in Rehovot, located on a secluded driveway off Herzl Street. Ora Melamad waits outside to greet her guests. "Yes, this is the right place."

The mother of the bride-to-be introduces herself. She is trying to appear calm, but is obviously quite emotional. "Merav is my only daughter; an only child," she says.

The hinne ceremony is held by Jews from Sephardic countries about a week before a wedding and symbolizes the bittersweet separation of the young bride from her family. Over the past 30 years, interest in the custom has waned, and few Sephardi brides have chosen to hold the ceremony. In recent years, however, increasing numbers of young Israelis of Yemenite origin have been keen to revive the colorful hinne ceremony and demonstrate a return to tradition.

Inside, a stage is transformed by oriental rugs that form a backdrop for the highlight of the evening, the traditional henna ceremony. The beautiful rugs on the floor are original, hand-made Yemenite runs. At the back of the room, two young chefs in traditional Yemenite dress are already preparing lehuch, deftly flipping the pancake-like bread in eight pans set on the buffet table. Guests fill the pancake with hummus, salad, a tomato-based sauce, brown-boiled eggs and shoug, a spicy Yemenite condiment. Later, several other Yemenite dishes — malawah and jachnun — are added to the buffet. The main beverage is mint-flavored fresh lemonade in a large punch bowl.

The bride-to-be, meanwhile, is getting dressed in a small adjacent room; or, to be more precise, is being dressed by two elderly Yemenite women dressers. Petite Merav seems to be thoroughly enjoying the preparations. A natural beauty, she has already donned a gold-threaded dress, pantaloons and slippers. Then a heavy necklace with strands of red and orange amber beads and silver filigree balls is placed around her neck over a long gold bib, which helps to bear the weight.

Then comes the jewelry — vast amounts of it. The dressers adorn each arm with four silver filigree

bracelets, while rings made by Yemenite silversmiths renowned for their craftsmanship are placed on every finger. "The costume weighs 10 kilograms," says dresser Mazal Zioni. "This symbolizes the heavy burden that the young bride is going to be taking on when she marries."

The headdress is the final adornment, consisting of an exquisite gold-embroidered hood scarf, gargush, which is draped over the head and shoulders. Over this is placed an even more elaborate headpiece, the tashbuk, a tall conical crown framed by a garland of fresh flowers and branches of shadaf, a green herb, similar to rue, believed to ward off the evil eye. Then lavish ear hangings are suspended from the headdress and across the chest, which is itself draped with necklaces of silver and coral beads, pearls, amulet cases and silver bells.

Taking a break to eat a lehuch filled with hummus and salad, 22-year-old Merav tells me that she is studying bookkeeping at a college in Bnei Brak. Her chattan (groom), Hanan Meshulam, 25, is studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem and hopes to become a religious court judge. The couple met through a shiduch — suggested by friends of the parents four months before.

Hanan's family comes from Rosh HaAyin, a city with one of the largest concentrations of Yemenites in Israel. He was eager that his bride have the ceremony. "Both my mother and my grandmother had it," he said.

Although the hinne is an all-women affair, Hanan agrees to don a ceremonial wedding robe, including a cap with payot attached. "According to tradition, Merav and I cannot see or talk to each for the next few days, until the wedding. It is very hard."

The final touches are made to Merav's appearance, and then family members, holding baskets filled with flowers and candles, light her way to the hall where her guests await. Hanan makes a quiet exit before the zaffeh procession begins.

Mazal plays a tarbuka, a drum-like instrument, and leads the singing that accompanies the procession, which marks the transition in Merav's life. The words of the sad hinne songs are a clue to the underlying historical context of the ceremony, describing the difficult separation of the bride from her family and childhood home, a separation that was especially poignant in Yemen and other Muslim countries due to the brides' young age.

On reaching the hall, guests and family surround Merav, join hands and break into spontaneous dance — the intricate steps of the Yemenite dances familiar to all the guests, including Merav's Ashkenazi friends from college. Despite this, the music is provided by a hip-looking DJ (a touch of modern culture) while the guests are dressed in anything from jeans and long-toed stiletto heels to suits and stylish outfits.

After an hour or so of dancing, Merav leaves the hall to change her costume for the second procession. Surrounded by friends and relatives — including her future mother-in-law — many of them have now changed into traditional Yemenite garb to add some additional color to the evening. Merav is dressed in a black robe, red gargush and silver jewelry. Family members again escort her back to her guests, encircled with flowers and lit candles and accompanied by singing and drumming, to continue the lively dancing — for it is a mitzvah to make the bride happy.

After all the preliminaries, Merav leaves the hall to change yet again — the henna ceremony is about to take place. Dressed in a black robe trimmed with red and gold, and with a beautiful striped red and gold headscarf and no jewelry (typical of dress in a northern Yemenite village), Merav is ready for the third procession. Along with the drum-playing dressers, who sing traditional henna songs, her mother carries a basket with dry henna, covered with a cloth, and escorts Merav to her seat on the stage.

"Hinne is an acronym for three mitzvot that a young married woman performs: havrasha chalot — separating a piece of the challah dough for the priests; niddah — observing the laws of purity; and nerot — lighting the Sabbath candles. The application of henna, she explains, is thought to engender good fortune, happiness and protection against the evil eye and, accordingly, it is applied during times of potentially difficult transitional events, such as birthing, maturity and marriage.

Merav's grandmother then pours water onto the dry henna and mixes it with her hands till the mixture becomes a brown (later a dark red) paste. Family members and friends take turns dipping a finger in the henna and then dabbing it on Merav's palm, while giving the bride-to-be their blessing.

"May your life be filled with Torah, doing chesed (good deeds), spirituality, good health, happiness and love, and may you build a righteous home in Israel" were just some of the blessings given by relatives, friends and her future mother-in-law. "Ditto," said a friend when her turn came. Nothing to add? "Why, they are all wonderful blessings," said the young woman.