Costumed Jewishly: JIMENA has an array of outfits that dress up ceremonies with cultural touches

Detailed embroidery, rich colors and sparkly disks characterize traditional clothing once worn for Jewish celebrations in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Morocco — and now some of these beautiful costumes are available for rent or loan for special occasions and cultural programs.

“We have about 50 complete costumes, mainly caftans from Morocco and Tunisia, but we also have pieces of a Yemenite henna costume, several Libyan wedding costumes and lots of hats, shoes, jewelry and other accessories,” said Sarah Levin, director of S.F.-based JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).

photos/noah waldman/[email protected]

Founded in 2002, JIMENA was created to preserve and share the personal stories, communal histories and rich culture of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. Over the years, the organization’s costume collection has grown, thanks to donations from people who traveled to or are from the countries where the costumes originated.

“We have costumes to rent for henna ceremonies — we’ll even facilitate the party — and we will rent costumes for Mimouna celebrations, Yemenite wedding ceremonies and Mizrahi Shabbaton,” Levin said. “We can also help with fashion shows.”

Levin was reluctant to name a price for any one costume. “It depends on what people want and what the costume will be used for,” she said. “The wedding costumes from Libya are unique. The costumes from Yemen are the most extravagant — and the hardest to get.”

JIMENA uses the costumes in their own programs, as well. “We often bring them to our programs on college campuses,” Levin said. “We dress up the students as a way to engage them in these cultures.”

Oreet Schwartz, the S.F.-based president of SharQui: the Bellydance Workout, also has dressed up in some of JIMENA’s costumes.

“I rented Yemenite costumes for a show at a belly dance conference,” she said, “and I also helped dress volunteers when JIMENA was at Israel in the Gardens.”

The costumes Schwartz rented were from Yemen, costumes typically worn by female members of a bridal party.

“The bride would wear something ornate, and the bridal party wears darker clothing, though the embroidery has a lot of ethnic oomph to it,” said Schwartz, 38, an Israeli of Yemenite descent. “I’m all about educating people about my roots.“

Gail Rubin of Davis used some of JIMENA’s ethnic wedding costumes in a fashion show last October, at a first-time event that was called International Festival Davis.

“The fashion show had a huge impact,” Rubin said. “We were not just teaching about culture, but about history, about shared human experiences, and even about politics — but not in the usual way.

“More than 1,000 people were at the festival, and about 300 came to the fashion show, an audience that was primarily not Jewish,” she continued. “The fashion show helped us refute the notion [held by some] that Jews in modern-day Israel are white colonial interlopers — and we got great positive feedback.”

A retired lawyer, Rubin is the chair of the Davis chapter of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs. The Israel Matters Committee, of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, co-sponsored the fashion show.

Masha Merkulova of Redwood City recently used some JIMENA costumes to educate a different kind of audience. She is the director of Club Z, a Jewish identity-building program for eighth-graders and high school students that meets at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Merkulova, 37, a labor and delivery nurse in Burlingame, founded Club Z in November. “I wanted to educate teens about Israel before they went to college,” she said. “We have 18 teens so far, most of them unaffiliated, mostly teens who have not had much Jewish education.”

On a recent retreat, Merkulova talked about the different diasporas, and brought out a couple dressed in costumes from JIMENA.

“Seeing the costumes helped establish a connection with the past that wasn’t there and helped connect the dots for the teens,” Merkulova said.

JIMENA’s Levin noted that the costume rental and lending program is just one piece of a larger effort to preserve and share cultural histories.

“This program is special, but we do a lot of other programming of great value, as well,” she said.

For information on renting costumes from JIMENA, email [email protected] For calendar of events and other information, visit

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.