This and That

Random bits of my life

Henna by Sienna

Posted by Avital Pinnick on August 9, 2010

A garden of pomegranates

Photo by Henna by Sienna: “Garden of Pomegranates,” based on Song of Songs 4:13. Design from Noam’s upcoming book

When I was at the Bezalel Arts Fair I met Noam Sienna, a henna artist from Toronto. Noam is an anthropology student at Brandeis and the focus of his study is Jewish henna traditions. I couldn’t chat with him for long (impatient husband in tow), so we exchanged emails and I took a few photos.



Cheryl Stone applying a henna design. (Cheryl learned henna art from Noam.)


Close-up of Cheryl at work.

Rather than paraphrase Noam’s background, I’ll quote it from his emails:


I’ve been working as a henna artist for about three years. I started in freshman year of college (at Brandeis) after seeing henna done at an Indian party… After doing it for a while I began to discover the Jewish uses of henna, I began researching it, and I’ve been obsessed ever since then! I’ve spent the past year researching and documenting Jewish henna traditions (focusing on the pre-wedding ceremony) in Israel, and this coming year will be devoted to writing an undergraduate thesis analyzing Jewish henna traditions for my BA in Anthropology.

I observed henna ceremonies performed today, I spent hours (and hours) in the library gathering information on traditional henna ceremonies, and most importantly, I recorded interviews with elderly women (and some men) describing the traditional henna ceremony (when I say ‘traditional’, I’m referring to the way the henna ceremony was done in the ‘old country’, as opposed to the way it’s done in Israel today, which is far from traditional). All in all, my research encompasses over 25 different Jewish ethnic groups, stretching from North Africa, across the Middle East, through Central Asia, to India and China.

The designs I’ve learnt simply by studying, copying, and practicing. There are traditional styles and motifs, differing from region to region, that you begin to recognize the more you practice. Once you get the hang of it you can create your own patterns within a traditional style.

I’ve also spent a good deal of time researching and reconstructing the henna patterns used in various Jewish communities, which have essentially completely died out – this is something that nobody else (to the best of my knowledge) has done. While some old people from henna-using communities (I’m talking about people in their 80s and 90s) might still remember the patterns being done, the younger generation – even their own children – has no idea that patterns were ever done, much less what they were. I am hoping to publish a book of Jewish henna patterns… It may have to wait until after my thesis, but it’s on its way.
courtney hands

Photo by Henna by Sienna: Courtney’s hands, North African and Indian design

Henna in Jewish tradition

Henna use in general is a tradition that goes far back into prehistory; it is impossible to tell when or where the first people started using henna. The first definite records of henna come from the area of the Middle East (Egypt and Canaan) from the fourth-second millenia BCE (between four to six thousand years ago). Traces of henna have been found on mummified bodies from Egypt, hennaed wigs were found in Jericho, and henna is mentioned in medical texts from Egypt and Canaan. A fragment of an Ugaritic myth describes henna use as part of a victory celebration.

Henna is mentioned in the Bible, in the Song of Songs, as a sweet-smelling plant; it is not known if henna was used as body art by the ancient Israelites, but it is likely. By the time of the Mishna [= first to second centuries CE (or AD)], we know that henna was grown and used in the Land of Israel, from mentions in both Jewish and non-Jewish texts from the period. After the Roman Exile in the first-second centuries CE, Jewish henna use spread with the Diaspora. By the eleventh century CE, henna was an important economic export that Jewish merchants brought from its growing fields in North Africa to the Jewish and Muslim communities of southern Europe: Portugal, Spain, southern Italy, and Sicily.

Henna use is mentioned in Hebrew poetry from this period, and we see for the first time mention of Jewish henna ceremonies, in medieval ketubbot [marriage contracts]. After the expulsion from Spain, Sephardi Jews continued their henna traditions in their diaspora in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, joining the already-present indigenous Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East, who also had their own henna traditions, as did the Jewish communities of Asia (Yemen, Iraq, Kurdistan, Persia, and India).

It is hard to pin-point one particular place of origin for henna use in general or Jewish henna use specifically. Henna use is confined generally to the geographic growing range of the henna plant, which includes North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia east to northern India. Typically, in these regions, henna is a cultural phenomenon shared by all religions and groups living in that region. While the earliest records of henna use point to Egypt/Canaan, it is probable that henna use evolved independently in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as well. The spread of Islam in the seventh/eighth centuries CE brought henna use to many regions and strengthened already-present traditions in others.

Traditions of Jewish henna art have almost completely died out. While some older people still remember the traditional patterns, they are not done in Israel today. In some places, the tradition died out with the aliya to Israel and thus the memories are relatively fresh, while in other places modernization had been weakening henna traditions since the nineteenth century, and we must rely on historical sources to reconstruct them.

The patterns and techniques differed from community to community, and were often completely different than the henna patterns of the surrounding non-Jewish culture. Jewish henna patterns have been documented in the modern period among the Jews of North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya), Yemen, Kurdistan, Persia, and India. In some communities, there were professional Jewish henna artists, while in other communities the task was not specialized and the patterns were done simply by women of the community.

Travelers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries recorded henna patterns among the Jews of Morocco and of Syria, but that appears to have died out at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the patterns of some Jewish communities (Yemen, for example) have been recorded in scholarly work, others have never been documented or recorded in published literature, to the best of my knowledge. A large and important part of my work is recording the memories of these traditions and documenting them before they vanish completely.

Many of these patterns have already disappeared from the awareness of the Israeli public and even from the community itself. It happened more than once that I would be interviewing someone, and as they were describing the henna patterns they once did, their own children would exclaim in surprise, “I never knew you did patterns! You never told me that!”. I urge anyone reading this, if they know someone who has memories of Jewish henna traditions (patterned or not), record them now! If you would like more information, please contact me.

Henna in Israel

In Israel, there are very few true henna artists. Look carefully for an artist using real, natural henna (see the health warning in the next section), and drawing the patterns by hand and not with a stencil. The price range should be somewhere between 25 to 50 shekels for a hand-drawn design. In Jerusalem, feel free to contact Cheryl Stone. [Note: Noam mentioned that Cheryl may be taking a break in August 2010 but should be back at the Bezalel Arts Fair in September.]

Health Warning

Real, natural henna poses no health risks. Please avoid “black henna” at all costs. True henna is reddish-brown; black “henna” is never real henna, and is often dangerous chemicals. “Black henna” can cause allergic reactions, blisters and burns, and can leave scars (sometimes for life!). Please stay away from “black henna”. True henna is perfectly safe, including for people who have had a reaction to “black henna”. Always ask the ingredients before allowing an artist to henna you and make sure that they know the difference between safe, natural henna and dangerous chemicals.

5 Responses to “Henna by Sienna”

  1. Miriyummy said

    Thanks so much for posting this! I love mehndi and never pass up a chance to get one at any crafts fair.

  2. Karen R said

    I’ve seen henna done here, at fairs and that kind of thing, though I assume they aren’t traditional-based. I’ve never had it done, so not had the opportunity to ask… Interesting, and sad to think the history is disappearing 😦

    • many people applying henna are doing traditional patterns -just not traditional Jewish patterns. The fun part of the henna community is the fusion and mix of traditional skills with modern artistic ideas.

  3. This was an excellent fact finding journey for Noam . thanks for putting his thoughts on your blog !

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