This past Sunday evening, I took part in a Jewish religious event, and I had no idea what was going on.
I have prayed in synagogues that follow different customs and rites, including Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Hasidic, and even the unusual Roman rituals of the Jews of Rome. I have attended circumcisions, redemption of the firstborn son (Pidyon Ha-Ben), Sheva Brachot, weddings and funerals. I had thought I had seen most everything. Until I attended a Hina.
How did I come to attend a Hina? My family roots are Middle Western, not Middle Eastern. But when our next-door neighbors’ son became engaged to a lovely girl from a Yemenite background, the die was cast. The male head of the family, in particular, is as Ashkenazic as they come. Born in the Bronx, his taste in rabbis runs to those named named Feinstein and Schachter, not to Yosef and Mazuz. And while he claims to enjoy eating schug, his true culinary loyalties lie with cold-weather foods like whiskey and herring. Which is why, God, in His infinite wisdom, decided that his second son should marry a Yemenite.
We arrived on a warm, balmy night in Petach Tikvah, where the guests were dining al fresco. The engaged couple was attired in headdresses and gold tunics, with bells and baubles hanging from the sides. The procession began. I finally understood how a non-practicing Jew must feel when arriving in an orthodox synagogue for the first time.
I had no idea what was happening. There were no pages to follow, no announcements, and there was no one to explain. Outside, it was noisy, loud, and sweaty. But I don’t think I ever enjoyed a ritual as much as this one.
The couple was preceded by a woman, chanting in a Yemenite dialect, accompanied by ululations. Then the dancing began. It wasn’t the standard ‘yeshiva shuffle’ that we mastered while still in high school, but dancing far more delicate and precise, with undulating movements. We Ashkenazim exchanged broad smiles, because most of us were at least three steps behind. Most of us did not have the ability to swivel our hips quite as smoothly.
Finally, the couple was seated at the head table. The meal continued, and the couple exited, only to reappear once again, for another procession, with the bride dressed in an entirely different headdress, for the actual Hina ceremony. Members of the bride’s family mixed a paste made from the henna plant, which was placed on the palms of the bride and groom, as well as their guests. According to one opinion, Yemenites use henna at this ceremony in reference to a verse from Shir HaShirim, Solomon’s Song of Songs, which reads, “My Beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna in the vineyards of En-Gedi” (1:14).
The joy and happiness that was shared was not all that different than what I have seen at Ashkenazic rituals, but there was something exotic, new, and novel, that I had never seen before. Seeing the soon-to-be married couple dressed in exotic garb was fascinating. And the true joy that resulted will, undoubtedly be unleashed again at the wedding in just a few days.
For the most part, Jews outside of Israel stay within their ethnic groups. Ashkenazic practice stays within the Ashkenazic world, and Sephardic customs are generally confined to Sephardic families. It is primarily in Israel, where the groups meet, and sometimes merge, that a Hina beckons to Ashkenazic, as well as Yemenite Jews. And that is truly something special.
As the dancing reached it height, for a brief moment, I felt swept away, as if I were a true Yemenite, living in Sana, seeing the stars shining in the dark blackness of the desert. In my dream, I too was wearing a colorful tunic, with a headdress. But as I finished eating a fiery hot pepper, my Ashkenazic self returned as my tongue began to burn. For a moment, though, it was nice to dream.