[Jewish village girl shortly after her wedding, Iran, ca. 1875]
The Jewish community in Central Asia is very ancient: by the middle of the first millenium BCE there was already a substantial settlement of Jews in the Persian Empire. Several communities, speaking a variety of Judeo-Persian languages, were established in what is today Iran and Afghanistan; others spread to the north into Bukhara (today Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and to the west into the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). These communities share some common cultural and linguistic markers with each other, but also differ in significant ways.
The henna customs of Kurdish Jewish communities living in Persia are discussed, together with other Kurdish Jews, here.
In Persian Jewish communities, henna was an important cosmetic, forming one of the haft qalam arayesh [‘seven items of beautification’]. It was commonly used by men and women to colour hair, and especially to cover greying hair. Women also used it to colour fingernails and toenails in lieu of nail polish.
Hands and feet were dyed with henna, either solidly or with patterns. The patterns, applied with a stick or even one’s fingertips, depended on what each person wanted: common simple designs included dots, stars and moons, and those more artistically inclined would depict flowers, birds, and even people. Among Persian Jews, the henna was applied by women of the community, rather than professional artists. Henna was generally applied in the hammam [public baths]: women would usually go to the hammam to be hennaed around once a month, generally on a Friday morning before preparing for Shabbat. Women and their children would spend three to four hours in the hammam, which was an important social institution: besides bathing, and being hennaed or massaged, they would socialize, gossip, tell jokes, and catch up on community news.
Aside from the general use of henna, women would also apply henna before holidays and celebrations as a sign of joy and beauty. As a symbol of celebration, henna was not used during periods of mourning, both personal and communal; henna was not used, for example, during the month of Av [a month mourning the destruction of the Temple].
The crypto-Jews of Mashhad (who had been forced to convert to Islam in the mid-19th century, but continued to practice Judaism in secret) also refrained from using henna during the two months of Muslim mourning [i.e. Ramadan, a month of repentance, and Muharram, a month of Shi’i mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali] when henna is traditionally not done in Muslim communities, as to not draw attention to themselves.
In some Iranian Jewish communities, after someone died, their family would refrain from henna for a full year. At the end of the year, the mourners would be symbolically brought out of their grief: friends and family members would bring gifts of new clothing and jewelry and place them on the mourners; they would then be taken to the hammam and hennaed, which symbolized their return to the cycle of life and sociality. This ceremony was called sal dar overi [literally, ‘to leave the year’, i.e. to end the year of mourning].
What a fascinating read.