"This is such a beautiful and spiritual ceremony and has such a deep meaning," she said. "The henna ceremony is supposed to bring good luck to the new couple. Every one in my family has done it, and one day I hope to do it for my children as well."
Since Sareet and her husband-to-be, Adam, planned to marry in Israel, they wanted to celebrate beforehand in Los Angeles with friends who would not be able to attend the wedding. The bride-to-be hired a henna party planner and sent out invitations to 300 people for an opulent event at the Biltmore Hotel.
Sareet and Adam each chose three different outfits made of silk and velvet, some featuring gold embroidery, which they would change into at different points during the course of the evening. The bride even entered the ballroom in a hand-carried silver carriage.
Sareet admits she felt like royalty that night. "I felt like a queen," she said.
The henna ceremony, once celebrated primarily by Jews from Morocco and Yemen, has grown in popularity in Israel. And now increasing numbers of young Sephardi and Ashkenazi brides in the United States are honoring this colorful practice.
The ceremony is performed about a week before the wedding and symbolizes the bittersweet separation of the young bride from her family.
Leaves of the henna plant are crushed into a powder, which, when mixed with water, becomes a dough that will stain a person's skin orange for about two to three weeks if left on for two hours or more (other colors are achieved by mixing in leaves or fruits from other plants).
Known as mehndi in India, the practice dates back to at least 2000 B.C.E., and its use in ceremonies can be found from South Asia to North Africa. In India and other countries, henna is arranged in intricate lacey or floral patterns on the hands or feet, which can mean good health, fertility, wisdom, protection or spiritual enlightenment.
The henna ceremony is a purely cultural celebration and has no religious significance for Jews, said Yona Sabar, a UCLA Hebrew professor.
"Its purpose was to drive away the demons by disguising the bride and groom with the henna," he said.
Moroccan Israeli singer Claude Afota, who performs at local henna ceremonies, said that the Jews in Arab countries adopted this ceremony from their Muslim neighbors.
"Back home in Morocco, everybody used to do a henna before a wedding or even a bar mitzvah," he said. "When I immigrated to Israel, it was not as popular as it is today. Only Moroccan families used to have this ceremony as well as Yemen Jews. Nowadays, it seems that everybody is celebrating it."
After Judith Bloomental was invited to several henna parties, she was inspired to start her own business, Moroccan Party Planner. She turned to her native Morocco to order silver and gold carriages, furniture, decorations and dozens of caftans (cloaks).
"It's important to give the event an authentic feel," she said. "I like to strip down the place where the party is being held. I take out all the furniture, create a tent and place my furniture instead. It's a very elaborate work, but is worth it because in the end, you feel like you are in Morocco."
The henna ceremony itself takes place toward the end of the party, after the bride enters in her last set of clothes. The oldest member of the family, usually the grandmother, spreads henna on the palms of the bride and groom. The henna is then wrapped against the skin to lock in body heat, creating a more intense color. Guests are sometimes encouraged to spread henna on their palms afterward as a symbol of good luck.
Some couples might bring a henna artist to their event to entertain guests, but the Jewish henna ceremony doesn't use ornate patterns as in the Indian tradition.
While henna parties might seem expensive, a young couple doesn't have to go broke to throw one.
Smaller henna parties are often celebrated in private homes with the participation of family and close friends. And planners say the good blessing will be just the same as long as the henna is spread properly on each palm.
Michal Navon and her husband, Noam Amram, opened their own party planning business, My Henna Party, after having a henna ceremony of their own. They have organized about 50 henna parties, along with other Moroccan-style events, over the last two years.
The more elaborate celebrations typically feature belly dancers, singers and musicians playing the darbuka (hand drum) and violin, Moroccan furniture and pillows as well as foods like as couscous, lamb, fish and sweet desserts made of sesame and honey.
"It's very exotic," Navon said. "The colors of the henna party are beautiful; those are rich and warm colors. People love the authentic feel of the henna. They love tradition, and besides, it's a really fun party."
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