The novel “Henna House” follows a Yemenite Jewish child soon-to-be bride as she navigates through growing up in a Muslim-ruled country.
The story takes place the early in 20th century after the orphan decree was reinstated, making Adela vulnerable to being adopted by a Muslim family after the death of her father. Using henna as her only skill, she makes a way for herself in a land where women and Jews have few rights.
Author Nomi Eve takes readers into a world of ancient rituals where Jews live among fragrant spices and practiced customs that are both familiar and exotic. Eve, who opened the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center with “Henna House” in November 2015, spoke to the AJT in advance of Passover, when henna plays a part in the celebrations of some Jewish cultures.
AJT: What was the inspiration for the novel?
Eve: I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, and my father is from Israel. My grandparents were from the Ukraine. I have a Yemenite aunt that I spent time with, and I was inspired by my beloved aunt.
AJT: Where did you learn about henna in the Jewish community?
Eve: If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Yemenite Jewish wedding, you’re treated to a night of henna. It’s still very much alive and well in the Yemenite Jewish culture.
AJT: Has henna always been a part of Jewish culture outside Yemen?
Eve: Henna was a part of any culture where the plant grows, primarily in places like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, India, Afghanistan, in the Maghreb, such as Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Ethiopia. All the way back in the Song of Songs it is mentioned. In my novel in the front page there is a quote about henna from the Bible. There are several mentions of henna in the Bible.
AJT: When is henna applied?
Eve: In the Yemenite community, henna artists applied henna before all celebratory occasions like Passover and especially during weddings. It was also applied at times of death and for healing. I was intrigued by henna as an art form passed down from mother to daughter.
AJT: What is the reason behind the resurgence of the art form among Yemenite Jews?
Eve: When Yemenite Jews came to Israel in the 1950s, women stopped practicing henna rituals because they wanted to assimilate, and it was thought of as primitive. Today, their granddaughters feel more comfortable in Israel and started doing henna.
AJT: Where did you begin your research for the novel to create a life for the main character, Adela?
Eve: I’m a writer, so I have to research time and place. I was interested and horrified by the orphan decree. It was a decree that stated any Jewish child whose father died was to be confiscated by Muslim authorities. They were given to Muslim families and adopted. So to prevent that, Yemenite Jewish children were married at a very young age. They would be married at 11 and 12 years old.
AJT: How did you come up with Adela’s name?
Eve: Adela doesn’t sound Muslim or Jewish, but at the time names bore remnants of the Ottoman Empire when the Turks were in Yemen. There were a lot of Bellas and Marias.
AJT: “Henna House” is popular among Jewish book clubs. The Hadassah Greater Atlanta Metulla Group is discussing it April 21. Do you ever make an appearance?
Eve: I do Skype, and the discussions are so much fun. They usually have henna artists come, and the women get their henna done while discussing the book.
Who: On the Same Page Book Club of Hadassah’s Metulla Group
What: “Henna House” discussion
When: 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 21
Details: New members are welcome. Contact Barbara Shoulberg at email@example.com or 770-948-2443.