La Noche de Novia, also referred to as a Berberisca, Soirée du Henné, Noche de Paños or Lilat el Henna, is a traditional Moroccan Jewish ceremony that takes place during the week that precedes a wedding. The bride makes her entrance, magnificently made up and dressed in the Berberisca gown called ‘Traje de paños’, “Vestido de Berberisca” (Spanish), or “Keswa Elkibra” (Great Dress in Arabic). The costume is made of velvet, richly ornate and embroidered in gold thread. The family of the groom and bride, accompanied by close friends, gather to sing and to praise the bride. The tradition is 2,000 years old.
The ceremony has been famously depicted by many artists including Jean Bescancenot, Charles-Emile Vernet-Lecomte, Alfred Dehodencq, Camille Corot, and Fernand Georges Ducatillion. Most notably, the dress was recorded in several paintings and sketches by Eugene Delacroix, the master of the French Romantic school.
My husband’s family was expelled from Spain in 1492. After the expulsion, following the inquisition, the family traveled to Safed, Israel; Thessaloniki, Greece; and Meknes, Morocco. They finally arrived in Fez, Morocco, during the 16th century and in the mid-19th century, they moved to Tangier.
I was lucky enough to have a Noche de Novia of my own. The special day was filled with joy, singing and laughter – not to mention alcohol and delicious food. Getting dressed for the reception took over an hour and gave me insight into the preparations such a special day must of taken in antiquity. There are dozens of pieces of the costume, each with a specific meaning, order and purpose – a belt (golel), headpiece (jemar), the jacket, the bodice, the laced sleeves (kmam) and more. Some of the items even have a superstitious and mystical connection to luck, fertility, and love.
My dress came from overseas in Madrid, Spain. It had previously been worn by my husband’s mother and many of his cousins. I felt deeply honored to continue this tradition; especially to follow in the footsteps of many women who I respect. The beautiful ritual originates in the Sephardi Jewish Communities of Northern Morocco and its surroundings; in cities such as Tangiers, Gibraltar and especially Tetuán, which was also called “Yerushalayim Haketana”, the “Little Jerusalem”.
This ceremony is known in most Jewish communities as the “Hina”, a name that symbolizes the three Mitzvot specific to the Jewish woman: Halla, Nida, VeHadlakat HaNerot. Briefly, these actions mean lighting the candles, separating portions of dough for the creation of Challah (bread), and ritual bathing and cleanliness.
Aunts, cousins, friends, and other females related to the bride help her to get ready for her presentation. Each detail is just so – every pin, bobby pin and tassle is fussed with. More than anything, this time was for the bride to get to know her new family without her husband-to-be. This was a private time just for women.
I adjust the headpiece so that it is just so. The necklaces are from an aunt in Paris, France, and the Moroccan earrings are from a family friend. The bracelet I am wearing is from my husband’s mom. In this way, I wear pieces of important women in the family. The international family, and the continuation of such “seemingly-antiquated” traditions is beautiful.
The Puntaktel is worn under the Gonbaiz and as a close fitting breastplate made of heavily embroidered velvet. The Hezam is a velvet and silk sash with ornate golden embroidered. It is wrapped around the bride’s waist several times.
Truly, a sign of the diaspora, I am happy to carry on traditions of a family who has been moved throughout the world often, whether due to persecution or economic need, and in each place picking up local customs and making them unique.