I still jiggle my left wrist when I’m nervous. The habit was formed at age 12 or 13. My grandfather had given me a set of two gold-plated bangles to wear on my arm, a gift from Israel, and I liked the sound they made as they struck one another. The noise, like wind chimes, was familiar to me. Most of the Syrian Jewish girls around my age wore bangles, and we all jiggled our wrists.
It didn’t take much to make your bangles sing. Depending on how many you had, a simple gesture like tying your hair or zipping your backpack would do the trick. The sound echoed throughout my elementary yeshiva, where bangles functioned as a social currency of sorts. The more, the better; you wanted your friends to hear you before you entered the room. The school bell would induce a symphony, as dozens of girls flooded the hallway and spilled out onto the sidewalk, where they’d be swallowed by the cacophony of Brooklyn’s streets.
I removed mine a few years later when I started playing volleyball in high school. It was a few minutes before our first game, my teammates and I crowded around the sink in our gym’s dimly lit bathroom, vigorously scrubbing our hands with soap and warm water like surgeons prepping for open-heart surgery. A few girls had managed to slide their bangles off, over raw knuckles. When my bangles proved too small to be taken off, I asked the referee to cut them with pliers. (I really hope I made it off the bench that game.)
By that point, I’d become immune to both the sound and the feeling of my bangles. The decision to cut them came surprisingly easy. Just like sliding them on had been, taking them off felt like a rite of passage. Physically, I’d outgrown them. I’d also outgrown the girl I was when I put them on.
Our bangle debacle had caused a delay to the start of the game; afterward, a player from the opposing team approached me and asked, “Why do all Syrian girls wear bangles?”
Syrian women are only one of many Middle Eastern communities who customarily wear bangles. They are also popular among Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish Arabs, as well as Persian Jews, and yet bangles have become specifically associated with Syrian female adolescence.
Kelly Schrem has been selling yellow gold bangles from her Brooklyn home for 20-plus years. Her customers are primarily Jewish, although not all are Syrian. While most bangles in our community are passed down—the family matriarch would often “split her set” among her granddaughters—Schrem gets a fair amount of requests from the younger generation for bangles with more modern designs. Her gold is all imported from Turkey and, as was standard for our ancestors in the Middle East, is 21 karats. However, the increased price of gold has set current offerings between 14 and 18 karats.
“For our grandparents’ generation, bangles were a token of commitment to marriage,” Schrem told me, and an engaged woman was traditionally given bangles by either her parents or her fiancé’s parents before she married. Unlike an engagement ring, which clearly represents one’s promise to another, the bangles’ cultural significance was paradoxical in nature: The bracelets implied that a woman was taken, but their value was also meant to instill its wearer with a sense of autonomy and security.
Celia Jijati’s family gold business began in Damascus, years before her father, Abdo, immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s. The Jijatis sell to Arab Americans from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, for a cohort among whom bangles are equally as popular. She stays busy year-round, but things go visibly quiet around Ramadan. Her clientele, she explained, is fairly religious.
“Traditionally, Syrian Jewish women were given a set of bangles from her mother and father before her wedding, as a symbol of fortune and prosperity,” Jijati told me. The unique music they made proved meaningful in other arenas as well. If you can imagine a time before battery-operated baby “shushers” and vibrating bassinets, the sound of bangles knocking together was believed to comfort a mother’s newborn baby. Women would wear them to reassure infants of their presence.
“The more noise, the better,” Schrem stated. You need at least two to achieve a jingle, but a full set is technically six. Still, the number of bangles a woman wears is highly personal. Moroccan women find it lucky to invest in a Samana, wearing seven bangles at once to represent each day of the week. Some women of Egyptian heritage opt for five, the number believed to ward off the evil eye, while others won’t even consider it.
The common thread among all bangle-wearers is the traditional and familial importance attached to them. Everybody has a story behind her bangles: who they got them from, and when, and why they stopped wearing them (and then started again).
What once served as an individual badge of marital commitment now identifies an entire community of women, albeit for different reasons. The transference of meaning, Jijati explained, is more practical than anything else: Gold was and is still highly prized in the Middle East. Our grandparents were given gold as wedding gifts because it was thought to always have value. “Our current generation,” Jijati added, “is a generation of diamonds.” Bangles are still highly regarded, insofar as they are talismans of our collective history. But we are a generation born and reared in America, and we didn’t grow up watching Neil Lane open cases of gold bangles on The Bachelor.
In fact, while our ancestors started wearing bangles to mark the commencement of adulthood—marriage and motherhood—our generation has them removed at the same juncture. The allegorical shift here is circumstantial. Whereas bangles once outfitted a married woman with a sense of personal autonomy and financial security (the irony of that relationship aside) it’s a younger generation’s privilege to view them as purely emblematic.
How far we’ve come, then, to feel we no longer need security wrapped around our wrists, to pry off a symbol of commitment for a high school volleyball game, to be OK with bucking tradition when opportunity calls for it.
Asher Almani, a manufacturer and wholesaler of traditional bangles based in Brooklyn, tells me that bangles today are most popular among bat mitzvah-age girls. The birth of a baby girl might prompt a new grandmother to run in and purchase a set, but as many noted, among 12-year-old girls bangles nearly “sell themselves.” You can chalk this up to increased pressure, or envy, or a desire to fit in. After all, most of us spent the better part of our adolescence caring for digitized pet-humans named Tamagotchis. But, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at this stage, many girls begin menstruating. Consciously or not, bangles have now come to denote one’s passage not into marriage, but into womanhood.
For many young women, the transition into the early teen years is fraught with fear and concern over changing bodies. One’s initial reaction to a developing figure might be to cover it. Suddenly, charges such as “immodest” and “improper” enter our lexicon and urge us to reexamine the way in which girls present ourselves to the world. Schrem had this to say about the subversive power of bangles: “The noise that bangles create is everything. You can hear them from a mile away. Even the most modest of women want to be noticed when they enter a room.”
Bangles might no longer serve the same purpose for us as they did for our ancestors, but the emotional attachment that develops between them and their wearer remains. To wear traditional Arabian bangles is a commitment, in part because they have no clasp. After a few good years of growing, it typically becomes impossible to slide bangles off one’s hand. It’s an experience that’s so common among Syrian Jewish girls, you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who doesn’t have a story involving the removal of her bangles. (See: soap, warm water, in a dimly lit bathroom before a volleyball game.)
One woman whom I spoke to lamented that her bangles felt like handcuffs from which she needed to break free: “My daughter begged for a pair and loved hers.” Then she added, “I melted and sold mine after they began to feel a bit antiquated.” Another friend likened her bangles, a total of 10, to a phantom limb: “I honestly don’t even feel them. I’ve been wearing them since I was 3.” Common refrains I heard included, “What else would I do with my arm?” and, “I forgot I still had them on.”
Many women I spoke to did not actively choose to wear bangles, but were given them by a grandmother or older relative. And yet, bangles are essentially married to their wearer’s wrist. Unlike other tokens of commitment—engagement rings and wedding bands—bangles are rarely removed or forgotten on the ledge of a kitchen sink. I’d never questioned why bangles didn’t have a clasp. I merely accepted the idea that my bangles would eventually morph from arm décor to something that would cut off my blood flow, as another datum of tradition. Luckily, Schrem offered an explanation: “Our ancestors wore bangles because they were circular. They have no end and therefore, the energy runs continuously through and around them.” The lack of a clasp—a possible obstruction in the seamless shape of a bangle—prevents the loss of energy. Decreased blood flow seems like a small price to pay.
Abdo Jijati immigrated to America from Damascus in 1994, three weeks before his daughter, Celia—with whom he runs his business—was born. As a young boy in Syria, he made his livelihood dealing in gold bangles and coins. He remembers when friends and family of the bride would gift gold coins that might eventually be strung together to make a belt. Celia imagines that those belts were left behind when the majority of Jews fled Syria in the mid-to-late 20th century, because they were too heavy. Bangles were light, and easier to transport.
Jijati still imports his gold from Aleppo, although he estimates 90% of the factories that once stood have moved to Lebanon due to the war. He is adamant that he sells everything in the traditional 21 karats. He stays busy year round, except during Ramadan, when things go quiet. The majority of his clientele are Arab Americans from Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, where gold was and is still considered the most valuable asset one could possess.
Among women my age—I’m 27 years old—who removed our bangles many years ago, they have recently reemerged, particularly for those starting to have children of their own. Many people I spoke with corroborated this realization with stories of how they re-fashioned bangles they’d cut years ago, or simply began wearing one or two again. “The community has definitely fallen back on tradition,” Celia agreed. “It’s been amazing to see how bangles have resurged.”
The rise of the “yellow gold trend” is by no means limited to Middle Eastern Jews. Look no further than the glut of Instagram vendors selling gold-plated nameplates and rope chains. And yet, I can’t help but think that the trend fatigue we’re experiencing as a generation might be the trigger for my contemporaries’ fallback on tradition. In our collective quest to accumulate things (being sold to us from every angle) we’ve lost the meaning that should come from accumulating things.
I was struck by another anecdote I heard from a friend, now a digital director at a reputable fashion publication: “I stopped wearing my bangles many years ago when I started working because they made noise and I got comments about them,” she told me. “I love the sound they make and they remind me so much of where I come from and who I am. The music they make is my favorite part.”
About a year ago, I found myself manically rustling through an old jewelry box (for context, it’s the one with the twirling ballerina on top) searching for my bangles. The birth of my first child had softened me toward tradition. My grandfather, the same one who’d gifted me those bangles from Israel, was deceased. I thought if I could find them, I could have them melted and fashioned into something my son could wear.
Most of my contemporaries have one or two kids of their own, and I’ve seen the tradition—more so grandparents purchasing new bangles for their granddaughters—persist. However, another generation born here means another one removed from our roots in the Middle East. And sometimes, the inclination toward tradition and a cultural history is not so obvious.
Milo Haddad, a Syrian Jewish woman who owns a Brooklyn boutique selling both fine and chic costume jewelry, pointed to a funny “trend” she noticed emerging in the community over the past few years. Haddad does not sell traditional Middle Eastern bangles, however; she sells gold-plated bracelets by a French company named Gas Bijoux. The bracelets are her biggest and most consistent seller, she says, “by far.” They come in a variety of sizes and colors; many come adorned with stones. “I don’t think my customers have noticed, but they are collecting them like bangles,” she observed. “And subconsciously or not, our customers gravitate toward Middle Eastern colors; gold, greens, ruby, and of course, turquoise.” She likened it to her body’s natural appetite toward a Mediterranean diet: “It’s intuitive, because it’s what we’ve always eaten.”
Of course, absolutely zero of this occurred to me in elementary school. My friends and I weren’t cognizant of the fact that bangles helped others identify who we were. Or that to some, the sound they made was incredibly distracting.
All I knew then was that my friend Keke had a set of 10 bangles and they made the best music when she walked. I’d have to jiggle my wrist twice as hard to make my two bangles sing—a fart in the windstorm, really—but what mattered most was that I was part of the chorus. I realize now that what I mistook for some weird form of social currency was actually a deep-seated desire to feel part of a whole. Maybe, then, the bangles’ purpose wasn’t so far off from its original intent: to bestow a woman with a sense of security. There will always be value in that.
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