Behind the Headlines: Amid Sea of Muslim Neighbors, Tunisia’s Jews Observe Traditions

A late model Volkswagen Golf comes to a halt near a tiny store off one of this island’s numerous dirt paths. Out jumps a tall, dark-haired man carrying globs of dough on a tray.

He ducks into the store, which turns out to be the town’s kosher bakery. He drops off the dough, saying he will return shortly to pick up his bread for Shabbat.

Welcome to Friday afternoon, Erev Shabbat, in the community of Hara Kebira, a small village on this island off the coast of the North African nation of Tunisia.

Of the village’s approximately 1,800 residents, half are Jewish. It is a Jewish community where Orthodox Judaism is almost universally observed, and where some locals refer to their home as the “Jerusalem of Africa.”

According to some in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Jews of this ancient village represent the best hope for the future of Tunisian Jewry.

In many ways, Jerba has the feel of a European shtetl – with a distinctly Sephardic flavor. It actually has two Jewish communities – Hara Kebira (the large village) and Hara Sghira (the small village).

To visitors from the West, Hara Kebira seems very poor. There is not a paved street in town. Goats lie chained up to posts, and chickens and roosters strut around the streets. Ever-present flies flit around pieces of meat at a nearby butcher.

The Jews of Hara Kebira are proud of their history, which, according to legend, stretches back many centuries.

The first Jews are believed to have arrived on the island after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem over 2,500 years ago. A group of Kohanim, or priests, were believed to have arrived in Jerba carrying a door and some stones from the Temple’s sanctuary. Upon their arrival, they erected a synagogue, El Ghriba (“the marvelous”), which over the generations has become a site of annual pilgrimage for Jews of North African descent.

The next large influx of Jews came in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century.

The community grew again during the time Tunisia was a French protectorate from 1881 to 1956, when the country gained its independence.

The community reached its peak in the 1940s, when the Jewish community throughout Tunisia numbered 100,000, or 15 percent of the total population.

But with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews started to leave. This trend accelerated during the 1967 Six-Day War, when anti-Jewish rioting broke out around the country, and again in the early 1980s, during the Lebanon War.

Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled to some 2,100 out of a population of about 8.5 million. About 1,200 Jews live in the capital of Tunis.

But many Jews from Tunis believe their community will die out, given the mass exodus of young people over the years to France or Israel.

For many, the future of Tunisian Jewry lies with Jerba. Even the grand rabbi of Tunisia, Haim Madar, comes from Jerba.

“The Jerbans are holding the flame for the community,” says Simone Berrebi, a prominent member of the Tunis Jewish community.

White Tunisia as a whole has witnessed a mass exodus of its Jewish community, the Jewish population of Hara Kebira has actually been growing.

A few years ago it had about 700 Jews; now the number is close to 900, due in part to the traditional character of the community, where women stay at home and have many children.

The Jews of Jerba are, as a whole, more religious than the largely assimilated Jews of Tunis, and therefore, keep their distance from their counterparts in the capital, even avoiding marriage with them.

“I would marry a Jerban Jew, but they don’t want it,” says Jean-Marc Guez, a 24-year-old Jew from Tunis.

In the Jerban community of Hara Kebira, a strong attachment to tradition in the face of pressures to assimilate and modernize is a leading factor in its stability and growth.

Its ties to the past have had a strong effect on people like Ezekiel Haddad, who decided to return to the small community after living in Paris.

“This is my home and where I have my family,” he says.

Marriages here are still arranged by the parents, but no one seems to mind.

“It’s not a problem,” said Nathalie, a gangly youngster of 12 who says she plans to marry between the age of 18 and 21.

“If you’re 23 or 24, that’s really kind of old,” she explains. Indeed, most young women here are married by the age of 21.

Many of Jerba’s men work in the local jewelry industry, which caters to the thousands of tourists, mainly German, who flock to Jerba’s pristine beaches and western-style hotels. Those not involved in jewelry are employed as tailors or in handicrafts.

Given their close links with Jewish tradition, the community here strictly observes Shabbat.

As the sun descends on Friday afternoon, the jewelers close their stores and gather in one of several local synagogues for Shabbat services.

In a kindly gesture, the men make room at the services for a few visiting women from the United States. This is a big concession for the local community, since women simply do not go to services here.

Instead, they are at home preparing dinner, which often centers around couscous, a grain prevalent in North African cooking. Couscous is accompanied by chicken, lamb or, as during one recent Shabbat, a type of hamburger mixed with local spices known as Jewish boulette.

Four miles away from Hara Kebira is the smaller Jewish community of Hara Sghira, which has only about 60 members.

The two Jewish communities on the island of Jerba have a relationship which has been described as “competitive rapport.”

While the distance separating the two towns is short enough to enable them to foster economic cooperation, it is just far enough to keep traditions separate.

The towns have for a long time maintained two distinct sets of institutions – separate Jewish schools, mohels, butchers and courts. Marriage between the two groups is frowned upon.

But in recent years, mostly because of the small size of Hara Sghira, there has been more cooperation between the communities.

According to Victor Trabelsi, author of a book on the Jerban Jewish community, the Jews of Hara Kebira feel they are superior in their practice and knowledge of Jewish traditions, while their counterparts in Hara Sghira Jews believe they are more authentic, believing themselves to be closer descendants of people from the Holy Land.

Further south and back on the Tunisian mainland, there is yet another tiny Jewish community, where some 100 mostly poor Jews live in the town of Zarzis.

A visit here is a step into yet another world, in part because few bother to make the trip to this small town.

But the trek is well worth it – if only for the beaming faces of a dozen children who were overjoyed to perform Jewish songs to visiting guests.

Zarzis is an offshoot of the Jerban community, and the Jews here are largely dependent on Jerban Jews for needs such as kosher meat or the services of a mohel.

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