DJERBA, Tunisia (JTA) — Two thousand years ago, a mysterious woman who was unable to talk arrived on this island. Every sick person she touched was healed. Although she died when her wooden house caught fire, her body remained intact and did not burn.
That’s a local legend.
Another is that the miracle worker is buried beneath the foundation stone of the El Ghriba Synagogue, one of the oldest continuously used synagogues in the Diaspora and the site of an annual pilgrimage that typically brings thousands to Djerba seeking answers to their prayers.
This year, amid political uncertainty and security concerns, the two-day celebration held last week on Lag b’Omer drew more journalists and police than pilgrims.
“We have about 300 people here from abroad today, but most are locals,” said Rene Trabelsi, a Paris-based organizer of the celebration whose family oversees the synagogue. “What’s important is that we are having this event this year because last year it did not happen. I hope we can slowly increase the number of people attending each year.”
Last year, in the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution that overthrew the country’s long time autocrat Zine El Abddine Ben Ali and killed more than 300 Tunisians, the Hiloula celebration was canceled.
Pilgrimages in previous years had attracted thousands of visitors to Djerba. After the El Ghriba Synagogue was attacked in 2002, the pilgrimage was vastly scaled back, but the number of pilgrims steadily increased until nearly 10,000 came in 2010.
Heavy security accompanied this year’s event, and those coming by car faced some dozen checkpoints en route.
Elias al-Fakhfakh, Tunisia’s minister of tourism and a member of the center-left Ettakatol political party, attended on the second day. The crowd, which had been singing kabbalistic tunes outside the synagogue, switched to the Tunisian national anthem as al-Fakhfakh approached.
Entering the El Ghriba sanctuary, al-Fakhfakh put on a kabbus, a red traditional Tunisian hat that many Tunisian Jewish men wear as a kippah.
Before cameras from almost every Tunisian television station, al-Fakhfakh viewed both the sefer Torah and holy area where the foundation stone is believed to be.
“It is great that Muslims and Jews can celebrate this occasion together," he told a cheering crowd before heading off to a meal with local Jewish community leaders. "After the Tunisian revolution we adopted new democratic values. We have a new country with a deep heritage that accepts people with different cultures and religions.
"As a government," he said, "we want to embrace good relations between Jews and Muslims in the new free Tunisia."
During the pilgrimage, El Ghriba’s sanctuary becomes a holding place for people’s wishes, which are written on paper and placed inside cracks of the wall — similar to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Coins are placed inside oil lamps for tzedakah, charity.
Women seeking to marry or have children visit El Ghriba and write their wishes on boiled eggs, symbolizing life. Candles are lit for those asking for good health and a long life.
A door to the foundation stone, which is beneath the ark, is opened during the pilgrimage, so the candles and eggs may be placed on the stone.
Newlywed Vanessa Mamou, whose father is from Djerba, traveled from Paris for the celebration.
“I put an egg in the synagogue because I am married and want to have a baby," she told JTA. "My sister is here because she wants to meet someone and get married.”
The El Ghriba legend is important not only for Tunisian Jews but for Muslims as well.
“This is a holy place for all Djerbians, not just the Jews,” a woman named Khalija said as she was leaving the sanctuary. “I came to light a candle with my Jewish friend.”
Unlike previous years, when the celebration attracted Tunisians and non-Tunisians from abroad, nearly all of this year’s pilgrims were Tunisian.
Many were local Djerbians; others came from Tunis. The remaining were Tunisians visiting from Europe, although the visitors included a couple of French pilgrims.
“My family left Tunisia when I was 10 years old, but I spent almost every summer growing up in Tunisia,” said Isabel, who came with her husband and daughter from Paris. “No one will scare me away from coming here because this is my country. I am Tunisian and will never be afraid of my country.”
Adjacent to the synagogue is a building that once served as an inn housing visitors, primarily Libyan Jews visiting El Ghriba. With the growth of the tourism industry and the establishment of vast hotels in recent years, the building is mostly abandoned year-round.
But during the two-day Hiloula, the inn becomes a center of celebration. Live traditional Tunisian music, in Hebrew and Arabic, is sung to the beat of the darbouka drum.
The smell of fried brik — a flour envelope of potatoes, Tunisian hot sauce known as harissa, parsley and egg — is present in the air. Families sit together on benches and munch on fresh almonds, apricots, oranges, cantaloupe and mulberries that are sold in nearby stands.
For some Tunisians who have been abroad for many years, the celebration is a chance to reconnect with Tunisia. On sale are CDs of famous Tunisian Jewish singers from the community’s past as well as DVD collections of recent Tunisian sitcoms.
Previous celebrations have attracted many Israeli pilgrims, but this year Israel issued a travel warning advising its people not to attend.
Perez Trabelsi, El Ghriba’s president, criticized the Israelis in the local French language Tunisian newspaper, Le Press, for not attending this year.
According to some foreign attendees, many foreign visitors canceled after the Islamist Tunisian party Ennahda invited Youssef Al Qaradawi, a Qatar-based Egyptian sheik well known for his endorsement of suicide bombings, on a multi-city speaking tour of Tunisia in the week leading up to the Hiloula.