Journey To A Jewish Past


If Djerba, a small island in the Mediterranean off the southeast coast of Tunisia, is the Jerusalem of Africa, as its community claims, then the lovely El Ghriba synagogue is its Bet Hamikdash, or Holy Temple.

Here, where legend has it that a group of Kohanim found refuge after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, several thousand Jews of North African descent now come each spring for a two-day festival around the holiday of Lag b’Omer. This joyful pilgrimage combines religious solidarity, social fellowship and fund-raising efforts to support the isolated but flourishing Jewish community of about 1,000, which considers itself the oldest in the diaspora.Visiting this separate colony in an Arab country that not too long ago was home to the Palestine Liberation Organization, I felt like an alien on several levels.

I was American, English-speaking and an Ashkenazi Jew, keenly aware of the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab population and unfamiliar with many of the rituals and customs of the local Jewish community. But I felt a kinship, too, with these observant, Hebrew-speaking people who have managed to preserve their traditions over centuries and whose affection for Israel is as deep-seated as it is unspoken, at least in public.The most moving moment of the visit for me came when I asked an elderly leader, during a brief interview outside the local yeshiva, his views on aliyah. His response was to sing for me “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, in a loud, clear voice, as those around him smiled approvingly.The focus of my visit, as a guest of the Tunisian government, was the El Ghriba, as the two-day gala is known. (El Ghriba means “the marvelous one,” and refers to the cornerstone of the synagogue, which according to legend came from King Solomon’s Temple and is said to have healing powers.)The day before the festival, I visited the commercial center of the island, which specializes in jewelry, particularly silver.

An estimated 90 percent of the jewelers are Jews, one of whom showed me a silver bracelet whose fish-design forms a Magen David. It struck me as symbolic of how the local Jews celebrate their identity covertly at times, recognizing that their well-being depends on the beneficence of others.There are actually two Jewish villages on the island and, not surprisingly, relations between them are difficult at times. The larger community of about 850 is where most of the jewelers live, while the smaller, far poorer village of about 150 — a few minutes away by car — is home to the El Ghriba synagogue.The highlight of the day was a visit to El Ghriba. Entering through its doors is to step into the past, as the building’s modern white exterior gives way to a charming, immaculately restored interior of boldly colored, hand-painted tiles in the Sephardic tradition, amid large pillars of turquoise and white. The raised, wooden bima in the center is decorated with gaily colored scarves. An entire wall features silver religious ornaments preserved behind a glass frame.

In the quiet reverie of the moment, I could imagine Jews worshiping here in centuries past, filling the air with prayer and conversation.That night, at the hotel that had been made kosher for the week to accommodate the crowds, a band played Arabic and Sephardic songs into the night, and a few brave souls stepped onto the dance floor and swayed to the sensuous music.The next day, when I returned to the synagogue, it was jammed with people, and the floor strewn with shoes, since visitors are requested to remove all footwear before entering.The atmosphere was festive, as many of the estimated 4,000 Jews who had come for the annual event sought out friends and relatives they had not seen since the previous year.

The majority of the visitors were from France, where many Tunisian Jews have emigrated, but people came also from a number of other countries in the region, including Israel.Visitors lined up to light ceremonial candles in the sanctuary and seek out a personal blessing from one of several elderly rabbis.A few steps away from the synagogue, a large crowd had gathered in the open courtyard, decorated with colorful flags and omnipresent photographs of Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987. He is credited with renovating the synagogue, encouraging travel to the island’s most historic site (in the hope of attracting Jewish tourists), and improving relations with Israel.Along the perimeter of the square, merchants hawked their wares, a curious blend of traditional and modern items including fez hats, cassettes of Sephardi music, plastic sandals and Reebok T-shirts. Just beyond, the exotic smells of native food for sale wafted through the air. There were skewers of fresh meat, dates and pastries, but the longest line was for “bricks,” a local version of the knish, which consists of dough and a pinch of spicy meat cooked in oil.At a given signal, the crowd began to march through the dirt streets of the village, protected by hundreds of police (many of them brought in from Tunis) and watched by large numbers of sullen-faced local residents. At the head of the procession was a small wagon, reportedly carrying a menorah and decorated with dozens of silk scarves. Every few hundred yards, the procession would come to a halt and an auction would take place on the spot for the honor of riding at the head of the wagon.

(Attention, UJA fund-raisers.)Along the route, Ouzifa Trabelsi, an outgoing man of about 40, showed me the house where his wife grew up and, a few steps later, the home that he lived in with his nine siblings before immigrating to France 15 years ago. Now a doctor in Paris, he comes back for the pilgrimage each year. Trabelsi was greeted warmly by residents and fellow visitors.Returning to the synagogue about 90 minutes later, much of the crowd continued to party while hundreds packed the sanctuary to hear the Tunisian minister of tourism describe the government’s continuing efforts to encourage Jewish visits to the island.Then it was back into the cool night air to get some rest and ponder the meaning of this exotic experience, taking pride in the power and reach of Jewish peoplehood and savoring the majestic mystery of the ancient stones of El Ghriba, the marvelous one.