Oasis Fruit


The French-Algerian author Albert Bensoussan remembered a clear moment from his childhood during Rosh HaShanah. His mother, busily shopping in the Arab marketplace, let go of his hand for a brief moment. Little Albert was lost, with a cone-shaped news-paper filled with jujubes (pronounced juJOOB) in hand. To the young Algerian boy, jujubes were equivalent with Jews, right down to the alphabetical resonance. Every Jew in his Algerian town bought the fruits on Rosh HaShanah eve, because the tradition demanded that the fruit of the jujube should melt in the throats of the people of Israel on the first night of Tishrei.

The Jewish communities of Algeria have now been extinct for nearly 50 years. Some once-mainstay traditions of Algerian Jewry have nearly vanished since the emigration of Algeria’s 150,000 Jews. Algeria’s fourth-largest city was called “Annaba,” which means “jujube,” and yet, the Rosh HaShanah tradition has now faded into obscurity. Another forgotten artifact: Muslims and Jews in Algeria both utilized the jujube for religious traditions. Jewish-Algerian traditions tended to take the sensual side of Judaism seriously. There were no bitter foods permitted at the Rosh Ha-Shanah seder—no nuts, for instance. The jujube symbolized prosperity and sweetness, and went along with the dates, pomegranates, apples and honey, leeks, white beans, and, as a main dish, a sheep’s head.

Both the fruit and the leafy tree on which it grows, the Ziziphus—which throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia exhibit mystical qualities that seem to defy botanical logic—cut through various religious traditions, and embody the succulent relief of the autumn after a sweltering summer. Just larger than a cherry, the jujube first appears green and crisp as an apple. The fruit ripens into a reddish-brown—still on the tree—and some have described
the taste as chocolaty. Finally, the fruit dries to the consistency of a raisin, and as such has been used for centuries as medicine for a sore throat or a cough. On Rosh HaShanah, the fruit is eaten at its peak—the ripened, sweet phase.

The jujube tree is said to come from the Garden of Eden; another legend holds that it actually was the Tree of Life. The fruit is mentioned seven times in the Bible, and also it is mentioned in the Mishna, and some rabbis think the biblical “tapuach” was actually a jujube fruit, not a modern apple. If the fruit’s many transformations weren’t magical enough, the size and shape of the tree’s leaves stand out in the context of the arid North African desert. Lush and green, the leaves seem otherworldly.

Muslim tradition holds that the jujube tree is found in heaven—and that Mohammed encountered the tree on his way to heaven—the Koran describes “leaves as big as elephant ears.” Another Muslim legend seems to adapt Rosh HaShanah’s conceptual Book of Life into a jujube Tree of Life. The leaves this time are as numerous as the human beings on earth, and each leaf displays the name of an individual. Each year during Ramadan, an angel shakes the tree after sunset on an appointed evening. The jujube leaves that fall bear the names of those who will face death in the coming year, and the timing of the leaves’ decay coincides with the timing of death: some dry up immediately while others dwindle over time. The French word “feuille” means both “leaf” and “page,” as if to converge the Jewish Book of Life and the Muslim Tree of Life.

What is it about the jujube that has inspired traditions of renewal? In addition to Rosh HaShanah eve and mid-Ramadan, the jujube is eaten on the Chinese New Year in February—which coincides with late summer or early fall in China. A Christian legend holds that one species of the jujube bush was used for Jesus’ crown of thorns, inspiring yet another religious renewal.

The ubiquity of the jujube fruit on Rosh HaShanah eve was a hallmark of Jewish-Algerian tradition. The tree continues to thrive in Algeria, but, since the massive Jewish departure in 1962, the Jewish jujube tradition has dwindled into obscurity. What was lost in the Algerian exile? This is a complex question that is difficult to answer, but the an- swer may begin with a small fruit, not much larger than a cherry.

Jessica Hammerman is a doctoral candidate in Modern European History at CUNY Graduate Center. She is completing a dissertation about French and Algerian jews during the Algerian War for Independence, 1954–1962.