Where Sephardic History Abounds


Every day will be a little bit lighter now, but this week is still among the darkest of the year, and the chilliest. So it’s the perfect moment to take a closer look at the sunny Mediterranean shores of Djerba, Tunisia, one of my recommendations for Jewish travel in 2015.

Djerba has long been popular among vacationing French and Italians who come for its wide, sandy beaches, pretty whitewashed villages and exquisite sunsets — all at a fraction of European prices. But for the culturally discerning traveler, Djerba is more than just a beach vacation; it also offers a window onto a historic Jewish culture and a front-row seat to North Africa in transition.

Tunisia is an oasis of calm in a region that, while blessed with stunning beauty, has been plagued with chaos. But in the country where the Arab Spring began, a fragile democracy is taking shape with last month’s first free presidential election. The violence of recent years — including attacks on Jewish institutions — prompted an exodus of Djerbian Jews to Israel, but the 1,000 or so who remain are looking to the new president, Beji Caid Essebsi, to tamp down extremism, restore Tunisia’s economy and maintain the relative stability that has allowed Tunisian tourism to flourish.

At nearly 200 square miles, Djerba — which lies about 300 miles south of the capital city of Tunis, just offshore in the Gulf of Gabes — is Tunisia’s largest island, surrounded by pale-aqua sea that looks almost unreal. Sea breezes moderate a near-perfect climate, sparing Djerba from the dramatic day-to-night temperature drops that characterize most of this desert region. From late April into November, temperatures linger in the 70s, and winter rarely dips below the 50s, even at night.

Malta and Sicily are Djerba’s nearest Mediterranean neighbors; like both of those islands, Djerba combines ancient culture with the cosmopolitan feel of a historic crossroads. (Given how picturesque Djerba is, it’s no coincidence that George Lucas chose the island for those souk scenes in the original “Star Wars” movie.) Where Romans once built fortresses, today you find a mélange of Berbers, French, Greeks, Catholics, Arabs, Maltese and Sephardic Jews, whose Djerbian community is the most prominent in Tunisia.

It’s unusual to find such an important Jewish community outside a capital city, but Sephardic Jewry has an outsize cultural presence on Djerba that dates back to ancient times. The landmark El Ghriba Synagogue — the oldest Jewish temple in Africa — is arguably the island’s top attraction, and the spicy Djerbian cuisine is heavily influenced by Sephardic tradition.

More than a half-dozen synagogues and numerous Jewish institutions flourish in the Jewish districts, where Jews live a traditional, close-knit existence in relative harmony with their multiethnic neighbors. As in many majority-Muslim lands, the Jewish culture here is rather traditional, with an insularity augmented by island life. Many Jews work as goldsmiths, and are part of a distinctive Djerbian legacy of intricate, filigreed metalworking.

That intricacy can be seen in the graceful tile work and delicate turquoise arches of El Ghriba Synagogue. Tunisians say a synagogue has stood on this spot since the sixth century; in the cool silence of El Ghriba’s interior, ancient Torah scrolls and other ritual vestiges are preserved alongside gold-leaf Hebrew inscriptions, colorful stained glass and a ceiling of glittering chandeliers.

Apart from El Ghriba, there are few must-see attractions on Djerba; for the cultural tourist, Djerba is a place to explore in its entirety rather than a collection of discrete sights.

One can happily get lost amid the narrow streets and whitewashed buildings of Houmt Souk, the capital city on the island’s northern coast. Some neighborhoods are defined by views over the blue Mediterranean, where boats glide in and out of the port; others, by a jumbled assortment of Roman ruins, mosques and synagogues.

In the mornings, browse the fruits, vegetables, dried peppers and local spices at Djerba’s many outdoor markets. Markets are also where you’ll find handcrafted jewelry and metalwork, along with a wide selection of local pottery; it is tempting to bring home a tagine or other earthenware memento.

But Djerba isn’t all about tradition. The most intriguing cultural development of recent times may be the newly unveiled open-air museum called Djerbahood, a project involving artists from 30 nations whose bold public statements — straddling the line between murals and graffiti — have transformed a modest, dusty village south of Houmt Souk.

More than 100 mostly young, globally conscious artists have been living and working on these streets of stone dwellings and olive trees. The results are striking: many of the murals incorporate scrolled motifs reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy and Moorish tile work, while others are portraits or provocative scenes of war.

Djerbahood’s long-term future is uncertain. But in its juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, the project seems to symbolize the optimism and cultural syncretism that makes Djerba such a compelling place to visit.