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Blasts of Tradition

Ari Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

While every other North African Jewish community has disintegrated, the Jews of Djerba are still a bastion of Torah on this island off the Tunisian mainland. Preserving ancient rituals and maintaining clandestine customs in a sea of revolution, they’ve remained an anomaly — and we were determined to learn their secret.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Today in Yerushalayim and other Israeli cities, the air raid siren takes the place of the traditional six shofar blasts at candlelighting time. In the Tunisian island of Djerba though, the ancient tradition has been preserved. Residents say that the shofar was abolished in other communities due to fear of provoking the non-Jews, but because they live in what is essentially an all-Jewish enclave they’ve continued to maintain this practice since ancient times. On our trip to visit Djerba’s Jews just two months ago, we were looking forward to experiencing it firsthand. But as Shabbos approached in the Jewish community of Djerba, we found that they had another way to herald its arrival: The kehillah hires someone to circulate in the Jewish Chara Kabira neighborhood to encourage shop owners to lock up, in addition to the original custom of blowing the shofar. The Djerban community is proud of its adherence to the ancient rituals, tracing its 2,000-year sojourn on the island to a group of families of Kohanim exiled after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash. While most of the hundreds of thousands of Tunisian and North African Jews have moved to Israel, France, and other countries over the last half century, the Jews of Djerba — all 1,300 of them shomrei Torah umitzvos — have stubbornly held onto their island community, secure in the government’s promise of protection and in the zechus of their unwavering commitment to halachah. Here the boys learn in yeshivah seven days a week before they secure a trade and marry, and chillul Shabbos is unheard of. Today the community — which makes up over half of Tunisian Jewry — is actually on the upswing, as many of the young families have chosen to stay.

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