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Low Profile in Djerba

Aharon Granevich-Granot, Djerba, Tunisia

Three months after the revolution that sparked democratic revolts all over the Middle East, Tunisia is struggling with the challenge of creating stable leadership within the reform. But in the bubble of Djerba, life continues as it did for 2,000 years — providing a window into life after the exile following the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. A special report from this magical island paradise.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

By all accounts, it looks like an Arab village. The signs are in Arabic. The men are speaking Arabic and wearing kufis, knitted Arab skullcaps. But it quickly becomes clear that this is a Jewish neighborhood. The houses of worship are synagogues; their inscriptions a giveaway in Hebrew. And the children conversing in Arabic are reviewing Mishnayos, midrashim, and Gemara.

Twenty minutes before Shabbos begins, Djerba’s Rav Chaim Bitan ascends to the roof of the Aliyas Rabi Chaim Yitzchak Huri synagogue and announces the imminent arrival of Shabbos by blowing the shofar.

Rav Bitan has been performing this custom — in accordance with the ancient custom described in the mishnah (Shabbos 35b) — every Erev Shabbos for the past forty years, long before he served as the rav of Djerba, and more recently of all Tunisia. Store owners hear the blasts and hurry to pull down the shutters on their stores. The streets empty. According to the takanos, Djerba’s Jews daven Minchah Gedolah on Friday; no one has to hurry to catch a minyan for Minchah before sunset.

A few moments later, there is a human flood. The cracked roads and sidewalks are filled with men, each wrapped in a burnoose, a long one-piece hooded cloak of coarse wool, worn especially by Arabs and Berbers. During the week, the men wear a burnoose in shades of orange and brown, but the burnoose for Shabbos is white. The crowds fill the streets as they walk to one of the eleven shuls, all of which are full. The women are out on Friday evening as well, and the Rav has instituted a system whereby certain streets are off-limits to men. At the entrance to these streets, the boys and men will wait until the last of the women and girls have passed, and only then will they cross.

It’s only on arriving at the entrance to the shuls that we find the first hint of this winter’s revolution. Each year, the main Purim ceremony of Djerba’s Jews is the “burning of Haman,” in which groups of Jews gather in residential courtyards and burn Haman in effigy. But not this year. Notices in the synagogues inform the community that this year, for security reasons, there will be only one ceremony for the entire community, in one central location. The new police force did not approve — and hasn’t the wherewithal to insure protection of — individual ceremonies.

Jews in Tunisia have always tread a precarious path between social acceptance and downright oppression. Tunisian Jews, today a tolerated minority — even as Yasser Arafat’s PLO set up headquarters in the capital city of Tunis after being expelled from Lebanon in 1982 — have been subject to shifts in regional and international politics that have dictated the relative security of their community. When the democratic revolution began three months ago, Jews were again unsure of their position and tried to keep a low profile, pacified somewhat by their Arab neighbors who assured them of security.

The davening is not long, and people hurry home. Everyone, teens and children included, have a long night ahead of them. After the meal they all attend a range of shiurei Torah, Tikkunei Zohar, Tehillim groups and oneg Shabbos gatherings.

Today, the balmy sunshine island paradise of Djerba, ten hours from Tunis off the southeast of the country, is a bubble of Jewish spirituality, where Jews live as they have for centuries, a veritable living museum of life from 2,000 years ago.

Customs we’ve only learned about in the Mishnah come to life here. Djerba’s Jews bake their challos together in the community oven at the bakery every Friday; and each family also brings its pot of chamin, cholent, when they come to pick up the challos, so all the pots can cook overnight together. It’s not that anyone is lacking an oven; this is a way of keeping an ancient tradition alive.

“Why don’t you cook at home?” I asked my host.

“Because we want all the pots to be together. One pot gives the flavor to another and it fosters unity among us,” he says. Even at the communal oven, tzniyus is firmly maintained: One entrance for men and one for women.

Until you come to Djerba, until you experience the living tradition, it’s impossible to comprehend the extent of the tragedy that the Sephardim experienced when they came to Israel in the 1950s and ’60s. How proud Jews, whose lives were permeated with Torah and mitzvos, were forced to abandon their rich culture and heritage. 


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