Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Sivan 5768 - June 5, 2008 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Searching for the Jewish Past in Djerba

By Arnon Yaffeh, Paris

El Ghriba, an ancient synagogue on the island of Djerba about 500 km (300 miles) from Tunis, was packed with mispallelim this year. Like every year thousands of Jews, most of Tunisian descent, streamed to Djerba for Lag B'Omer to search the lost past of the isle of chachmei haTorah of 250 years ago.

Even some French reporters devoted articles to the Jewish event. In the heart of Tunisia, a Muslim country, thousands of Jews wearing yarmulkes and expressing nostalgia for the past glories of their family patriarchs who were forced to leave the island in exchange for bleak lives in the suburbs of French cities and development towns in Israel, spend a week celebrating.

Thousands of Jews visit the city of Arida, where the beis knesses is located. Arced balconies and pillars surround the courtyard, wear Tunisian flags wave. The names of Djerba's rabbonim can be seen etched on a silver pyramid in the middle of the courtyard. Israeli visitors said they're taking advantage of the annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage to return to their birthplaces in search of their past and the origins they were severed from during their childhood.

The swarms of visitors turn the streets into a walking exhibition of Jewish-Tunisian folklore. The visitors sit on the balcony, sharing legendary tales about the shul. According to one of the legends, Jews fleeing the destruction of the Second Temple by Nebuchadnezzar found a haven on the island — which is mentioned by its Greek name in an ancient Greek songbook — and built the shul. This legend led to a revival of the shul as a Jewish site. Today El Ghriba is fast becoming a tourist site.

"We feel safe here and come without fear thanks to the regime of President Ben Ali," said a Jewish visitor from Paris named Loussain. Part of the intent of the events is to draw praise for the regime, which has been magnanimous toward Jews and Israel. Praise for Ben Ali was heard throughout the week in Djerba. The words, "Ben Ali has established democracy!" are regularly heard in speeches.

Last month French Chief Rabbi Yosef Sitrouk met with Ben Ali in his palace as his private guest during President Sarkozi's visit to Tunis. "We've been waiting for and warmly welcome the visitors to Djerba," Ben Ali told him. Ben Ali has been harshly suppressing popular support for Islamists joining the left-wing opposition to undermine him. Tunisians prefer his pro-Western rule over a suppressive Islamic regime.

A few years ago Loussain chartered a plane to fly 180 friends and relatives to Djerba to celebrate his son's bar mitzvah. Event organizer Rene Trabelsi said it wasn't easy bringing so many people to an Arab country. "Only to Tunisia was it possible to bring such a large number of Jews. It's a land of tolerance and freedom where religious freedom is preserved," he said. Iraq was once a large Jewish center, yet today Arabs refuse to send their baby for heart surgery in Israel due to their hatred.

But the gathering calls for heavy security. Armed, plain- clothed policemen are posted around the hotel and beis knesses. Peretz Trabelsi (Rene's father) rents a hotel and provides kosher food for the 1,000 people lodged there. He says 5,000 visitors came to the island this year. Trabelsi, head of the Jewish community on the island, awaits the day when direct flights will be available between Djerba and Israel.

Jews are starting to return to the island. The Jewish population has grown from 750 to 1050 in recent years. Israeli visitors say Djerba looks like Israel did 50 years ago. An Israeli from Be'er Sheva said the children recite the prayers according to Nusach Djerba and study Torah — things Jews of Djerban descent living in Be'er Sheva may have lost.

The gap between the Jews of Djerba and the influx of Jewish visitors is readily apparent in their attire and modesty. In Djerba most of the Jews are observant, wearing yarmulkes in the street without fear.

The Arabs also take part in the festivities from the sidelines. Still, any IDF action in Gaza can raise tensions in the street between Arabs and Jews. An unfortunate Jewish woman who was forced to marry an Arab says her husband and children punish her "every time something serious happens in Palestine."


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