Legend tells us that when Emperor Nebuchadnessar II destroyed Salomon’s tempel in Jerusalem in 586 BC, the members of the Jewish priestly class, called the Kohanim, left Jerusalem and settled on the island of Djerba in Present-day Tunisia.
The Kohanim carried with them a vestige of the destroyed Temple that they placed within the synagogue they built on the island, the El Ghriba - and the yearly pilgrimage to the island of the Kohanim is a tradition that still takes place today.
I came to Djerba this week, to spend Hanukkah here, not only because the legend of the Kohanim enthralled me, but also because I was curious to see what Jewish life looks like here today. A few days in to my journey into Jewish Djerba I am amazed, impressed and deeply moved by the strength of tradition and power of conviction that drives the 1500-strong community on the island.
In some ways, modern-day Jewish life in Djerba is made possible by its distance from modernity, and just as the geographical distance from Nazi camps in some ways kept Tunisian Jewry from the worst horrors of World War II, geography also safeguards Tunisian Jewry from the plagues of the 21st century.
Djerba is an island, in every sense of the word, and the Jewish community here is cohesive and deeply traditional in a time where many Jews fall into rapid assimilation. The Jewish community in Djerba is young, 50% of them are 20-years-old or younger, and it is a growing community, too; Jewish women in Djerba have an average of 4 children, and some as many as 10.
It is both strange and wonderful to feel as welcomed and at home in a Arabic country as I do in Tunisia, and what fills me with an even greater sense of wonder is to see how the Jews here have stayed orthodox and Torah-true, living in relative calm coexistence with their Muslim neighbors.
The Tunisian government has, since the Jasmin revolution that started the Arab spring, protected and encouraged Jewish life on the island of Djerba, and they have gone as far as to seek UNESCO World Heritage Status for the island, based on its rich and unique Jewish history.
But beyond facts, figures and history, I will remember Djerba for the sense of family I feel here and the absolute love and care I have been shown ever since I got here. Local Jewish shop-owners have closed their stores to take me to synagogue and show me the kosher restaurant and someone else gave me a tour of Jewish neighborhoods, introducing me to every family member, everyone offering me something to eat or a place to stay.
Djerba is not a Jewish community to be pitied, but one to admire, and live up to. They have chosen to not only stay alive, but to thrive, and with 14 synagogues, 2 yeshivot and 3 excellent kosher eateries I am in awe of how such a small place can show such greatness in Jewish community, attitude and perseverance.
Djerba is a place to go and to come back to. Not for a vacation, really, for how can you vacation in a place that feels so much like home?
For research for her upcoming book, Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is traveling the globe documenting Jewish life in remote corners of the world.The Jerusalem Post and The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs will broadcast a Hanukka candle lighting ceremony live from Djerba. This is part of our ongoing joint project to highlight how Jews around the world celebrate the Festival of Lights.