A tour of the community belonging to the Tunisian Jews of Djerba

A fascinating visit to a pious Jewish community in Tunisia.

Two Tunisian Muslim women chat with a Jewish man at the El Ghriba Synagoguge (photo credit: AHMED JADALLAH / REUTERS)
Two Tunisian Muslim women chat with a Jewish man at the El Ghriba Synagoguge
(photo credit: AHMED JADALLAH / REUTERS)
“WHICH HOTEL are you staying at?” It was an early Sunday morning, and I had not slept much since initially leaving Tel Aviv the night before. The officer manning passport control at Djerba-Zarzis International Airport asked this question of all the foreign visitors waiting on a long, single-file line to enter the southeastern Tunisian island. Most passengers on the low-cost flight from Lyon were Francophone holiday-makers, seeking sun and fun in this popular North African destination, with a smattering of locals returning to visit family.
I was undoubtedly the only foreign passenger who was not coming here for a packaged vacation. Fighting the fatigue, I greeted the immigration official in Arabic with the standard S’bah al-Kheyr (Good morning”) and answered his question, “I’m staying at a private home in Hara Kebira,” referring to a neighborhood in Houmt Souk, the main town on the northern side of the island.
The clerk seemed to have immediately understood. I was one of those foreign Jews who occasionally passed through the airport to visit coreligionists, who are overwhelmingly concentrated in that neighborhood. He wanted to know more. I informed him that I was coming for the Jewish New Year, which began at sundown.
“What’s the name of the family hosting you?” It took me a moment to recall the name of the family that agreed to put me up, as I had never met them, only briefly speaking to the father and daughter on the phone several days prior. “The Mamo family. Haim Mamo.”
Satisfied, the official stamped my American passport, and I set foot in Tunisia for the first time in my life.
SAID TO be established by a group of cohanim (priests) fleeing Jerusalem in 586 BCE, after the destruction of the First Temple, the extraordinary history and identity of the Djerban Jewish community had interested me for years. As a student of Middle East history and a relatively fluent Arabic speaker, I was furthermore eager to observe one of the few remaining Jewish communities today that speaks this language as its mother tongue. Yet I soon discovered that visiting the place was less straightforward and convenient than a typical Diaspora Jewish community. Djerba’s Jews do not have a central communal organization with an office, nor an official website or email address for which to coordinate a visit and request hospitality.
Those seeking accommodation must know someone from within.
Scanning several Israeli travel forums, I came across frequent references to Tunisia by a certain Azizi Barhom from Ashkelon.
Born in Israel to Tunisian olim parents, Azizi proudly celebrates his heritage, managing a Facebook group dedicated to Tunisian Jewish folklore and leading Israeli tour groups to Djerba for the annual Lag Ba’Omer pilgrimage at the island’s revered and historic El Ghriba Synagogue (since 2011, this is the one time of year when Israeli passport holders are permitted to enter the country, per Tunisia’s post-revolution visa policy). Azizi is intimately connected to the Djerba community, and was more than happy to help facilitate my planned Rosh Hashanah visit.
Azizi made a few calls to contacts in the community to get my request rolling, about a month before the holiday. With about a week left until departure, I received a sought-after update: the family of Haim Mamo would be happy to host me. Only there was a caveat: the arrangements had required the intermediary efforts of another local resident, Aharon Mazuz (a distant relative of former Israeli Attorney General and Djerba native, Menachem Mazuz).
I therefore was expected to bring gifts for both the Mamo and Mazuz families, preferably coveted wines and fruits from the Land of Israel.
THE 20-MINUTE taxi ride from the airport to the Jewish neighborhood, along one of Djerba’s main east-west highways, was an educational introduction into Tunisian society. The flat and semi-arid topography recalled Israel’s coastal plain or parts of Southern California. In the distance, Mediterranean palm and fig trees sprouted intermittently among vast agricultural fields.
Stone houses dotted the road, many of them painted blue and white, in a style that evoked the Greek Isles. Interrupting these residences were hardware stores, minimarts, and cafés, where I noticed numerous young men idly passing the time as they drank coffee and watched sports broadcasts on TV.
This trend was an unsettling reminder of the country’s economic difficulties nearly eight years after the Arab Spring revolution that deposed the authoritarian government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
I disembarked at a Tunisia Post Office at the entrance to Hara Kebira, where concrete barriers block the road, preventing any potential vehicular attack. A policeman stood on guard, part of the round-the-clock protection that the government deploys at all entrances to the community. After walking about 100 meters along the access road I reached the main street of the neighborhood, and the Jewish character became evident.
Young boys in kippot, some of them also wearing exposed tzitzit, and girls in modest dress wandered about, while the occasional car or moped passed through (the latter type of vehicle being a popular low-cost option for the mostly poor population on the island).
Several kosher eateries with signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and French advertised Tunisian sandwiches (fricasse) and deep-fried pastries with egg and potato (brik); to the chagrin of my rising appetite, however, they all seemed to be closed this morning.
Rivka Mamo, the family matriarch, greeted me at the door of their residence on Rue de l’Abricot (Apricot Street). I was immediately overcome by the pungent aromas permeating from the kitchen. Numerous holiday stews and soups were cooking, laced with aromatic spices and herbs. Taking a break from chopping up local pomegranates for the evening’s Rosh Hashanah Seder, 22-year old daughter Navit, whom I had spoken to on the phone, introduced herself.
“You want coffee?” Rivka wasted no time in asking. It was a question that she and other members of the family would repeat many more times throughout my three-day stay, highlighting their strong commitment to welcoming guests. Along with a cup of thick, Turkish-style coffee, Rivka brought out a honey-drenched semolina cake, a dessert that the community only serves for the sweet new year. Soon, the elderly father Haim appeared, momentarily joined by 24-year-old son Micha’el, who had just returned home from a business trip in Portugal. Realizing that my Levantine Arabic dialect was quite different than their Tunisian vernacular, we settled on Hebrew as the medium of communication for the next few days. Similarly, I would mostly stick to speaking Hebrew with the broader community, as all members possessed command of the language in some form or another.
With a few hours to spare before the holiday began, my hosts encouraged me to sightsee. On my way out, I managed to find one kosher sandwich shop that did open for a narrow window of time. The owner assembled for me a sandwich of green olives, boiled potatoes, sardines, fries, and a spicy chili paste (harissa). I chatted up several young yeshiva students who sat next to me at the counter, curious as to what a solo American-Israeli traveler was doing in their neck of the woods.
Most of the afternoon was spent at the sprawling Guellela Museum on the island’s south side, which displays Djerban culture through ethnographic exhibits. The spacious gallery features several exhibits on Jewish religious practice and customs, presenting Jews as an integral part of Djerba’s ethno-cultural mosaic. Jewish musicians and artists are celebrated as proud emissaries of Djerban society. The museum conveys an overlying message that is promoted by the government and many of the Muslims I would encounter during my week and a half trip: the Jews among us are part of the Tunisian nation, only differentiated by their religion.
Afterwards, I tried entering the mythical El Ghriba Synagogue, located in the Hara S’ghira neighborhood in the center of the island. Members of Tunisia’s security forces patrolling the site, which is protected by blast proof walls (built following a deadly al-Qaeda truck-ramming terrorist attack), told me to come back after the end of the holiday, as the facility was closed to tourists on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Instead I would get the opportunity to enter the sacred space a bit earlier, as a prayer-goer on the second day of the Jewish New Year. With a dedicated group of Hara Kebira residents, we set out at sunrise, walking six kilometers to the synagogue in stifling heat, half of our route on pavement and half through farmlands. The prayer-goers accompanying me traverse this route every Shabbat and holiday, ensuring that the ten-man prayer quorum is met for the benefit of several Jewish families who remain in what was once a thriving Jewish community in Hara S’ghira I RETURNED to Hara Kebira about an hour before sunset, the blue sky turning pink and the stifling air becoming somewhat more bearable. Many residents were already heading to afternoon Minha prayers, dressed in their finest clothes to greet the new year.
Such began an intimate 48 hours of experiencing Rosh Hashana with this most fascinating segment of the Jewish people. Residents were more than happy to answer my many questions about community life and history, including their thoughts on the situation since the ousting of President Ben Ali.
At its peak in the late 1940s, Djerba had about 5,000 Jews, part of a Tunisian Jewish population that was estimated at 105,000 and spread through dozens of cities and towns across the country. More broadly, Djerba constituted part of the nearly one million Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who lived in Arab lands, stretching from Morocco to Iraq. Now the community is estimated to number 1,100, containing nearly 75 percent of the country’s 1,500 or so Jews, the remainder of whom mostly live in and around the capital Tunis. Unlike the Francophone Tunis community, Djerba’s Jews speak a local Judeo-Arabic dialect as their mother tongue, which is written in Hebrew characters.
The 1,100 figure represents a modest rebound from a nadir of 700 or so in the mid- 1990s. Unlike the few remaining Jewish communities in the Arab world, Djerba’s Jewish population is growing and young.
Indeed, I noticed the disproportionately large presence of youth at synagogues and groups of children that would congregate in the streets before the holiday meals began.
The community celebrates tens of births and marriages each year, emigration is nil, and intermarriage all but doesn’t exist.
Djerba’s Jews maintain a relative insular life, respectfully engaging with the island’s 175,000 Muslims as needed, but trying to confine their day-to-day existence to within the Jewish enclave as much as possible.
The men are mostly employed in trading and crafts industry, especially jewelry, and many of them work in Houmt Souk’s marketplace; women are homemakers and caregivers.
Hara Kebira has 12 synagogues in operation, but for Rosh Hashanah only opens four, at all of which I would pray during the holiday. The customs and traditions of the community were readily observable, some mirroring those of other Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewish communities, others quite unique.
Most strikingly, Djerban Jews meticulously retain the Semitic pronunciation of the Hebrew letters: the letter vav is rendered as a ‘w’ sound, and ayin, chet, and kuf are all pronounced from the throat (differentiating them respectively from alef, khaf, and kaf).
Many men wore gallabiyahs, traditional full-length robes also worn by Muslims, in respect of the synagogue’s sanctity. For the Priestly Blessing, the most senior cohen would lead his compatriots in an elegant chanting of each word, following it up with a non-toned utterance to ensure that the congregation hears it correctly. The Torah scrolls were cast in traditional Sephardi- Mizrahi cylindrical cases, but were considerably heavier and wider than any I had seen before. The women uttered ululations as the Torah scrolls circled around the synagogue, recalling a bar mitzvah. Perhaps most striking was the complete lack of Ashkenazi influence: not a single man wore a black hat or associated Eastern European dress.
The community is uniformly religious, all members adhering to a life centered around the Torah. The children learn mostly Judaic studies, Hebrew, and Arabic at religious day schools and yeshivas. Men keep their heads covered (when leaving the neighborhood, they usually prefer to cover their heads with a hat rather than a kippa), while women dress modestly and avoid wearing pants. In the streets, groups of teenage boys and girls congregated separately, ignoring the other group’s presence even when standing mere meters apart.
All homes I entered featured bookshelves of mostly religious Jewish texts and commentaries; secular books were few and far between. Just as often, homes displayed pictures of revered sages, the most popular being the late Sephardi spiritual and political leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Tunisian Chief Rabbi Matzliah Mazuz, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The community rigorously adheres to the rulings of the current, longtime Chief Rabbi Haim Bitan. I was told that the rabbi had recently permitted a group of young men to go on a special Birthright trip to Israel, but prohibited one for girls, concerned over the potential immodesty and secular influences on them in the Holy Land.
On Israel, community members went out of their way to emphasize that they are proudly Zionist and cherish the Jewish state.
Though aliyah is low, the few Djerbans that do move to Israel every year are celebrated by the community. Many locals have family there (predominantly in the Ashkelon area) and visit them from time to time; Rivka herself had just returned from spending a month there. Some of the youth confided in me their dream to enlist in the Israeli army. Many were familiar with Israeli politics, overwhelmingly espousing right-wing views in support of the Likud party and Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “a strong leader who understands the region.” Others even echoed the rhetoric of hardline Israeli nationalists, bemoaning that “the Leftists” (has’molanim) in Israel were harming the country.
When not praying or sleeping, Rosh Hashanah is a time for lavish and ceremonial feasts, with a heavy emphasis on meat dishes.
On both nights, I went with the Mamo family to their relatives for a Rosh Hashanaha Seder. Under the stars in the family’s garden courtyard, we recited New Year’s blessings on lamb’s tongue, heart, intestines, and other body parts, along with leeks and white beans. At most holiday meals, the main course consisted of a beef and potato stew spiced with cumin (p’kaila), accompanied by a large communal plate of couscous.
“Lighter” meals were chicken-based, usually roasted and served with orzo or pasta. Desserts always included various sweet pastries and cakes, complemented by prodigious amounts of local produce, the most common of which were watermelons, melons, grapes, dates, and pears. The meals were washed down with a mildly bitter peppermint tea, and occasionally the national fig-based spirit boukha.
Local Jews were eager to discuss their thoughts on their community’s situation in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution. While there was initial concern of instability that followed the overthrow of Ben Ali and the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in the 2011 interim elections, their worst fears of a Muslim Brotherhood-style theocracy did not materialize. The conservative Islamic party displayed an unexpected moderation and reached out to Jews just as the previous Ben Ali regime had done. Many, though, felt a profound sense of relief when the secularist Nidaa Tounes party won the 2014 parliamentary elections, and Ennahda peacefully ceded power. The current secular-dominated coalition government is perceived as being sufficiently protective of the Jewish community and its way of life.
Everyday relations with Muslim neighbors have remained cordial and civil, including with the Muslim families who live inside Hara Kebira. On the six-kilometer walk to El Ghriba, a rabbi in our group amicably chatted with Muslim farmers who we came across as we walked through olive groves and agricultural plots. These locals evidently are familiar and friendly with the same Jewish entourage that walks along this route once a week.
Still, many in the Jewish community remain anxious over Tunisia’s future course.
There was a seemingly unanimous opinion that despite his authoritarian rule, Ben Ali was better for Jews than the rulers of the new era. The former Tunisian strongman was recalled as a defender of the country’s secularist character, who kept political Islam at bay, and ruthlessly suppressed advocates of violence and terrorism. Many also recalled that he was more conciliatory towards Israel, including permitting Israelis to visit at any time of year. There was concern that Tunisia’s well-intentioned democracy experiment has legitimized antisemitic views in the public space as just another “competing voice.” Though a marginal attitude now, many feared that antisemitism could proliferate unchecked as an accompaniment to a future wave of socioeconomic backlash.
AS DARKNESS descended to conclude Rosh Hashanah, I was eager to take pictures of the Great Synagogue of Hara Kebira’s blue and white arches. The evening Ma’ariv prayer concluded, most congregants dispersing to perform the Havdalah ceremony at home with their families.
Several though stayed put, offering personal supplications for a blessed and healthy New Year, for themselves and their loved ones. Finally they too departed and I stood alone with the majestic blue and white arches lining the synagogue’s interior.
A calm tranquility prevailed. A few announcements in Judeo-Arabic conveyed halakhic rulings and upcoming plans for next year’s Lag Ba’Omer pilgrimage.
The post-holiday silence quickly gave way to jubilant joy. Within 90 minutes, the neighborhood’s main street was bustling as storeowners rolled out portable grills in front of their eateries and began preparing copious amounts lamb and chicken skewers.
The ovens inside the stores were also firing up, baking cheese-less pizzas and fresh bread to be used for tuna-filled Tunisian sandwiches. When I arrived in the community, I had thought that there were three kosher food stalls; tonight, I would discover that there are six – at least.
The Jewish community seemed to be mobilized en masse on the thoroughfare, in what amounted to a festive block party.
The music of legendary Arab singers such as Umm Kulthum and Fairuz blared out of radios set up alongside the grills, the chefs frantically working to keep pace with demand. Jewish teenagers and Muslim adults shared lines as they waited to order the meat and pareve selections, laughing and exchanging stories. I myself couldn’t resist the temptation and ordered a lamb kebab in flatbread, topped with harissa and chopped salad. The outdoor street gathering would proceed well beyond midnight.
The eateries often opened after Shabbat or Jewish holidays, but tonight was especially significant. In a few hours, with the rising of the sun, the Fast of Gedaliah would begin. Until sunset, all members of the community would refrain from eating and drinking, save for a few exceptional cases. Best to have a hearty meal ahead of time among dear family and friends.
A seemingly minor fast was just as commemorated and important as the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.
A revolution, economic frustration, political upheaval, occasional antisemitic acts – none of them had interrupted the daily motions of Judaism for this devout community. Following the ways of their ancestors, the Jews of Djerba continue to maintain the traditions – traditions which have sustained and nurtured 2,500 uninterrupted years of Jewish life on the island, through the worst and best of times.
Tunisia’s new tourism minister is Jewish
Jewish businessman Rene Trabelsi was appointed as Tunisia’s tourism minister in early November, as part of a government cabinet reshuffle amid a lagging economic crisis. Trabelsi, 56, is the founder and CEO of the Paris-based Royal First Travel tourism company, which specializes in Francophone tourism to Tunisia, including Jewish pilgrimages to the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba. He was raised in Djerba’s ancient Jewish community, where his father Perez has served as a community leader for more than three decades. Trabelsi will be tasked with helping to revive the tourism industry, which has struggled following the removal of the authoritarian leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and a wave of terrorist attacks targeting foreigners in 2015.
He is the third Jewish minister to serve in Tunisia since it achieved independence from France in 1956.