Friday March 23, 2018

Torn between Dignity and Despair: The Last Jews of Tunisia

Hundreds of Jews who moved away over the past five decades have taken their relatives' remains with them, leaving only these slabs of Hebrew-inscribed marble behind

Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Djerba, Tunisia, August 22, 2016: Behind the Great Synagogue that anchors this tiny Tunisian Jewish community, cracked tombstones litter the perimeter of the cemetery but it was not vandals who broke them.

Hundreds of Jews who moved away over the past five decades have taken their relatives’ remains with them, leaving only these slabs of Hebrew-inscribed marble behind.

“There are bones that are 80, 90 years old. When you lift them up, they can break,” said Yossif Sabbagh. The 42-year-old local help exhume about a dozen bodies each year for transport to Israel, where the majority of Tunisian-born Jews have moved, and where they want their ancestors to move, too.

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The flight of the dead seems to portend a bleak future for the Jews of Djerba, who trace arrival on this island to more than two millennia ago, after the sacking of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. More Jews arrived after the Spanish Inquisition and from Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.

They were once the traditional, observant branch of a vibrant Jewish community that numbered 100,000 across Tunisia. But the 1,100 Jews in Djerba are nearly all that are left after most others fled persecution between the 1940s and ’60s.

Jewish Money changer in Tunisia. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Jewish Money changer in Tunisia. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Those who remained have been rewarded with new growth thanks in part to an emphasis on large families and patriarchal values. But the community now faces another challenge: Jewish women chafe at their restrictions and men suffer from the battered Tunisian economy. Moving to Israel, whereas Jews they are entitled to automatic citizenship, could resolve both issues but could also bring an end to one of the last Jewish societies in the Arab world.

Point Of Pride

In late May, crowds filled the ornate white-and-blue tiled Ghriba synagogue in Hara Sghira, the smaller of two Jewish enclaves in Djerba, as part of the annual pilgrimage that has long attracted outsiders to the island.

Pilgrims lit candles in the sanctuary and placed eggs covered with handwritten wishes in a cave dug into the synagogue’s floor. Across a cobbled street, revellers sang songs, ate couscous with fish, and drank fig brandy and beer in a sunny courtyard strung with red Tunisian flags.

The event marking the Lag BaOmer feast, which honours the second-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was clearly a point of Tunisian pride.

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The event had been cancelled in 2011 amid the tumult of the Tunisian revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a protector of the country’s Jewish population.

It was restored under the country’s current government, which prizes the community as a symbol of stability. But three major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015, along with an infiltration by the extremist group Islamic State just an hour’s drive south of Djerba, raised security concerns and harmed tourism.

Participants and observers at this year’s event appeared unfazed, however.

On the first day of the pilgrimage, Abdelfattah Mourou, deputy speaker of parliament and vice president of the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, embraced Tunisia’s chief rabbi and Djerba resident, Haim Bittan, outside the Ghriba synagogue.

“Tunisia protects its Jews,” Mourou said. “What leads to radicalism is having only one culture. Having many cultures allows us to accept one another.” (BBG DIRECT)


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Israeli Shepherdess Uses Modern Sheep Breed to Revive Ancient Shofar Sound

Shepherdess Jenna Lewinsky holds a lamb from the Jacob sheep breed, in Ramot Naftali, Israel, Feb. 21, 2018. VOA

The piercing note of a shofar – a ram’s horn used in Jewish religious ceremonies – cuts through the mountain air of the Galilee.

Here in northern Israel, shepherdess Jenna Lewinsky is raising a flock of Jacob Sheep, pictured here, as a religious calling.

With anything up to six horns on each animal, the breed is ideally suited for the manufacture of the horn traditionally blown during the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

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Jacob sheep stand in their barn in Ramot Naftali, Israel, Feb. 21, 2018. VOA

The spotted breed of Jacob Sheep was bred in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and this flock was brought to Israel from Canada by Lewinsky in 2016.

But sheep have been recorded since antiquity across the Middle East, and the modern breed’s name echoes the ancient Biblical story from Genesis in which the patriarch Jacob took “every speckled and spotted sheep” as wages from his father-in-law, Laban.

Turning her flock’s horns into shofars is part of God’s plan, says Lewinsky, who calls herself a “traditional and God-fearing Jew.”

“The Jacob Sheep horns can probably be processed anywhere in the world but what makes the horns special is that we are processing them in Israel, which gives them a holiness,” she said.

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A print of an orthodox Jewish man sounding the Shofar, a ram’s horn, is seen on the shirt of Shofar maker Robert Weinger, in his workshop in Rishon Lezion, Israel, Feb. 27, 2018. VOA

Robert Weinger, a shofar-maker who works with the horns from Lewinsky’s farm, said that a ram’s horn made from the breed can sell for $500 to $20,000 or more, depending on its sound quality, as it produces a wider range of musical notes than other shofars. (VOA)