"The Last Arab Jews"
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I have a small fascination for isolated Jewish communities. The one I’ve stumbled across recently isn’t isolated in the same sense that the others have been. It’s well enough connected that it’s the site of a major Sephardic pilgrimage on Lag B’Omer, and it’s been home to some major yeshivot, not to mention many synagogues.: it’s the Jewish communities on Djerba, an island of Tunisia.
Djerba’s been a home to Jews for a very long time. Various traditions put the commmunity’s origins at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple about 2500 years ago, or at the time of the destruction of the second Temple, more than 2000 years ago. That same tradition tells of the high priest Zadok, a direct descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother) fleeing the prospect of Babylonian slavery, and arriving on Djerba with other priests of the Temple.
Wherever the truth lies, what is known is that about 80% of the Jewish community is a Cohen (priestly tribe member) genetically, and that the Jewish community has some traditions that are unique in the Jewish world – among them, wearing a black band on their legs in memory of the destruction of the Temple, and adding some different readings to Pesach and special Shabbat ceremonies. There are records of a Jewish community at Djerba dating back to the 11th Century.
At one point, Djerba was home to 11 synagogues. There is now one main one, which is the only one to house a Torah, and that’s the El Ghriba, which means “strange” or “amazing”. There were numerous yeshivot as well, with some still remaining. Some maintain that it also houses the oldest hand-written Torah, although I couldn’t verify this with a quick Internet search.
The annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage is probably the community’s greatest claim to fame right now. A large Menorah, veiled like a bride, is wheeled through the streets to the synagogue. It’s meant to symbolize the marriage between God and the people of Israel, and is held to honour and remember two great Rabbis, who died around Lag B’Omer.
This blog doesn’t do justice to the fascinating story and history of the Jews of Djerba. In fact, this was a tough blog to write, because there is so much to learn and so much myth and tradition to try to untangle from fact. I urge you to poke around some of the resources I’m posting here; I’m sure you’ll be as enchanted as I am.
Take a virtual tour of the synagogue and the Jewish neighbourhood:
The Museum of the Jewish People has some interesting history and older pictures.
While you’re there, look at Synagogue 360, a treasure trove of beautiful and history synagogues.https://synagogues-360.anumuseum.org.il/
Wikipedia, of course, has good articles about the community and the synagogue https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Djerba#Religious_Demographics
YouTube has more than a few films about the festival and the synagogue; simply search for "Djerba" or "Ghriba. Here's one which focuses on people in the synagogue and on the pilgrimage, to get you started.