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Tunisian Festival Casts Spotlight on One of North Africa's Last Jewish Communities

  • Lisa Bryant

Thylda Lellouche cradles a handful of eggs: One is for a granddaughter facing an operation; two others are for peace and tourism to return to Tunisia, which was battered by three terrorist attacks last year.

Each purpose is carefully written on the eggs' shell.

"Peace on earth," she says with a smile, to anyone willing to listen. "I wish everyone peace on earth."

The eggs are handed to a middle-aged man. Bad knees make it impossible for Lellouche to put them in a special grotto at the Ghriba synagogue, in hopes that her wishes come true.

Thylda Lellouche holds a photo of her Tunisian grandfather and uncle while visiting the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Thylda Lellouche holds a photo of her Tunisian grandfather and uncle while visiting the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Around her, Jews from Tunisia and Europe chat on long, wooden benches. A group of men gather to chant. Others sell jewelry and food in the courtyard of Africa's oldest synagogue, located in Tunisia's southeastern island of Djerba.

The two-day pilgrimage here to mark the Jewish festival of Lag Ba'Omer casts a spotlight on one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities. While others are dwindling and dying, Djerba's 1,000 or so Jews are passing old traditions to a new generation.

"Before they were leaving, but over the past five or six years they're staying here," said Ghriba synagogue President Perez Trabelsi. "They have work. Things are good here. They don't have problems."

‘Emotional’ return

To be sure, Tunisia's Jewish population has shrunk to a small fraction of its pre-independence size of about 100,000. There are less than 2,000 today, with most living in Djerba. Many — like Lellouche, who lives in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles — have long since immigrated to Israel and France.

Carlos Basteiro Bertoli talks with a fellow Jewish pilgrim at at the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Carlos Basteiro Bertoli talks with a fellow Jewish pilgrim at at the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)

"It's really emotional coming back here, to also see Muslims that we grew up with," she said. "They were our neighbors, our family."

Like Lellouche, many in the diaspora return to visit family and childhood homes. Some invest in businesses and property, keeping centuries-old ties to the island alive.

Future generations

Indeed, the neighborhood of Hara Kbira, a few kilometers from Ghriba synagogue, is testament that Jews here won't be dying out anytime soon.

A small preschool — one of four local Jewish schools — is packed with children learning the Hebrew alphabet. Sunlight spills into the courtyard, which is painted with cheerful flowers and butterflies.

A few blocks away, 18-year-old Anael Haddad teaches math to seven-year-old girls before pausing to share insights with visitors on a community some might find stifling. Many boys attend yeshiva and join the family jewelry business. Women marry by 18 or 20 years of age.

Teacher Anael Haddad dreams of becoming a lawyer, but says that's impossible for a Jewish woman like herself in Djerba, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Teacher Anael Haddad dreams of becoming a lawyer, but says that's impossible for a Jewish woman like herself in Djerba, Tunisia. (L. Bryant/VOA)

"There are girls who become lawyers and architects, get doctoral degrees, but here we can't," Haddad said. "Life is very easy and clear, but we're blocked."

Life here is also peaceful, Jews say, despite militant Islam that has taken root in Tunisia. Here, Jews and Arabs live harmoniously.

"We each have our own religion, habits and traditions. But everything is fine," said Muslim postal worker Mourad Mhenni, who lives in Hara Kbira.

At Ghriba synagogue, young teenage boys and girls are kept in separate groups. Women stroll past pushing baby carriages.

But the atmosphere was boisterous and the crowd eclectic.

Carlos Basteiro Bertoli was among the Europeans joining the festivities, along with a smattering of local Muslims.

"We are losing our old traditions and Tunisia is a reference for us," said Basteiro Bertoli, who comes from Barcelona. "They keep their traditions very strong."

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