Tunisia's Prime Minister joins guests as Jews celebrate a unique Lag Ba’Omer festival

At Africa's oldest synagogue, 300 Israelis joined French expats and the local community to celebrate the Ghriba


A man in a red chachia, a traditional Tunisian hat, heads up the pathway towards the Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Djerba, urged on by a small crowd and a darbouka drum. What is unusual is that he is walking on all fours.

Most participants in the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba, which takes place over Lag Ba’Omer, do not make such a dramatic entrance.
But some visitors take a vow that “if God helps me, I will crawl to El Ghriba,” explained Rabbi Israel Elia, the minister of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and a native of Djerba himself.

When he was growing up in the small island community off Tunisia’s southern coast, the festival of the Ghriba was mainly a local phenomenon. But this year it was elevated to international significance, highlighting the commitment of Tunisia’s young democracy to interfaith fraternity and demonstrating that the country, hit by terrorist attacks on tourists four years ago, was now a safe place to travel.

The country’s Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who joined ambassadors, foreign journalists and a sizeable corps of mostly expat Tunisian Jews including at least 300 from Israel, hailed Djerba as a “worldwide symbol”. That he had come to a Jewish celebration during the fasting month of Ramadan underlined the attention. The country even issued a special Ghriba postage stamp.

On the eve of Lag Ba’Omer, visitors streamed in and out of the synagogue to light candles or write hopes for a blessing on hard-boiled eggs, placed in a small chamber in the wall. While the current building is less than 200 years old, legend ascribes its origins to priests who fled Jerusalem after the Destruction of the First Temple.

In contrast to the usual separation of the sexes for services, men and women freely mingled as a band pumped out Tunisian folk songs in the adjacent courtyard. “It is just like a wedding, Jewish or Muslim,” said one young Muslim visitor from Tunis. You would only have known that a raven-haired woman swaying to the music in a sleeveless floral dress was Muslim because she had recited her prayers just before.

The festival was about “waving the banner of co-existence,” said Rabbi Elia. “Tunisia leads the way on this. The fact that for thousands of years the Jewish community preserved its heritage is testimony to the history of co-existence.”

But he was cheered not only by Jewish-Muslim interaction: “What we are witnessing is so Sephardi, Jews of all streams under one roof, and that is rare in today’s world.”

When a black-hatted rabbi from Safed appeared, scarved women surrounded him in search of a blessing. Amid the kebab stalls, an expat Tunisian chazan from Paris clutching a becher of boukha — the local fig-based spirit — broke into an impromptu burst of Jerusalem the Golden.

Among the visitors was the doyen of Tunisian Jewish history, Habib Kazdaghli, leading a band of young disciples. One student has designed a blueprint for a Jewish museum for Tunisia, an institution Professor Kazdaghli would dearly like to establish. It would show Tunisians that “their heritage is very diverse,” he said.

Gina Bublil-Waldman, from California, president of the Jewish refugee group Jimena, was returning here for the first time in nearly 60 years. Then she came with her grandmother from nearby Libya, a few years before fleeing for their lives after the Six-Day War.

“Because of my work, I find it incredibly encouraging when we see the doors opened up,” she said. Since she often talked about religious intolerance wearing her Jimena hat, she found it “such a breath of fresh air to see young people coming here.”

It was a “beautiful example of living together and religious relations between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia,” wrote Samir Dridi in La Presse de Tunisie. 

The visitors in their thousands delivered a personal triumph to Rene Trabelsi, the Jewish Tourism Minister appointed by Mr Chahed last year. The son of the Ghriba’s chairman, he hosted an iftar on the night of Lag Ba’Omer where the Prime Minister and local Muslim dignitaries broke their Ramadan fast with Jewish guests.

“Tunisia opens its doors to all its children,” the Tourism Minister told a press conference, “and when you come back, you feel at home.” When he was asked if he would call himself an “Arab Jew,” he replied: “Of course.”

Djerba’s 1,300 Jews, now comprising most of a Tunisian Jewry that once numbered over 100,000, are one of the few Jewish communities to have survived post-war upheaval in the Arab world.

An ancient settlement, which scholars date back at least 1,900 years, still has faith in the future. After the Ghriba party, Rabbi Elia attended inauguration of a new Jewish girl school. He said: “I go home very encouraged and hopeful.”

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