Muslims restore Jew-less Tunisian synagogues

Tunisia has been cashing in on its Jewish heritage by restoring the country’s synagogues. But while the tourists are coming, Jewish life has dwindled to next to nothing outside Djerba. Larry Luxner of JTA News reports:

“The government clearly wants to encourage Jewish tourism from Europe, Israel and the United States. But Tunisians say it’s not just about bringing in dollars and euros.

“Tunisia’s president “wants people to come back and visit the places where they were born and raised,” said Monique Hayoun, a software engineer living in Paris who left her hometown of Nabeul in 1976 and occasionally returns to Tunisia to visit family and friends.

“The Israelis are nostalgic. For a long time, they wanted to come back here, but in the ’60s and ’70s it wasn’t so easy,” Hayoun told JTA. “Under President Ben-Ali, there’s much more openness.”

“Nabeul is a five-minute drive from the popular Mediterranean resort of Hammamet. In 1956, on the eve of Tunisia’s independence, nearly 1,200 Jews — a quarter of Nabeul’s population — lived in the town. Up to 400 people would crowd into its Great Synagogue for Yom Kippur services, while six smaller shuls served the rest of the community.

But by 1976, Nabeul’s Jewish population had dwindled to 115. Only four Jewish families are left now, and the Great Synagogue is of interest mainly to tourists, according to Hebrew-speaking tour guide Ben Mansour Seyfeddine.

“I feel very close to the Jews,” Seyfeddine, 38, said as he showed a group of Israelis around the empty synagogue.

“Seyfeddine explained that in Nabeul there was never a specific Jewish neighborhood, and Muslim and Jewish families often lived together — sometimes even in the same house.

“That wasn’t the case in Le Kef, where Jews were clustered in a district adjacent to the synagogue, which is located only a few steps away from a Byzantine basilica that later became the town’s grand mosque.

“In the early 1930s, as many as 900 Jews lived in the town, according to Mohamed Tlili, the former director of the Historical Society of Le Kef. But after 1967, most Tunisian Jews immigrated to Israel, and by the early 1980s barely a handful remained in Le Kef.

“We had a moral obligation to do something,” said Tlili, the man responsible for restoring Le Kef’s synagogue. “Everybody wanted to help, but they didn’t know what to do. It was like chaos. There was nobody praying in there. It was dirty and in ruins.”

“In the end, the office of the president stepped in, providing 50,000 Tunisian dinars — about $40,000 — for the three-month restoration project supervised by Tlili and his staff.

“Located in the heart of Le Kef’s kasbah — a neighborhood of whitewashed houses and turquoise-blue windows and doors — the synagogue is a tidy little building open seven days a week, year round. Inside, the walls are decorated with 139 plaques honoring the memory of long-departed families with names like Sabbah, Levy and Sassoon.

“Among the more unusual features is its 600-year-old Torah scrolls written on sheepskin. A wooden circumcision chair is displayed prominently at the entrance, and black-and-white photos show the 1994 restoration at various stages.

“The president of the synagogue wanted to take the scrolls to Tunis or Djerba, but the local authorities said no, so they kept the scrolls in the local museum for 10 years until the synagogue was restored,” Tlili said. “Our president himself took care of the financing. He insisted it be done because it was a part of our heritage.”

“Tlili, 58, who owns a library and internet cafe in town, said he remembers his father, a devout Muslim, trusting only the rabbi of Le Kef to slaughter his lamb to ensure no kashrut laws would be broken. He added that it was traditional for the Jews and Muslims of Le Kef to share a festive meal after Sukkot.

“On the island of Djerba, home to two-thirds of Tunisia’s 1,500 Jews, signs of Jewish life are hard to miss — especially in Hara Sghira, a small village that is home to the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in North Africa.

“In 1985, a security guard at the synagogue opened fire on congregants, killing three. In 2002, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near the synagogue that killed 21 people, most of them German tourists.

“These days, 15 little boys learn the Hebrew alphabet at nearby Yeshivat Or Torah under the direction of a 23-year-old teacher named Yusef. Not far away, at Gan Bet Rachel, some 90 children spend every morning except Shabbat learning numbers, letters and the names of animals.”

“We don’t feel any different than anyone else,” said kindergarten teacher Shoshana, who has family in Jerusalem. “My father stayed here, but everyone else left. The Jews who remain here are happy.”

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Picture: The Ghriba synagogue, Djerba, 1995. Micha Bar-Am

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