09 May 2007

Tunisia: Djerba pilgrimage

Legend has it that the sailors of the tribe of Zevulun in Solomon's fleet sailed to Djerba thousands of years ago. When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, say other stories, some priests managed to save a door and took it away to safety. They discovered a Zevulunite colony in the southern part of Djerba called Hara Kabira; the newcomers founded the Hara Zerira settlement, built a beautiful synagogue and hid in it the Temple door.

The synagogue, called Al-Jeriba or Al-Ghriba, once had 60 ancient Torah scrolls.

The Djerba community worked in wool, fine metal, vineyards, precious stones and coral.

Genealogically speaking, there are interesting naming patterns. Male twins were always named Peretz and Zorach, female twins named Rebecca and Sarah, while twins of different sexes were called Isaac and Rebecca.

JTA had an interesting story on the Djerba pilgrimage.

Only about 2,000 of Tunisia's 10.8 million people are Jewish - half live in Djerba. Each year, they and many Tunisian Jews and their descendants who now live in other countries gather for the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

According to the article, "a huge candelabrum called the Grande Menara is paraded down the street as women reach out to touch the multicolored silk scarves adorning it," and the right to ride next to it is auctioned off to the highest bidders.

The procession winds through the small village of Hara Sghira, home to oldest North African synagogue, Al-Ghriba, and the article says it recalls the memory of a legendary woman named La Ghriba -- Arabic for "the foreigner" -- who lived centuries ago on the island and hailed as a saint.

There is no direct flight between Israel and Tunisia, so Israelis must fly to a European city to take a flight to Tunis and then drive six hours through the desert. In 2000, some 9,000 pilgrims attended, but in 2002 a fatal terror attack brought the numbers to zero. The number of participants is now growing - 5,000 came - and there is heavy security.

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