Djerba, Tunisia

A Shabbat in Tunisia

A Shabbat in Djerba, Tunisia today still captures the spirit of Djerba's ancient Jewish settlers. Djerba, a small Tunisian, Mediterranean island, has been a Shabbat oasis since the first Jews arrived here 2600 years ago during the Babylonian Exile. Some say that the high priests (Cohanim) of the Second Temple in Jerusalem fled to Djerba when the holy city was destroyed in 70 C.E. One of Djerba's synagogues, called La Ghriba, was reputedly built upon a foundation laid around a door the Cohanim salvaged from the Temple. Legend has it the world's oldest Torah is hidden deep within La Ghriba's shadowy recesses. No one disputes the fact that La Ghriba stands on a site that has housed Jewish worship continuously for almost 2000 years.

More than 500 years ago, Spanish Jews pursued by the Inquisition joined the earlier refugees. Though persecution has flourished closer to Djerba's shores since 1948, with the Arab world's reaction to the State of Israel's creation, Shabbat remains a cherished time on Djerba, reminiscent of the island's heritage as a place where Jews found peace.

Dolly Haddad starts busily preparing to greet the Sabbath early Friday morning, seldom setting foot outside the kitchen. Her brief departures are only to summon one of her daughters to run to the store to pick up an ingredient. Young Helena Haddad always has Friday off from school because it is the Muslim day of rest. At her mother's call, Helena rushes out the door to maneuver the winding, sandy alleyways of Hara Kebira ("the large ghetto") to the small Arab grocery store. Once, the village of Hara Kebira was exclusively populated by Jews. Even today, 700 Jews live here - a majority of the inhabitants. The Arab shopkeeper sells Helena sugar and kosher hummus, and she hurries home to her mother. 

Helena's father and older brother, Danny and Alex Haddad, spend Friday at their jewelry store in Houmt Souk, Djerba's main town, one kilometer from Hara Kebira. Just before sunset, the men wrap up the week's business and walk home. They arrive just in time to splash their faces with water drawn from the family's courtyard well, before crossing the street to begin evening services at the most convenient of Djerba's fourteen synagogues.

After services, the Haddads walk home to spend the evening with family visiting from France and Israel, washing down Dolly Haddad's spicy lamb, fish, eggplant, pepper and couscous creations with sweet Djerban wine. After munching piles of tiny black sunflower seeds for dessert, the family joins in traditional Arabic and Hebrew songs until they are too tired to keep their eyes open.


After growing up in the traditional Djerban Jewish town of Hara Kebira, many Djerban’s leave their families to travel or study abroad, often in France or Israel. Many Djerban families expect their children to study abroad and they do want to increase opportunity for them by allowing them to do so. However, Djerbans realize that fewer and fewer of their native sons and daughters return after their studies to settle on the remote island.

After growing up in the traditional Djerban Jewish town of Hara Kebira, many Djerban’s leave their families to travel or study abroad, often in France or Israel. Many Djerban families expect their children to study abroad and they do want to increase opportunity for them by allowing them to do so. However, Djerbans realize that fewer and fewer of their native sons and daughters return after their studies to settle on the remote island.

Noted ud player Yaacov B’chiri is the elder cantor of the Djerban Jewish community. B’chiri performs both Jewish and Arabic music, often blending Arab melodies into Jewish songs like the Hatikvah or singing Hebrew words to traditional Arabic music. Most Djerban Jews are trilingual, speaking fluent Arabic, French and Hebrew, so B’chiri can always find an audience for his multilingual music.

Noted ud player Yaacov B’chiri is the elder cantor of the Djerban Jewish community. B’chiri performs both Jewish and Arabic music, often blending Arab melodies into Jewish songs like the Hatikvah or singing Hebrew words to traditional Arabic music. Most Djerban Jews are trilingual, speaking fluent Arabic, French and Hebrew, so B’chiri can always find an audience for his multilingual music.

The many archways and ornate tiles adorning Djerba, Tunisia's fourteen synagogues evoke the flamboyant style of Muslim mosques more than they resemble traditional Jewish temples.

The many archways and ornate tiles adorning Djerba, Tunisia's fourteen synagogues evoke the flamboyant style of Muslim mosques more than they resemble traditional Jewish temples.

Djerba Jews pray on a sultry Friday afternoon in one of Hara Kebira's fourteen active synagogues.  Hara Kebira was once among several Jewish villages on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia, where the Jewish community first settled 2600 years ago during the Babylonian Exile. Today, Hara Kebira is not only the last predominantly Jewish village on the island -- it is the last one in North Africa. The village's existence recalls a former age, as does its lifestyle. While these men in traditional Djerba dress spend their hours in prayer and study, their wives are at home, preparing for Shabbat.

Djerba Jews pray on a sultry Friday afternoon in one of Hara Kebira's fourteen active synagogues. 

Hara Kebira was once among several Jewish villages on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia, where the Jewish community first settled 2600 years ago during the Babylonian Exile. Today, Hara Kebira is not only the last predominantly Jewish village on the island -- it is the last one in North Africa. The village's existence recalls a former age, as does its lifestyle. While these men in traditional Djerba dress spend their hours in prayer and study, their wives are at home, preparing for Shabbat.

On Friday afternoon, the old men in one of Hara Kebira's many synagogues nod off in the stifling heat, waking periodically to chant or argue Talmud. Suddenly, a Djerba boy showing tsit-tsit (fringes of an undershirt prayer shawl) runs into the doorway, looking for his friend. "Mikhael!" he yells into the sanctuary. The learned scholars do not even seem to notice. While waiting for friend Mikhael to retrieve the soccer ball, the boy observes with curiosity a foreigner behind him in the street. Pointing to his head, the boy addresses the man inquisitively, "Kipah?" stating the Hebrew word for yarmulke or skullcap. Growing up on an island, in the last Jewish village in North Africa, and spending his youth in cheder (Hebrew school), the boy is confused. He seems to wonder, "This man does not look like an Arab, yet he wears no kipah like the Jewish men. Should I invite him to play or not?"

On Friday afternoon, the old men in one of Hara Kebira's many synagogues nod off in the stifling heat, waking periodically to chant or argue Talmud. Suddenly, a Djerba boy showing tsit-tsit (fringes of an undershirt prayer shawl) runs into the doorway, looking for his friend. "Mikhael!" he yells into the sanctuary. The learned scholars do not even seem to notice. While waiting for friend Mikhael to retrieve the soccer ball, the boy observes with curiosity a foreigner behind him in the street. Pointing to his head, the boy addresses the man inquisitively, "Kipah?" stating the Hebrew word for yarmulke or skullcap. Growing up on an island, in the last Jewish village in North Africa, and spending his youth in cheder (Hebrew school), the boy is confused. He seems to wonder, "This man does not look like an Arab, yet he wears no kipah like the Jewish men. Should I invite him to play or not?"