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.