Koret exhibit features Tunisian Jews

Many excited men bid for the chance to jump astride large candelabra draped with colorful scarves and held aloft as it's paraded through the narrow streets. Ululating women rush up, their trilling cries adding to the chaotic atmosphere that hearkens back to biblical times.

It is, however, the 21st century, and the 7,000 pilgrims, mostly from France and Israel, crowd the streets of Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia, to celebrate a holiday, along with the 1,000 Jews still living there.

"The Djerban Jewish community is said to be the oldest extant Jewish community in the world, dating back to the destruction of the First Temple," travel writer Judith Fein told an audience of about 60 gathered at a Tunisian festival held recently at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center's Koret Gallery .

The festival at the Palo Alto gallery helped launch "Djerba: The Jerusalem of Africa," an exhibition on the Jews of Tunisia, which runs through June 29 and then moves to the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael for the rest of the summer.

"Djerba" portrays the Jewish community that still exists today in Tunisia, featuring photographs by Keren Friedman, paintings by Lidia Shaddow, and jewelry by Katya Miller and Djerban silversmith Bernard Sorer.

In addition to capturing such celebrations as Lag B'Omer, when Jews who have left Tunisia make a pilgrimage to Djerba, the exhibit features favorite symbols of Tunisian Jews, including the hamsa, a hand that often has a Jewish star on its palm, which signifies protection.

In a country so rich in symbols, it is the candelabra, known as the "Big Menara," described by Fein as looking like a "tacky wedding cake," that most moved her.

"I was raised in Queens, N.Y., with patriarchal Judaism," said Fein, who currently lives in Santa Fe, N.M. "This was my first live encounter with feminism in Judaism."

The Big Menara symbolizes a woman referred to as "La Ghriba," according to Fein. The Tunisians venerate her as a saint. El Ghriba, the synagogue erected in her honor in the town of Hara Seghira may be the oldest continuously used synagogue in the world. Although the building itself is less than a century old, a synagogue has been operating continuously on the site for more than 2,000 years.

"Imagine naming a synagogue after a woman. When I was growing up, temples weren't named Betsy," Fein quipped.

Fein enchanted the crowd with the story of La Ghriba, an exquisitely beautiful woman who was totally alone in the world. When her hut mysteriously caught fire, no one came to help her, and her hut burnt to the ground. The townspeople came the next morning to find La Ghriba lying dead without a blemish.

"Since she's a saint and people come from all over the world toworship her," Fein said, "it's an amazing example of Jewish goddess worship."

In another example of how the Lag B'Omer festival in Djerba celebrates the female spirit, Fein painted a curious picture.

"Women get down on their hands and knees and crawl towards a tunnel in the back of the synagogue, clutching a raw egg with a woman's name on it. They place the egg in the tunnel, which cooks overnight from the intense heat of the many lit candles. They believe that when the named woman eats the egg, she will marry or conceive," said Fein.

After Fein's lecture, her husband and fellow travel writer, Paul Ross, showed his video of the Djerban Lag B'Omer celebration. During the video, amid the cavalcade of joyous chaos in the streets, camels, and stark white houses with turquoise fish and menorot painted on their sides, a woman's enraptured face stood out in a crowd scene.

"That's me!" Gina Waldman shrieked in amazement from the audience. "I was there a year ago."

"The first time I was in Djerba, I was 10 years old," said Waldman. "Then we escaped from Libya in 1967. I went back a year ago, and for me, this place is an oasis of Jewish life in a North African desert."

The festival concluded with music from the group Za'atar, featuring instruments such as a kanun, an 86-string lap harp, played by Daniel Eshoo, and an Arabic lute, played by John Erlich. Amit Bleiweiss played a ney, a Middle Eastern cane flute. According to lead vocalist Ron Elkayam, the name "Za'atar" comes from a Middle Eastern spice.

The music accompanied a buffet of Middle Eastern foods such as couscous with yam, and brik, a stuffed pastry with potatoes and eggs. Many diners dipped their delicacies into harissa, a red, pasty hot sauce.

"People should be up and dancing," said Waldman to Djerban jeweler Bernard Seror, as they stood swaying in the back of the room.

"We're hot-blooded," he agreed. "We have that hot pepper."

The Tunisian exhibit is the final one at the ALSJCC's gallery, which will be converted into space for the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, according to Nancy Gordon, the gallery's director. Plans are under way to find an interim exhibit site that can be used for future exhibits until the JCC finishes building a permanent home. Its current facility is slated to become a middle school for the Palo Alto Unified School District in 2003.

For those who want to experience Lag B'Omer in Djerba next year, a 10-day trip is planned for April 23 to May 3. Information can be obtained by calling either Gordon at (650) 493-0563, ext. 252, or Jerry Garfield at (415) 444-8062.