The scene outside La Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, bedecked with Tunisian flags for the annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage. (Photo/Adam Eilath)
The scene outside La Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, bedecked with Tunisian flags for the annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage. (Photo/Adam Eilath)

Tragedy can’t overshadow the joys of our Tunisian Jewish pilgrimage

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Two weeks ago, I traveled from the Bay Area to Tunisia with my 6-year-old daughter. We were at the historic La Ghriba synagogue in Djerba celebrating Lag B’Omer when a shooter attacked, killing five people.

But this isn’t a story about our fear, how we stayed safe, what we saw, how we felt or how we are doing now. This story is about the seven beautiful days leading up to those harrowing hours.

My mother, the second youngest of nine girls, was born in Tunisia and lived there until she was 9 years old. Of my mom’s eight sisters, only one has been back to Tunisia since 1967.

In 2015, I planned to travel to Djerba for Lag B’Omer and made it to the airport when the Israeli Foreign Ministry released a warning of a potential attack on Jews in Tunisia. I canceled my trip and flew to Macedonia and Greece instead.

Traveling to Tunisia, my ancestral homeland, felt like a child’s dream.

That same year, I joined a WhatsApp group with Jewish men living in Tunisia. Through recordings, they corrected my Torah trope and taught me how my ancestors chanted Torah. I formed relationships with communal leaders and helped fundraise for Kanfei Yonah, the country’s first full-day Jewish school for girls in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The interior of La Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba on May 9, 2023, shortly before a shooter attacked the synagogue, killing five. (Photo/Adam Eilath)
The interior of La Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba on May 9, 2023, shortly before a shooter attacked the synagogue, killing five. (Photo/Adam Eilath)

My decision to travel to Tunisia this year was based on diligent research. I knew the Jewish community, and I had taken precautions to ensure our safety. I did everything “right.”

Our first two days in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, were like visiting a museum of Judaism, akin to touring the destroyed communities of Eastern Europe. At the Great Synagogue, a magnificent art deco building that can barely form a minyan today, we encountered discerning security guards who asked dozens of questions before bringing us over to a butcher to verify that we were Jewish.

It turned out that I have been texting with the butcher’s brother in Israel on WhatsApp for six years. An older couple met us at the synagogue to deliver a homemade kosher meal to bring back to our hotel. Every security guard pinched my daughter’s cheeks, and we were repeatedly reminded that we were welcome in Tunis.

During those first two days, we took a day trip to Nabeul, my mother’s hometown. Prior to 1948, Nabeul was home to roughly 4,000 people, more than half of whom were Jews. In those days, Nabeul had seven synagogues and one yeshiva.

There are no Jews left there today.

Most synagogues and the yeshiva have been converted into other buildings. Horses and wild dogs ran rampant through the Jewish cemetery where graves were cracked open, damaged from rain and looting. I searched for my great-grandparents’ graves to no avail. Only a small room that preserves the tomb of a 17th-century Kabbalist was in good shape. There was a small sanctuary beside his tomb, an empty Torah ark and a prayer room under restoration by former community members who now live in France. Still, Nabeul was quaint, clean and peaceful.

The beach in Nabeul, Tunisia, where the author's grandmother used to swim. (Photo/Adam Eilath)
A beach in Nabeul, Tunisia, once frequented by the town’s now depleted Jewish community. (Photo/Adam Eilath)

Most tourists don’t visit Nabeul at all, let alone for Jewish sightseeing. We visited the section of the beach where Jews used to swim and where there had been a kosher restaurant. We spoke with an ice-pop vendor who shared stories of the Jews who used to live in the town. During the visit, I found the home where my mother was born in the heart of Souk El Basra, the Shoe Market. My grandfather, Saba Nissim, had been a cobbler.

On Friday morning, we took an early flight to the island of Djerba, home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Djerba was settled by Kohanim who sailed from Israel during the First Temple period. Community lore is that they brought a door from the Temple with them and placed it under La Ghriba Synagogue, the main pilgrimage site on the island. When the Second Temple was constructed, so the story goes, the community refused to return, and its people were cursed by Ezra the Scribe.

Today, Djerba is a European vacation destination. On Lag B’Omer, thousands of Jewish tourists visit from France and Israel. It is the only time of the year when Israelis are allowed to enter the country.

The vast majority of visitors stay in hotels in a tourist area of the island, far from where Tunisia’s tiny Jewish community lives today. However, we stayed in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood Hara Kebira (“Big Neighborhood”) with Alite and Goel Sabban and their nine children. Alite is the head of school at Kanfei Yonah. Goel is a goldsmith by trade, but he is now an elected leader of the community. Many families in Hara Kebira have eight or more children. It’s no surprise that the population has nearly doubled since its low of 800 after the 2009 Tunisian revolution that ousted the president and inspired similar protests across the Arab world.

Many Jews in Djerba take their challah to be cooked in a communal oven each Friday — and every family braids their loaf in a distinctive way to keep track of which loaf belongs to which family. (Photo/Adam Eilath)
Many Jews in Djerba take their challah to be cooked in a communal oven each Friday — and every family braids their loaf in a distinctive way to keep track of which loaf belongs to which family. (Photo/Adam Eilath)

Entering Hara Kebira felt like walking into a version of Judaism described in the Talmud. The community has strict rules and practices around weddings, including a two-year engagement period where the man and woman are forbidden from seeing one another or talking. They have a specific style of reading Torah and additional tropes for students to use in school at different ages.

Walking around Hara Kebira, you see only Jews. Boys as young as 11 or 12 race through the narrow alleyways on small motorcycles. Girls walk in groups and talk and play in the streets. There are 13 operating synagogues in Hara Kebira. The first we visited was in constant Shacharit mode all morning, with nearly no gap between one minyan and the next. In the courtyard, boys of all ages sat studying Torah.

Shabbat in Hara  Kebira is magical. Most families use the Kusha, a communal oven much like those described in the Talmud, and bake their challah in it because of the “superior taste.” Every family has its own challah design, which is how they know which pan of baked goods to take when the bread is baked. The smells of fish, lamb, garlic and lemons permeate the neighborhood.

Just before Shabbat, Tunisia Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan, a humble and soft-spoken man, emerges on the roof of his house to blow the shofar. He blows it 15 minutes before Shabbat, five minutes before candle lighting and again three minutes before candle lighting. Kids all over Hara Kebira stand outside to listen. Although Rav Haim is the chief rabbi of a community of under 1,600, his work is endless. He owns a small office supply stand in the middle of Hara Kebira where men and women weave in and out of his store, asking questions and looking to him for advice.

In the early 20th century, the then-Chief Rabbi Rav Halfon prohibited the study of any written language other than Hebrew to fight assimilation and modernization. As a result, almost no men speak French, which is one of the official languages of Tunisia. Although Judeo-Arabic is the lingua franca, few men can read or write in Arabic and they write Arabic in Hebrew letters. This makes participating in Tunisian civil life challenging. It’s no wonder almost every Jewish man works in the same profession, which happens to be jeweler.

No shorts allowed, proclaims this sign in one of the synagogues in Hara Kebira. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the main language of Jews in Djerba. (Photo/Adam Eilath)
No shorts allowed, proclaims this sign in one of the synagogues in Hara Kebira. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the main language of Jews in Djerba. (Photo/Adam Eilath)

Kanfei Yonah, the girls school with 170 students, encourages a culture of excellence. The girls learn almost exclusively in Hebrew and complete Israeli high school exams by 12th grade in all subjects, including Tanach, citizenship, history and math. If you asked them to locate Tunisia on a map, I’m not sure they could. But if you asked them to write an essay on Ze’ev Jabotinsky (a 20th-century Zionist activist), they all could do it.

My daughter joined the first grade class for four days. Girls flew from their seats competing to answer questions. My daughter quietly raised her hand. The competition to excel in every subject, from the earliest years, was palpable. However, sisterly love permeated their interactions — talking, hugging and helping one another throughout the day. The school’s leaders, Alite Sabban and Hannah Sabban (who are sisters-in-law), have revolutionized education on the island. In contrast to the yeshiva, where boys study Torah with one teacher all day, girls have a schedule with defined subjects by the hour. The results are obvious.

Although the community is technically ultra-Orthodox, it’s hard to put them in a box. Interactions between boys and girls are forbidden in public spaces. At the same time, there is a progressive attitude in private spaces, especially with regard to technology. We blasted hard-core Arabic rap music as Alite and Goel’s 18 year-old daughter drove six of her siblings, my daughter and me in a five-seat sedan. Kids as young as 14 stay up late drinking beer and eating Brik, the local Jewish fast-food, in the streets. When I asked our host family how they feel about American Jews, including from liberal denominations and backgrounds, they said, “We love them. They are our brothers.”

In Tunisia, I felt rooted, and I imagined returning in future years.

When visiting La Ghriba synagogue, there is a custom of writing the name of a woman in need of fertility support on a hard-boiled egg and placing it in the room with the oldest Torah scrolls. My daughter was excited about this task, and we had lots of names to write. After the tourists leave, the locals from Hara Kebira open up tables, begin barbecuing and sing songs loudly until 3 or 4 a.m.

We spent two days visiting La Ghriba in the evenings. Those nights — and the tragedy that will leave a mark on the Jews of Tunisia and my family — are for another time.

Adam Eilath
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath is head of school at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.