A few years ago, while I was in Tunisia, I decided to take a side trip to Djerba. I had always wanted to see Al Ghriba Synagogue. And luckily I did.
To think that this ancient and historic place of worship recently had been destroyed by a truck , so some say, which inadvertently traveled down the narrow dirt road and crashed into this awesome building. I recall, that the car in which I travelled, had to be left in a quasi parking lot at least a 5 minute walk to Al Ghriba.
When I arrived at the time, Sbirsa Ben Khammous Boukhriss wasn’t in any mood for an interview. Maybe later, he told me. And who could blame him? The rabbi of Al Ghriba (strange, solitary, wondrous) Synagogue was watching the hordes of tourist tumble out of package tour buses, parade through the historical synagogue on this small island off the southern coast of Tunisia. Maybe a few of the travelers, like myself, were looking for their roots or on a pilgrimage. Others were sightseeing and this happened to be one of the destinations on their itinerary.
I had arrived from Hara Sghira, about 7KM away, still considered the Jewish quarter and remember being surprised that the access to the typical Tunisian whitewashed building renovated in the mid 19th century was just an undistinguished lane-like passage. El Ghriba was considered “a repository of an vanished culture” which based their religious practice on a double system of minhag (custom) and Halaka (law). The actual entrance of this renowned synagogue was opposite a building which had been a former Hebrew school, which then housed a few official offices. Although it was locked to the public, I was given permission before going to the synagogue, to enter the large blue door leading into an empty courtyard surrounded by two levels of rooms. This Oukala (inn) was always filled during Lag Ba’omer (an annual pilgrimage) which occurs 33 days after the Passover. I wonder now, if that building will ever again rent out their small rooms during this auspicious time and whether the courtyard of the caravansary will ever be filled with merchants selling food, clothing and books.
Although quite small, Al Ghriba Synagogue became a ‘must see’ on traveller’s list of ‘must do’ since it was the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Africa, considered the first in the Diaspora and one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Records show that Jews came here after fleeing from Palestine in 584 BC, after the destruction of the first temple.
Minute by minute, I recall watching with astonishment the growing number of people who arrived. Few really took notice of one of the truly great highlights – the finely carved front door, possible in Djerba since 586 BC and said to have been carried here by a Kohan (a refugee priest).
Al Ghriba has several myths and stories of its origins. One that seemed to dominate was the tale of a young beautiful and virtuous foreign girl with an aura of purity, who arrived alone in this strange land. She built a small hut in a deserted and isolated spot.
One day her hut burnt down, reduced to ashes while she remained inside. However, she was unharmed. To commemorate this “marvellous foreign girl”, Al Ghriba was erected.
I entered the oblong outer room and was asked to remove my shoes, a custom reserved usually for Mosques. But then there was such a Moorish influence here which I noticed immediately the shape of the arches, the tile work and bright the colours. Dark wood benches were placed back to back, some facing the carved dark wood raised podium (bimah) which was surprisingly unadorned. Embellishment came from the ornate crystal chandelier, yellow, blue and white tiled walls and floors and the silver edged oil lamps which hung from the walls.
Since I was there in the winter season, the floor tiles had been covered with matting so that the feet of the visitors could stay warm.
Although many of those who marched through the synagogue seemed without passion for this historic entity, there were those who quietly walked the short aisle, then up the stairs to the bimah and down the other side, reading important documents on the walls. The observant ones didn’t miss an alcove under the ark which was illuminated by candles. During Lag Ba’omer, there was a rather odd ritual which took place and in which both Jews and Muslims partook. A raw egg with the name of an unmarried or eligible girl was written on it. When it was retrieved at the end of the pilgrimage, the candles’ heat had hard boiled the egg, which was then eaten by the young woman, assuring her of finding a husband. I was told that it had been so successful that crowds returned each year.
Meanwhile, Boukhriss sat in a darkened corner of the outer room observing nonchalantly, non-judgmentally. He seemed totally immuned to the chaotic scene which occurred several times daily. When the tourists were about to leave, I laughed as they spent time crawling on the blue and white tiled floor of the small room, looking for their shoes.
Finally there was a quiet period. However, laugh as I did, with all the chaos, my shoes had disappeared. I eventually found them at the other end of the room but this gave me the opportunity to see the Hebrew wording that recalled the twelve tribes of Israel.
The skull kippas (caps) for the men and the colourful scarf head coverings for the women were eventually tided up, placed back in a basket, before the next bus load arrived. When the noise level lowered, Sbirsa Ben Khammous Boukhriss waved me over, giving me some quiet time with a man who spent his days sitting in ‘his synagogue’, praying, watching, thinking, philosophizing. One wonders if he was thinking about the fact that only a few hundred Jews out of the 5,000 who once lived here among a population of 99% Muslim. Strangely, at that time he assured me they co-existed in total harmony.
I asked about the Torahs (holy scrolls) and I recall how proudly he told me that one of the oldest in the world was kept here. How old? “No one could know,” my guide translated his answer for me.
After the Independence of Tunisia in 1956, the cemetery where the Jewish population was buried, was re-appropriated by the community. As I was leaving, I looked over a low whitewashed stucco wall to see the new cemetery beside the synagogue where I saw a small garden-like area with only 20 headstones.
Since I was there on a Friday, the doors to the visitors were closed early. Prayers started at 5.30PM. Sbirsa Ben Khammous Boukhriss hoped that at least 15-20 people would be there to pray with him.
I could only wonder what he prays for today, after the devastation to this unique synagogue.