Tunisia’s small Jewish population of around 1,000 also contended with a deadly terrorist attack earlier this year when a gunman stormed a synagogue on the island of Djerba. Five people died, including two Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to the area from Israel and France, and wounding several others.
My first stop to get permission to enter The Grand Synagogue in Tunis, Tunisia, is at the kosher butcher shop facing this monumental building on Ave. de la Liberte. Somehow, in retrospect this doesn’t seem too odd since there’s an unique sense of camaraderie and sharing which I sensed throughout the country.
But today, the man sitting in the small store surrounded by meat in display cases,and hanging from hooks, doesn’t have the key. “Try the Rabbinate,” he tells me and my guide, Ihsen, who has been helping with language translations. In Tunisia they speak Arabic and French. I don’t do too well in the latter and needless to say, the former is non existent in my language repertoire. Down a laneway past a cafe behind the synagogue, is a large, tired looking building in need of repair. These are official offices for the rabbi and Jewish community needs. The space was once utilized as an Hebrew school. Today, there isn’t one. The few Jewish families who have chosen to remain in this North African country with a population consisting of 97% Muslims, have private Hebrew teachers for their children.
After climbing two fights of stairs, we meet the rabbi’s assistant. He tells me Rabbi Haim Madar, the former rabbi of the synagogue in Djerba, has been in Tunis for l0 years. The Rabbi is working in another room and can’t be disturbed. However, I get permission to tour the well- secured synagogue.
To show us around, we are introduced to Marcelle, an ebullient woman who has been the secretary at the Rabbinate for over 30 years. Leaving this building, we cross the narrow lane and enter the synagogue through the rear door. It’s the entrance used for Tunisians Jews who come twice daily to pray and to make up the minyan (10 men required to perform the services). I’m surprised to learn that this has not been a problem in the ever-diminishing Jewish population.
The once thriving Tunisian Jewish community with one of the longest Jewish histories had approximately 167,000 and has dwindled to a mere, 3000 with 1000 living in Tunis while the others choose to remain in Djerba, a small island off the southern coast and the coastal city of Zarzis.
We head down a series of dark staircases and enter a small chapel. “This isn’t the synagogue. We use this room only for small gatherings,” Marcelle tells me when she sees me preparing to take photos. (Photos are not permitted outside where there are security guards to make sure this prohibition is taken seriously. However, inside, there isn’t a problem.)
Through another door, we enter the astonishingly beautiful sanctuary of the synagogue. In l879, Bey Mohammed Es-Sadok donated l000 square metres to the Jewish community, the location of The Grand Synagogue. Recently renovated, the use of the original coloration – bright blue, orange, gold and white- are unusual for most solemn interiors. Geometric shapes merge with curved designs on the walls, over the arches and on the high dome above us. Behind a small brass gate featuring the Star of David, is the Sefrei Torah (ark) which goes back “many hundreds of years”. Missing, however, are the multitude of chandeliers and hanging lanterns which often decorate (Sephardic) North African synagogues. Smaller, discrete illumination has been incorporated. However, today being a bright sunny day, I realize that the lack of lighting must have to do with the brightness which floods in from the ceiling and stained glass windows of the city with its usual balmy weather.
A very large, prominent Star of David is placed in front of one of these colourful windows, again creating a marvellous sense of grandeur and casting exquisite shadows on the already majestic architecture.
When there was a large population, in traditional Orthodox fashion, women sat upstairs. Now that area is unused, the main aisle now separates the sexes.
Something is missing. Ah, I ask Marcelle where is the bimah (raised podium). It seems odd that there isn’t one which is usually placed in front of the Heikhal (cabinet for the Holy Scrolls).
“It’s moveable and so we’ve put it over to the side for the time being,” she tells me. The not overly ornate wooden bimah is less showy than I would expect in this exceptionally large and colorful area. Another interesting note, is that dozens of plaques copy The Grand Synagogue, Tunis Tunisia dedicated to prominent deceased members hang eye level wherever there is space. Names like Cohen, Perez, Salomon, Bellity, Liscia, are represented.
As for Bar Mitzvahs, Marcelle’s happy demeanour lessens. “So many families have left. They have the celebration where they now live.” However, a few marriages still take place. That has to do with the fact that most happen in the summer months and “it’s a good reason for families and former residents to come back and celebrate and have a vacation, too.”
The large front doors are locked. Only on high holidays do they open them so as we say our goodbyes, Marcelle gives us the choice of exiting from the grand doorway with the traditional large dark nailheads on azure blue paint. This would mean getting the security guards to open the entrance.
We decide to leave as we came. Outside, I walk to the front and admire, this imposing building with it’s sparkling white facade and the huge yellow Star of David prominently and proudly displayed over the doorway, near the dome, leaving me with the impression that the Jews of Tunis and Tunisia still have a presence although small now but reminiscent of a long and fine past in North Africa.