Guide to the Tunisian Jewish Community

Essem

Moderator
Staff member
#1
Tunisia is the home to what is considered the world’s oldest diaspora Jewish Community. According to local tradition, Jews first settled in Tunisia before the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Similar to the majority Muslim population in Tunisia, members of the Jewish community today can trace their ancestry to immigration across the Mediterranean region. The Tunisian Jewish community is unique to the world, in that it has preserved many Jewish traditions that have been lost over the centuries by other Jewish communities. The community is also unique to Tunisia, in that Tunisian Jews speak their own dialect of Arabic and have their own cuisine. While at first glance the Jewish community is very insular, conservative and hidden from the public view it is still possible for a visitor to get to know the Jewish community well with some time.
There are two different regions of Tunisia where the vast majority of Tunisian Jews live:
metropolitan Tunis and Djerba.
The most visible Jewish community building in Tunis is the Grand Synagogue on Avenue de La Liberte. It is located in what was the historical Jewish neighborhood of Lafayette. After the revolution, the security presence around the synagogue was noticeably enhanced. Barbed wire now surrounds the front of the building. Inside, the building is beautifully decorated. The ceilings are painted with many colors. There are many distinctly Tunisian stained glass windows. There is still a small minyan that meets every Friday night and Saturday morning at the Grand. Behind the Synagogue is a Jewish school and community building and across the street from the synagogue is the community’s Kosher Butcher Shop.
The Jewish community also has a small presence in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette. The synagogue of La Goulette is hidden, so it is best to ask around where it is. Most people who live in La Goulette know its location. Don’t be afraid to ask Muslims where it is, they will help you. Women pray at the La Goulette synagogue on Saturday mornings which is a bigger service than the Friday night service. Also, near the La Goulette synagogue is Tunisia’s Jewish assisted living home.
One of the finest dining experiences in Tunis is a meal at La Goulette’s Kosher restaurant, Mamie Lilly located near the La Goulette Casino train station. Jacob Lellouche, the owner of Mame Lilly not only has a delicious menu of traditional Tunisian Jewish dishes but is also an artist, music lover and was an active participant in Tunisia’s revolution. It is not uncommon to find community organizing activities taking place at his restaurant. A good meal at Mamie Lilly will cost about 20 Tunisian Dinars. The names and ingredients Tunisian Jews put in their dishes are slightly different from the names and ingredients Muslims give their dishes. Don’t be surprised if you order B’kayla at Mame Lilly and get something very similar to what Muslims call M’louhiya.
The Island of Djerba has its own unique Jewish community. The Jews of Djerba live in three separate neighborhoods: Houmt Souk, Hara Kabira and Hara Saghira. Like Jewish communities everywhere else in the world, the Jewish community in Djerba is divided. There is a fierce rivalry between the communities of Hara Kabira and Hara Saghira.
Houmt Souk is a tourist and commercial center in Djerba. Many of the store front commercial properties in Houmt Souk are owned by Jews. Don’t be surprised if much of Houmt Souk is closed during the major Jewish holidays. There is an Italian Ice Cream place in the center of Houmt Souk that serves as a popular hangout spot for guys in the Jewish Community. Houmt Souk also boasts a hidden synagogue.
The famous El Ghariba synagogue is located in Hara Saghira and locals will tell you it is the oldest synagogue in the Jewish diaspora, it is famous for being a major pilgrimage destination once a year during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. On a typical day, the parking lot outside the El Ghariba synagogue is full of tour buses consisting mainly of European tourists.
The largest Jewish neighborhood still in existence in Tunisia is in Hara Kabira. There are 11 synagogues in Hara Kabira. Hara Kabira also has Jewish Schools for both boys and girls and currently four Kosher restaurants. It is important to try the Brik in Hara Kabira; an excellent brik can be found at Brik Al Hara Eind Rami. Notice that the eggs are checked in glasses for spots of blood to ensure they are Kosher. Jewish Brik is flavored with saffron mint giving it a delicious taste not found anywhere else in Tunisia. Hara Kabira is one of the last neighborhoods in the Arab world where it is possible to see Jewish children wearing kippot playing on the street with Muslim children. It is also not uncommon in Hara Kabira to hear the residents greeting each other appropriately during religious holidays. It is possible to hear Muslims greeting Jewish neighbors with “Shabat Shalom” on the Jewish Sabbath and Jews greeting their Muslim neighbors with “Saha Shreebtik” after the Iftar on Ramadan.
About 60% of Djerbian Jewish men work in the jewelry business. Many are also successful businessmen and learned scholars. The Djerbian Jewish women stay mostly at home, taking care of their children and cooking. Some of them still wear traditional Djerbian clothes with many bright colors. A typical Djerbian Jewish house is similar architecturally to a Djerbian Muslim house with rooms for different generations of a family surrounding a central courtyard known as a Khoush. There are Jewish owned jewelry shops all over the Island of Djerba, most of them are located side by side Muslim owned jewelry shops. A large Tunisian clientele buys jewelry for traditional wedding ceremonies.
It is possible to experience a Jewish presence just off the Island of Djerba in Zarzis as well. There are a few Jewish jewelry shops run by Djerbians as well as a synagogue in Zarzis.
Tunisia’s Jewish community is vibrant, diverse and fascinating to visit. The Jews are not going away from Tunisia anytime soon. So make sure to make some Jewish friends when you visit Tunisia!
 
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Cas

Guest
#2
One more instance of Tunisia showing us "how it should be" in the East.......good article Essem I`m back to looking forward to getting back on track for exploring next time back to Tunisia ......anyone fancy a train trip?
 

Essem

Moderator
Staff member
#3
Sure Cas - with or without shoes??
 

Black Mamba

Well-Known Member
#4
Im in, when can we go?
 

caveatemptor

Well-Known Member
#5
I once came across a website by chance when looking for wedding dresses in Tunis. It gave lots of very interesting information on Jewish/Tunisian wedding customs, including the groom being able to send the bride back to her family if he considered her looks didn`t match up to his expectaions, she being veiled until the wedding. Of course the downside was that he would have to return the very considerable dowry.
 
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Cas

Guest
#6
What a grand reappearance Cave Ha Ha ----Cave in a Jewish wedding dress...... sorry I had to ....was wondering when you were coming back here, nice to see you back on, just to tell you I have just put back a tiny tub of devon clotted cream (in the interest of calories) and memories of the real thing not too long ago in some lovely surroundings in a sunny land.
 
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onyrmarks

Guest
#7
I am looking for someone to give us a guided tour of Jewish Tunis. Do you have any suggestions?
 
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Cas

Guest
#8
Welcome to the forum onyrmarks, can I ask do you mean just the capital of Tunis or the country as a whole? I think there are areas within the Medina that are possibly named after Jewish people/traders. There will be info somewhere as to a synagogue, possibly on a thread here if you search on the old photos or pictures of Tunis thread. Do you know that the Island of Djerba is well known for the Jewish community? Generally I believe in Tunis you will find Jewish people blending totally into Community therefore maybe hard to find. I do know that they have said they do not want to leave the country even with the change in government. I will have a quick look also and let you know what I come up with but as for a guide I think the tourist info centre may recommend a guide.
 
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