LE KEF, Tunisia (JTA) -- A man on a
donkey shuffles by, collecting trash in the midday heat. Merchants
hawk their wares in French and Arabic from stalls lining the
In this a
sun-drenched city of 120,000, where Jews are about as common as
snowflakes, the local
synagogue has become a tourist attraction.
"The last Jew left
in 1984," said Salem Zenan, caretaker of the synagogue known simply
as the Ghribet el-Yahud -- sanctuary of the Jews. "But when I was
little, we lived with Jewish people. I'm happy that visitors still
Zenan, 54, says
about a dozen tourists stop by the synagogue every day. A glance at
the official guest book reveals entries from the United States,
Europe, Lebanon and even Libya.
The Le Kef
synagogue, among the most isolated in North Africa, is one of
several across Tunisia that is enjoying a renaissance of sorts with
official support from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Despite the absence
of diplomatic ties between Tunis and Jerusalem, Tunisia’s 1,500 Jews
live relatively peaceful, prosperous lives. And their houses of
worship -- from Le Kef in the northwest, near the Algerian border,
to the Mediterranean island of Djerba, where the synagogue was
attacked in 2002 and in 1985 -- gradually are being restored, even
when there are no Jews left to pray in them.
clearly wants to encourage Jewish tourism from Europe, Israel and
the United States. But Tunisians say it's not just about bringing in
dollars and euros.
“wants people to come back and visit the places where they were born
and raised," said Monique Hayoun, a software engineer living in
Paris who left her hometown of Nabeul in 1976 and occasionally
returns to Tunisia to visit family and friends.
"The Israelis are
nostalgic. For a long time, they wanted to come back here, but in
the '60s and '70s it wasn't so easy," Hayoun told JTA. "Under
President Ben-Ali, there's much more openness.”
Nabeul is a
five-minute drive from the popular Mediterranean resort of Hammamet.
In 1956, on the eve of Tunisia's independence, nearly 1,200 Jews --
a quarter of Nabeul's population -- lived in the town. Up to 400
people would crowd into its Great Synagogue for Yom Kippur services,
while six smaller shuls served the rest of the community.
But by 1976,
Nabeul's Jewish population had dwindled to 115. Only four Jewish
families are left now, and the Great Synagogue is of interest mainly
to tourists, according to Hebrew-speaking tour guide Ben Mansour
"I feel very close
to the Jews," Seyfeddine, 38, said as he showed a group of Israelis
around the empty synagogue.
explained that in Nabeul there was never a specific Jewish
neighborhood, and Muslim and Jewish families often lived together --
sometimes even in the same house.
That wasn't the
case in Le Kef, where Jews were clustered in a district adjacent to
the synagogue, which is located only a few steps away from a
Byzantine basilica that later became the town's grand mosque.
In the early 1930s,
as many as 900 Jews lived in the town, according to Mohamed Tlili,
the former director of the Historical Society of Le Kef. But after
1967, most Tunisian Jews immigrated to Israel, and by the early
1980s barely a handful remained in Le Kef.
"We had a moral
obligation to do something," said Tlili, the man responsible for
restoring Le Kef's synagogue. "Everybody wanted to help, but they
didn't know what to do. It was like chaos. There was nobody praying
in there. It was dirty and in ruins."
In the end, the
office of the president stepped in, providing 50,000 Tunisian dinars
-- about $40,000 -- for the three-month restoration project
supervised by Tlili and his staff.
Located in the
heart of Le Kef's kasbah -- a neighborhood of whitewashed houses and
turquoise-blue windows and doors -- the synagogue is a tidy little
building open seven days a week, year round. Inside, the walls are
decorated with 139 plaques honoring the memory of long-departed
families with names like Sabbah, Levy and Sassoon.
Among the more
unusual features is its 600-year-old Torah scrolls written on
sheepskin. A wooden circumcision chair is displayed prominently at
the entrance, and black-and-white photos show the 1994 restoration
at various stages.
"The president of
the synagogue wanted to take the scrolls to Tunis or Djerba, but the
local authorities said no, so they kept the scrolls in the local
museum for 10 years until the synagogue was restored," Tlili said.
"Our president himself took care of the financing. He insisted it be
done because it was a part of our heritage."
Tlili, 58, who owns
a library and internet cafe in town, said he remembers his father, a
devout Muslim, trusting only the rabbi of Le Kef to slaughter his
lamb to ensure no kashrut laws would be broken. He added that it was
traditional for the Jews and Muslims of Le Kef to share a festive
meal after Sukkot.
On the island of
Djerba, home to two-thirds of Tunisia's 1,500 Jews, signs of Jewish
life are hard to miss -- especially in Hara Sghira, a small village
that is home to the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in North Africa.
In 1985, a security
guard at the synagogue opened fire on congregants, killing three. In
2002, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near the
synagogue that killed 21 people, most of them German tourists.
These days, 15
little boys learn the Hebrew alphabet at nearby Yeshivat Or Torah
under the direction of a 23-year-old teacher named Yusef. Not far
away, at Gan Bet Rachel, some 90 children spend every morning except
Shabbat learning numbers, letters and the names of animals.
"We don't feel any
different than anyone else," said kindergarten teacher Shoshana, who
has family in Jerusalem. "My father stayed here, but everyone else
left. The Jews who remain here are happy."
Every year on Lag
B'Omer, Jews come to Djerba from France, Israel and the United
States to join in the Hilullah, an annual event centered at the
ancient synagogue. Some 5,000 pilgrims, including 600 from Israel,
celebrated the Hilullah in 2007 under heavy police protection.
Just around the
corner from Djerba's famous Ghriba, Shimon Haddouk is restoring his
known as Bet Knesset Eliezer Cohen, has been in his family for more
than 500 years. But now it's falling apart.
"We must renovate
it," said Haddouk, a 30-year-old jewelry salesman who learned Hebrew
in Djerba and visited Israel for the first time four years ago. He
estimated the cost of repairs at $25,000 to $30,000, but said the
investment in Jewish Tunisia was worthwhile.
synagogue, he said, "will be a great honor for me.”