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Unexpected Tunisia

Most of us think we are familiar with the religion we grew up with. Whether we follow it or not, we know the ceremonies, the prayers and the beliefs. But when The Savvy Traveler's Judie Fein went to an exotic island, she encountered an aspect of her religion she never knew existed.

Unexpected Tunisia
by Judie Fein

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This is a warning. If you are Jewish, know someone who is Jewish, or have an affinity for matzo ball soup, the following may come as a surprise. On the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia in North Africa, is perhaps the oldest extant Jewish community in the world. The first settlers were probably the Levites, or priests, who fled from Jerusalem 2,500 years ago when the ancient Temple was destroyed. And today their descendents live smack in the middle of the Muslim world. All year long, the Jews of Djerba lead a private, quiet, very conservative religious life. Men and women pray separately and don't often mingle in public. But for two days a year, all of that changes.

The narrow, dusty streets of the Jewish section are jammed with jubilant men and women, laughing, talking together, wearing their finest festive attire. Thousands of pilgrims have joined them from Europe, Israel and all over the world to celebrate the holiday of Lag B'omer. Morton Arrow, chief rabbi in Stockholm, explains that the holiday occurs on the 33rd day of a solemn 49-day religious cycle during which men traditionally don't shave or cut their hair and there is no dancing or merriment.

Morton: "There is a legend about Rabbi Akiva's students who became sick in a plague and the plague miraculously broke on the 33rd day, and therefore the 33rd day becomes a celebration. People can get haircuts, swim, and begin to enjoy themselves. They bring out their seven-branched menorah, they dance, they carry on."

The Menorah he's talking about is a huge wedding-cake shaped wooden candelabrum that is set on wheels and paraded through the streets of the Jewish village here on Djerba. What is surprising is that the Menorah is adorned like a bride, with long, flowing scarves in bursts of vivid color. As it moves down the street, women with atomizers rush forward to spray the Menorah with exotic, aromatic scents and perfumes. People hug it and kiss it and it seems to be a very feminine presence in a largely patriarchal religion.

I'm trying to figure out what this all means, when a group of musicians appears and I am literally swept off my feet and pulled along by the throngs of celebrants. They accompany the Menorah through the town and then back to the synagogue, which is called La Ghriba.

And this is the next surprise: the synagogue is named after a legendary woman named La Ghriba, or "the foreigner," who is venerated as a saint or goddess. A saint, and a female one at that, in the Jewish religion!

The amazing thing about La Ghriba is that even though she is adored, no one is really clear about who she was. A group of pilgrims from Paris tries to elucidate.

Judith translates: "They say that the Ghriba was a girl who was chased into a tunnel. She disappeared. No, wait, she didn't disappear. They found her in the tunnel. Her hand was sticking out from her grave. No, no, they found her intact after a fire."

I speak to about 50 people, and a fairly coherent story emerges. The poor Ghriba lived alone and had nobody in the world. One night a fire burned her house down. In the ashes, her dead body was found completely intact, not a burn mark on it. A miracle. So today, people fly from halfway around the world to pay homage to her. They open their hearts and shower her with love, sympathy and devotion. "That's how faith is," one woman tells me. "You don't have to understand it."

Another woman takes me by the hand and pulls me inside the vast, polychrome, ornate Ghriba synagogue. Women offer trays of food which have been prayed over. When you eat, you are blessed.

The women undulate, making high-pitched, joyous noises. Then I get dragged to the back room of the synagogue. It is small, crowded, dim, and very hot. "Take off your shoes," someone whispers to me. I kick off my sandals and slide on olive oil that has spilled over from hundreds of lamps. Although western Jews use candles, many eastern or Sephardic Jews light oil lamps instead, as they pray for health, blessings and miracles. I feel like crying. I love the craziness, the spontaneity, the prayers deep from the heart.

Through the flickering lights, I see women falling to their knees at the back of the room. When I make my way to them, I see that they are crawling into a dark tunnel, holding eggs in their hands. My new French friends tell me what's happening. They're praying that the person whose name is inscribed on the egg will meet the right mate, or are able to have children. The eggs get blessed in the tunnel by the venerated Ghriba, and wishes and prayers come true.

I never learned about this in Hebrew school! Casting caution to the winds, I put an egg in the tunnel, and I silently mouth a little prayer. When I pull my head out, locals tell me that this is a unique passageway. Supposedly, somewhere deep inside that tunnel, is a very special stone or perhaps two, from King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. A local man from Jerba explains:

Local Man: "Djerba has always been an island refuge since very ancient times. People who fled after the destruction of the Temple, it is very likely they brought over one or a few stones with them."

No one seems to know how the stones got here from Jerusalem. Maybe the lonely Ghriba carried the holy stones. Maybe they came on a boat, with the most precious belongings of the priests. An old man whispers to me that the stones flew here by themselves, perhaps carried by angels.

I step outside of the synagogue and lean against the wall, trying to absorb and understand what I am experiencing. In the distance, I see cars and buses pulling up, with new waves of Jewish pilgrims. I think they come for the camaraderie, the joy, the ability to express their faith and devotion in an open, spontaneous way. And they come because they can come, and this is the last surprise of Djerba. In the middle of an Islamic nation, Jews and Arabs seem to co-exist with mutual respect. Muslims line the streets and participate in the festival. A Moslem man stands next to me, and I ask him if it is true that there is peace between Arabs and Jews here.

Moslem Man: "We grew up in the same neighborhood. We never asked ourselves these questions. I used to go in their homes and eat. We are friends."

With all the hatred and craziness in the world, the exuberant Lag B'Omer on Djerba suddenly seems very understandable to me. We have lost the connection to the feminine, the mystical, the superstitious. I wish we could all light oil lamps, share our special customs with our neighbors, have communal experiences, even believe in miracles.

Wishing you marriage, fertility, and many miracles, wherever you are, this is Judie Fein, in Djerba, for The Savvy Traveler.


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