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Jewish Life in Tunisia

by Elizabeth Barkany

Hello Dear friends from our community and beyond.


I would like to start by extending my thanks to Deanna for giving me the opportunity to speak today and to Esther and Edwin for opening the doors of your lovely home year in year out and for your loyal friendship.  Deanna, when you asked me to talk about Jewish life in Tunisia, my first thought was: Oh no, no no public speaking for me…. if I don ’t have to,  then why?  And talking about Tunisian Jews? Since I was born in Tunisia, this meant that perhaps I had to talk about myself. Myself, really? What a concept! And for sure I was going to be made to talk about growing up in Tunisia. Growing up. I guess that it is necessary to have some grown up perspective to be able to speak about “growing up”. Oh dear, this presented a challenge for me. It seemed that I was  going to need 10 years of therapy first. OH la la! I suppose that I could simply say no and walk away. Ni vu ni entendu!


How can I? Say “No”to you Deanna, you have been so kind to me personally  and so instrumental for the women of this community by organizing this kind of events throughout the year for us that I feel I owe you and if I have to -for you I will do it!


So here we are: I was born in Tunis the capital of Tunisia, in North Africa, today the home of approximately 1,000 Jews. I left when I was 15 and I never went back. I don’t think that I ever said Goodbye. When I left, I went on a secret Zionist youth trip to Israel via Paris and Brussels with a special visa as mentioning even the name of Israel would cause you trouble. Then I ended up living in Paris with my family. You  may wonder what my family was doing in Tunisia in the first place and why we moved to France in the second. It is a long story and a very Jewish story indeed but I will keep it short. The presence of Jews in Tunisia dates back to the 6th Century BCE but it was the destruction of the 1st  the 2nd temple that led to a massive exodus of Jews from the Holy Land and a large number of them found refuge on the Tunisian Coast. Jews have and prospered there ever since and Jewish population developed further over the next centuries with the immigration of Jews from Iraq, Spain, Portugal and Italy.


In 1881, France invaded Tunisia making it a protectorate. How quickly the Jews took up to the new culture was quite remarkable. Soon they swapped their Arabic clothing to European style, gradually replacing Judeo-Arabic  with French,  thus facilitating their emancipation.


Well, I was born long after the French protectorate came to a close when Tunisia gained its Independence in 1956, but French definitely was my mother tongue. I went to a Jewish school and  although learning Arabic was compulsory in the curriculum, French was the language in use in education, despite the very active of efforts arabisation of the country led  by the late president Habib Bourguiba.


My memories of the years I spent there are good - for the most part. Sunshine, seaside, barbeque of freshly caught fish and of merguez, summer sleeping on the terrace “a la belle etoile”, sitting or standing on the terrace of the overcrowded Iconic “Cafe Vert” in the seaside town and port of La Goulette, chatting and munching on mountains of sunflower seeds till late in the night, drinking “Nana Tea with pine nuts: in Sidi-Bou-Said, gorgeous blue and white town overlooking the sea, and all this basked in the wonderful surrounding perfume of Jasmine are all contributing elements of fond memories.


Of course this would have been paradise if this was the whole story. Alongside the good times, I remember, that I loved going to school, but the journey there was marked by daily aggression  by Arab children who just in case we forgot who we were, Chas ve chalila, would call us “sale juif, sale juif (dirty Jew)” and threw stones at us. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you this was a daily occurrence.


I also remember that we always had a passport, just in case we had to leave in a hurry. I always knew that leaving was always on the cards. One of my brothers and sisters had frequent fights with Arab youths and once my father came back with his face covered in blood after being attacked by an Arab. My older siblings left first to a boarding school in France and the rest of the family followed suit a few years later.


Personally, at the time, I did not quite understand why we were leaving an Arab country for France and not Israel. Looking back, I guess the language was a factor and perhaps the family who  was already living there. Quite frankly, I think that, had it not been for our safety and our future, my parents would have happily carried on living in Tunisia, as the move was very hard for them and especially for my father.


Celebrating the Jewish Festivals in a unique Jewish Tunisian way also form a vivid memory.


What spurred to me to give this talk today is this year Lag Baomer. My children are at the age when thy do their own thing, so I couldn’t be involved with them, their outings or activities. Then it dawned on me. Lag Baomer is for sure a significant day in the calendar for Jews but this year without my family around me I wasn’t quite sure how to mark the day. In England, we normally have a barbecue, children go on outings, organize campfires etc and I normally join in but this is not what I do. What do I do? Actually, as a Tunisian Jew nothing anymore. I tag along the group or groups around me but as Tunisian Jew nothing. I realized that not only I am in diaspora as a Jew, but I am in diaspora from my own self by being away from my own customs. It is strange…. I would like to talk about some of the customs. For Lag Baomer, I remember wearing new clothes, new shiny shoes and walking in procession with my many siblings  to synagogue holding very long candles all wrapped up with silver or gold  paper and decorated with flowers.


In shul, we arranged the candles on very large tables covered  with sand and lit them in a vocal background of men singing Bar Yochai song and women yoddling with a distinct Arabic “you you” which you will forgive me I shall not attempt to emulate here. Of Course all this was followed with lots of food and the Kiddush was said on a cup of the Jewish Tunisian heavenly alcoholic beverage called Boukha, eau de vie, literrally meaning water of life.


It is also a tradition for Tunisian Jews to go on a pilgrimage to the Synagogue of La Ghriba on the Island  of Djerba where lives an ancient and very orthodox Jewish community. It is said that the Griba was built on a stone that was brought from the original Bet Hamikdash and that it hosts one of the oldest Torah Scrolls. This event was cancelled in 2011 for security reasons due to the Arab Spring but today it is back on track.


For Shavuot, we don’t eat milky foods. If some Sephardi  like Algerian Jews cook some meals  using butter, Tunisian Jews do not use milk in their cuisine at all. Olive oil or sunflower oil are mainly used. My mum used to produce hundreds of miniature biscuits in the shape of little ladders with each rung representing a spiritual level and other symbolic objects such as small powdery cake cones reminiscent of Mount Sinai.


Other customs and traditions, questions and thanks.


Below are some links:

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