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Island Hospitality

On the island of Djerba, a chassid from Williamsburg discovered that time and place don’t separate

It’s a 198-square-mile island located in the Mediterranean Sea’s Gulf of Gabes, known for its date orchards, white sandy beaches, and sweeping deserts, hardly a likely location for a Satmar chassid in his twenties from Williamsburg to spend Purim. But when Moshe Klein found himself in North Africa in mid-Adar, the idea of spending Purim in Djerba, whose Jewish community is believed to have been established during the time of Churban Bayis Rishon, was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Island of Tradition

Moshe Klein has a passion for documenting historic Jewish communities, both well-known and obscure, as well as those that live on only in the history books. His fascination with the past brings him to far-lung locales, and he uses these opportunities to lecture and strengthen the Jewish presence in the cities he visits. He’s visited Cuba, Laos, Cambodia, Kosovo, Thailand, Qatar, and even the United Arab Emirates, before the recent peace agreement made it the latest hot travel destination. A March 2020 foray to North Africa had Klein, his wife Esther, and two business associates considering celebrating Purim in France, but there was something about Djerba that called his name.

A rare pocket of staunch Judaism in a region dominated by Muslims, Djerba has the only Jewish community in an Arab country that is actually increasing in size. It has a long, illustrious history, dating back to Churban Bayis Rishon. According to the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, the construction of Djerba’s historic El Ghriba shul is said to include a door and a stone from the First Beis Hamikdash, salvaged by a group of exiled Kohanim who escaped to the island.

The kehillah, which is believed to have an unusually large concentration of Kohanim, but few, if any, Leviim among its population of 1,000, boasts several yeshivos, multiple shuls, a handful of kosher eateries, and a commercial matzah bakery, with the vast majority of its population employed in some aspect of the jewelry business. Chillul Shabbos is unheard of, kashrus is universally observed, and the entire community is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. Djerba is also well known for its multiday Lag B’omer pilgrimages that have hundreds of visitors flocking to the island’s shuls, with women bringing kvittlach written on eggs to El Ghriba in the hopes of meriting a yeshuah.

The community shares a relatively peaceful coexistence with its Muslim neighbors, though like any other Jewish area, Djerba has seen its share of sorrow. Simchas Torah in 1985 turned tragic when a Tunisian guard at El Ghriba opened fire on mispallelim, killing five, and 21 people died in April 2002 when an Al Qaeda terrorist detonated a tanker truck full of propane gas outside El Ghriba. Still, Djerban Jews live in relative safety and when the Arab Spring began in 2011, locals erected metal barriers to protect the Jewish community, with police presence around the kehillah remaining in place today.

Given Djerba’s fascinating past and its present reputation as a Torah-true community in the unlikeliest of places, Klein wasn’t about to pass up a chance to spend Purim on the historic island once he was already nearby. Placing a reservation at a nearby hotel, Klein embarked on a Purim odyssey, spanning the 4,500-mile distance between Williamsburg and Tunisia and giving him an appreciation for a community that still clings to traditions that are centuries old.

Hanging by a Thread

Taanis Esther in Djerba is marked every year with the burning of a faceless Haman in effigy. Klein joined a group of approximately 50 students and their rebbeim as they stuffed a jacket and pants with cushions before affixing it to a wooden pole and setting in on fire. The children and their rebbeim sang Jewish songs, albeit in Arabic, as the flames made quick work of Haman, celebrating the moment that the pole toppled with joyous applause.

Because there is an opinion that Shabbos clothing should be worn on Purim, some Djerban children don their Purim costumes on Taanis Esther. Djerba’s Yidden cling stubbornly to their ancestral traditions and their children, who outnumber adults by a significant margin, are no exception. Boys learn Torah seven days a week from a young age, and there is no mingling of any kind between boys and girls. That tradition carries on even among chassanim and kallahs who do not speak to each other at all once their shidduchim have been arranged.

Surrounded by Miracles

Food and chesed are both universal no matter where on the globe a Yid finds himself, and Klein was invited to a post-fast seudah by one of the rebbeim he met at the annual Haman-burning. Communicating in Hebrew and with hand signals, Klein accompanied the rebbi to his father’s home, breaking his fast on heimishe baked goods and Turkish coffee.

The meal that followed wasn’t exactly what Klein might have eaten in Williamsburg had he been home for Purim — after washing on laffa, everyone enjoyed an appetizer of a yellow spiced potato, an egg, and a bean dish called ful. While the beans weren’t exactly Klein’s cup of tea, he persevered, knowing that not cleaning one’s plate is considered an insult in Arabic cultures. Also on the menu were chicken soup and a chopped-veal-and-egg concoction that reminded Klein of tuna salad, and while no Purim niggunim were sung, local custom had everyone at the table sharing stories of nissim that take place in day-to-day life. Klein shared about last year’s Jersey City shooting, explaining to his hosts how the devastating tragedy could have been far worse had the terrorists succeeded in reaching the Satmar cheder as they had originally planned, saving several dozen children from their murderous rampage.

Ground Rules

Klein found Djerba’s beit knesset to be a singular experience in shul decorum. Talking is strictly forbidden, as is reading, learning, or doing anything else other than davening. And much to Klein’s surprise, there were no welcoming shalom aleichems when he joined the communal tefillah.

“Usually by Vayevarech Dovid I take out money to give to tzedakah, but they don’t give any tzedakah during davening,” recalls Klein. “I started taking out a few dinar, and they were all looking at me strangely. Later on, they showed me the pushkes out in the courtyard — they aren’t even kept inside the building.”

While the trop for Megillas Esther was similar to what Klein might have heard in Williamsburg, the pronunciation — , sounding quite different than the Sephardi or Yemenite havarah Klein was expecting — was a clear reminder that he was far from home. But the shul-related incident that stands out most in Klein’s mind took place when Haman’s name was read aloud for the first time during Megillah leining. The beit knesset erupted in noise that Klein estimated lasted a good five minutes, until the shamash gave a distinctive klop to restore order, with everyone banging and hooting as children spun their groggers and set off snappers.

“I didn’t have a grogger so I asked a kid to give me a few snappers for the second Haman, but when the time came, I was the only one making a sound while everyone else stayed completely quiet,” says Klein. “Little did I know that they only make noise after the first Haman….”

Just Like Everyone Else

Rabbi Haim Bitan, Djerba’s chief rabbi, is held in high esteem by state officials, but insists on retaining an understated existence. He earns a livelihood from a small store where he sells materials and equipment to silversmiths, drives a simple car, and lives in a modest home. While Klein has met rabbis in other countries with 100 to 200 Jews who have a full staff, that wasn’t the case in Djerba.

“I ran into Rabbi Bitan in shul and didn’t even realize who he was,” says Klein. “He was just like everyone else, very warm and very welcoming.”

Rabbi Bitan is the head of Djerba’s central school, Ohr Torah, which is attended by more than half of the local children. He climbs to the roof of his home every Friday just before shkiah to blow the shofar, a continuation of a custom brought down in the Mishnah to herald the coming of Shabbos. It’s a job that Rabbi Bitan has been doing since the previous shofar blower left Djerba more than 50 years ago.

In addition to having been invited to Tunisian President Kaid Saied’s 2019 inauguration as a representative of the local Jewish community, Rabbi Bitan made headlines this past January when a media frenzy arose after Saied allegedly blamed Jews for recent unrest. The Tunisian president called Rabbi Bitan personally to clarify the matter, assuring him that the state’s Jews were valued and protected citizens.

Techinah Cookies & Brownie Bars

Not surprisingly, the themed mishloach manos that are all the rage here haven’t made their way to Djerba, where kehillah members give boxes of homemade traditional baked goods in a simple box. Techinah cookies, fried pastries, and assorted miniatures gave Klein an opportunity to sample local delicacies, while his mishloach manos of Kedem grape juice and a Reisman’s brownie bar were a quintessential taste of New York.

In keeping with the simplicity that pervades Djerba, residents prepare the same mishloach manos for everyone, no matter what their social or financial status. And because mishloach manos are intended to be given via a shaliach, they aren’t handed directly from one person to another.

“They might give it to a kid and ask him to present it. In my case, they sent it to the hotel where I was staying, which happened to be outside of the Yiddishe community,” says Klein.

Much like any other kehillah, Djerba has its own food-related minhagim. The bsisa takes place each year on the night of Rosh Chodesh Nissan behind closed doors, its festive meal followed by an unusual ritual that involves pouring oil over participant’s pinkie fingers onto a bowl of grain and spices that is stirred with keys, enhanced with gold coins, and enjoyed after a short Arabic prayer. And much like the custom that was prevalent among Eastern European Jews until World War II, Djerban Jews still bring their cholents to a communal oven every Friday afternoon to keep warm until Shabbos morning.

Issues That Span Oceans

Rabbi Matzliach Hadad’s yeshivah, Aish Matzliach, has a slightly different flavor than Ohr Torah, most of its students sporting larger black yarmulkas. While Djerba may be worlds apart from his Brooklyn home, Klein noted that every boy who came to visit Rabbi Matzliach Hadad on Purim was asked to share a devar Torah. And while many people are intrigued by the Jewish community’s long history in Djerba, Rabbi Matzliach Hadad is always looking ahead.

“He prefers to think about today’s problems,” says Klein. “What will be with our kids, our Torah, our future, our learning?”

Rabbi Matzliach Hadad and Moshe Klein talked about a common problem — dealing with kids and internet, which has managed to seep into even Djerba’s fervently traditional existence.

“The discussions we had were the same ones you would hear in Five Towns and in Williamsburg,” he muses. “Yidden are Yidden and the issues are the same, whether you are in New York or Tunisia.”

No Interest in Change

While most of us look for a mezuzah when visiting a Jewish community for the first time to see which homes are Jewish, our brethren in Djerba mark the outside of their humble abodes with colorful blue markings that have kabbalistic overtones, as well as mezuzahs. Klein had time to visit with multiple residents when his stay on the island was unexpectedly extended due to COVID forcing the closure of Djerba-Zarzis Airport. But he had originally told the local police he’d be in the area for a short time, and his sudden change of plans didn’t sit well with them.

“When I first got there, I showed them the itinerary for my flight back, and when it was canceled, they weren’t happy to have me still coming in and taking pictures,” notes Klein. “They kept on taking my passport and making a copy in an effort to intimidate me.”

Having had outsiders visiting before who have tried to influence their time-honored way of life, residents of the local Jewish community were initially wary of Klein.

“They just aren’t interested in that,” explains Klein. “They have a beautiful tradition and are proud of who they are. I made sure to be extremely diplomatic and respectful when I was there and while in other communities I have been asked to lecture in shul, here I just came and had a nice time.”

Winning Investment

After visiting with Rabbi Bitan, Klein decided to call on Rabbi Matzliach Hadad but had no way of finding his home. Walking down the street, he passed a grandfather and a group of young boys playing a Purim card game that seemed like a cross between kvittlach and dominos, and when he stopped to ask directions to Rabbi Matzliach Hadad’s house, it became readily apparent that another activity was about to be added to his itinerary for the day.

“The kids invited me to come play with them, and since they were all speaking Arabic, I really didn’t understand a word they were saying,” admits Klein.

Instead, Klein handed over ten dinar for the game and had the children play for him. When his young friends showed him that he had doubled his investment, Klein asked for his initial ten dinar back and told his new friends to keep his winnings in play, as he continued making his way to Rabbi Hadad’s house.

Mashiach’s Shofar

With matanos l’evyonim a major component of Purim, Klein is accustomed to seeing children in Williamsburg walking around and asking for contributions, but Djerba’s younger set takes a different approach, running a Purim carnival whose proceeds go to tzedakah. Klein found himself more than a little impressed by the creativity he saw on display.

Making his way down the main avenue, Klein spoke with one boy who was hawking prewritten notes in envelopes for a dinar, while another was selling an opportunity to win Pitum Haketores, written on klaf. Two more boys sat at a table with a roulette wheel, explaining that while Haman drew lots to choose the day to eradicate the Jews of Shushan, their goral offered opportunities for a yeshuah for a modest price, chosen by the spin of the wheel.

“They kids weren’t just walking around holding out their hands;” relates Klein.“They were using their heads and coming up with original ideas.”

Klein couldn’t resist an opportunity to blow what he was told by one boy was the “shofar shel Mashiach” for just one dinar (approximately 40 cents). Just moments later, he passed by another table where another boy with a second long, twisting shofar asked him if he wanted to blow the “shofar shel Mashiach.”

“I told him that I just did and he didn’t miss a beat,” recalls Klein. “He says to me, ‘Nah, that one was the shofar of Mashiach ben Yosef. This shofar is the shofar of Mashiach ben Dovid.’”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 850)

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