The Jews of Djerba, an island off the southeastern coast of Tunisia, are one of the last Jewish communities remaining in the Middle East and North Africa. According to recent estimates, there are about one thousand Jews remaining in Djerba who live alongside a Muslim population that is nearly 100 times their size. They pray at El Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, which dates back to the sixth century B.C. (it was reconstructed in the 19th century). Now, Tunisia is seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for the island, which is the site of a pilgrimage that takes place around Lag B’Omer every year.
In 2009, Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry spoke with Nomi Stone, an American Jewish poet, about her travels to Djerba in 2003, when she got to know this “traditional and cohesive group of Kohanic Jews.” This diasporic community, Stone explained, is shaped by a “remarkable set of mythologies.” According to Stone, “the Jews of Djerba claim to have arrived on the island after the fall of the Babylonian Temple, bearing a single stone from the edifice of the temple.” They subsequently planted that stone in the ground, and built a house of worship on that site. “The community is intimately connected to this notion of loss,” Stone said, and because of this origin story, they have a powerful connection to the land of Israel as well. Indeed, of a community that once numbered close to 100,000 (the current Muslim population), many emigrated to the newly founded state in the mid-20th century, fleeing persecution. Those who have remained in Djerba have not always had it easy; there have been several terrorist attacks in recent years. This year’s 3,000 pilgrims were on high alert, with Israel’s National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau calling on its citizens not to attend.
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Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.