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The Ultimate Ghetto

The Last Arab Jews: The Communities of Jerba, Tunisia

by Abraham L. Udovitch, by Lucette Valensi
Harwood Academic Publishers, 178 pp., $36.00

At the close of World War II there were about a half-million Jews living in North Africa; today there are about 20,000, and those are submerged, partially and uneasily, in the anonymizing mercantilism of the largest cities. (Of Morocco’s perhaps 15,000, more than half are in Casablanca, and virtually all of the rest in Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes, Fès, and Tangier; of Tunisia’s 3,500 or so, about two-thirds are in Tunis.) Where once there were scores of integral Jewish communities long in place, socially self-enclosed, and culturally self-regulating, only two remain: Hara Kebira, “The Big Village” (pop. 804), and Hara Sghira, “The Little Village” (pop. 280), on the small offshore island of Jerba in southern Tunisia, fifty miles from the Libyan border.

The Last Arab Jews is an anthropological portrait of these two communities based on fieldwork carried out in them during 1978, 1979, and 1980. The researchers are, however, not anthropologists, but historians, one Canadian-born American, one Tunisian-born French, one an economic historian, one a social historian, one a medievalist, one a modernist, and, what is perhaps particularly important in this part of the world, one a man and one a woman. Between them they provide a brief but vivid overview of all the major aspects of local life—economic, political, religious, familial—and set it against the background of a long, half-mythicized past and the prospect of a short, dissolving future. Written in dispassionate, even subdued, tones, with the summary empiricism of the ethnographer, it is nevertheless a moving account, if only because these last of the last are quite probably just that, the concluding phase—“no more forever,” as an earlier account of the final days of an Algerian settlement was entitled—of an ancient and, for all its vicissitudes, extraordinary civilization.* There were 4,000 Jerban Jews at the end of the war; had they grown at the rate of the general Tunisian population they would now be 15,000, not 1,000. “The Jerban communities are amputated and their ability to reproduce themselves as a collective unit is in serious question. Outside Jerba…it might not [I would say, certainly would not] be possible at all.”

In the eyes of the Jerban Jews, their island within an island (more than 80,000 Muslims—Ibadis, Malikis, Hanafis—live variously around them) is a sort of diaspora Holy Land, “the antechamber,” as they put it, “of Jerusalem.” The main synagogue, called “The Marvelous,” and long a major pilgrimage site for North African Jews, is considered to date from the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC. Kohanim (priests), fleeing there from the disaster, carried with them (so it is said) a door and some stones from the ruined sanctuary which they incorporated into the new structure, making it something more than an ordinary synagogue, if not quite yet a true temple. (Until recently, The Little Village, where the Marvelous Synagogue—it is only one of no fewer than seventeen in the two settlements—is located, was apparently inhabited exclusively by Kohanim.)

A metal wire, rather like a clothesline, runs from rooftop to rooftop around the perimeter of the villages, turning them into a sacred space forbidden to outsiders. A second such wire marks off the marketplace in the village square as an equally explicit secular space, “a place of work and of exchange with Muslims…off limits for [Jewish] men on the Sabbath, as it is every day of the week for [Jewish] women.” The villages are “theocratic republics,” meticulously regulated by hair-splitting rabbinical judges who become such by popular recognition, as well as centers of rabbinical learning of a particularly strict, purity-obsessed variety. “Building a wall around the Torah,” a wall as much to keep Jews in as non-Jews out, is the driving force of collective life. “Being Jewish,” as the authors well say, “[is] a full time activity.”

Thus, in one sense, the Jews of Jerba live in the ultimate ghetto: a minority community, cast into a metaphysical exile “from which [it] can expect nothing but misery and slavery until the day of redemption,” and one so closed in upon itself—the women moving between the household, the male-free courtyard, and the ritual bath; the men between the neighborhood, the female-free synagogue, and the market square—as to seem a kind of social time capsule, a fixed pattern of life buried in a suspended history. Yet the paradox is, if it is indeed a paradox and not merely the way such things are ordered in this odd corner of the world, that the Jerban Jews are as Maghrebian, in their fashion, as the hardiest Muslim, and as rooted in Tunisian culture. Whether or not they are in the “antechamber of Jerusalem,” whether or not they are Juifs en Terre d’Islam (as the simultaneously published French edition is rather more ominously titled), these are “Arab” Jews, and they take about as much of their character from their surroundings as they do from their faith.

It is not merely that the language of everyday life is Arabic; or that the men, most of whom are merchants or craftsmen, venture beyond the local market to practice their trades; or that household organization, sexual division of labor, demographic structure, and even, religious symbolism aside, marriage customs, legal forms, aesthetic preferences, educational practices, and ideas of gender, approximate those of the surrounding population; or that the style of personal behavior has about it the air of catch-as-catch-can that marks political and economic life from the Rif to the Western Desert. It is that, on Jerba as elsewhere in this region of rather bits-and-pieces culture, social existence has long been divided. One part of life takes place behind social walls so high that no outsider can see over them, a world of veils, endogamy, and dietary customs; the other takes place in the noon light of radical cosmopolitanism, a world of bargains, contracts, and pragmatic friendships. Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Berbers, tribesmen and townsmen, white men and black men, have lived for as long as we have records at once carefully set apart and carelessly tumbled together.

For Jews, this cultural doubleness—monoform communities in polyform societies—was, of course, both extreme and essential to their continuing survival. The decline of this duality under the loyalty-fusing imperatives of modern nationalism—assimilate or emigrate—has rendered their situation not only difficult, as it has always been, but unworkable altogether. That the older pattern has been maintained in Jerba beyond what has proved possible elsewhere—which is perhaps what most intrigues Udovitch and Valensi—is in part owing to its remoteness, in part to the relative moderation, as these things go, of Muslim Tunisians and of their political leadership.

But mostly the survival of the old pattern is a result of the unusually intense development of the behind-the-walls life of the two settlements. Jerban Jews have been able to resist both Frenchifying Tunis and Zionizing Israel, to the degree that they have, because they have constructed inside their wire and around their synagogue a vitality to hold them there.

The forms of this vitality are manifold. Some concern matters having to do with home and hearth, such as a hyper-moral, and hyper-private family life, an exhausting round of yearly, weekly, daily, and even hourly rituals, and elaborate (and elaborately segregated) patterns of male and female sociality, all of which Udovitch and Valensi record in some detail. But the most important, because taken together they represent an extraordinary florescence of civic Judaism—extraordinary not just for North African, or “oriental,” communities, but for the Diaspora generally—are the rabbinical supervision of public life, the annual pilgrimage centered on the founding synagogue, and the writing and publishing of scholarly books. Jewish Jerba is, or anyway has for centuries considered itself to be, not just a repository of an uprooted universal culture awaiting historical redemption, but also, and it would sometimes seem at least as passionately, a capital of a dug-in provincial culture.

Rabbinical supervision, which almost everywhere else in the Maghreb was challenged by the power of secular elites, was here so marked that the Jerbans conceive of their history as a sequence of wise and wonder-working rabbis guiding a spontaneously observant, freely obedient people. (Udovitch and Valensi, in their anxiety to rebut stereotypes of religious authoritarianism, perhaps accept this conception a bit too much at face value, as they do a number of accounts the Jerbans give of themselves.) Education, the administration of justice, and even the evolution of local custom, took place, and still does, under the watchful eye of one or another such rabbi—responsa upon responsa, judgment upon judgment, homily upon homily.

The pilgrimage, a week-long event a month after Passover, celebrates a number of things at once—the founding of the Marvelous Synagogue by the refugee Kohanim, the memory of a mysterious, radiant girl who appeared one day on its site and whose body a fire failed to consume, and the lifting of an ancient plague upon the death of some particularly holy rabbis. It involves an extended candle-lighting and vow-making procession in and around the synagogue, headed by an enormous menara (“a hexagonal pyramid, skillfully mounted on three wheels”) symbolizing the five levels of beings from the twelve tribes through the great rabbis and biblical personages to God. A number of (even) less orthodox activities also take place, such as leaving a raw egg on the spot where the mysterious girl’s body was found to ensure the marriage of an unmarried woman within the year. At the height of its popularity in the nineteenth century, the pilgrimage drew huge crowds of Jews (and a fair number of Muslims, to whom the place is also magical) from all over North Africa. Even today people come, or more properly come back, from as far away as Rome, Montreal, or Paris to re-create “for the duration of a week, a religious element…[in] lives which have been deprived of it.”

The publishing of scholarly books, moreover, which began in Jerba only in this century (though works written by Jerbans, rabbis and learned laymen alike—but not by women, all of whom until quite recently were illiterate—were published well before that in Leghorn, Tunis, and Jerusalem), has produced more than five hundred printed works, from prayer books and law manuals to volumes of religious poetry and Talmudic commentary. Written in Hebrew or in Arabic with Hebrew characters, these books were distributed throughout Jewish North Africa, a “level of literary productivity [which], with the exception of such specialized communities as academia, may be unprecedented.” “The colonial authorities and the Jewish notables of Tunis” charged that Jerba was “a ‘backward’ community kept in ‘abjection and ignorance by their rabbis who were stubbornly opposed to any progress.’ ” But Jerba’s claim to be the moral center of Maghrebian Jewry was neither ill based, nor, from the point of view of cultural survival, ill advised:

Far from being ignorant, the Jerbans were offering resistance—at times silent and at times quite vociferous—to any challenge to their own values. The fact that they are still there today proves that, in this particular contest, they prevailed.

So far. If the end seems near, it is not because the Jerban’s sense of “their own values” or the institutions they have devised to maintain them have weakened. Rabbinical leadership remains strong, even if today’s rabbis are perhaps not so impressive as yesterday’s. The pilgrimage continues, even if it now sometimes seems as much a tourist event and commercial festival as a religious observance. The books go on being published, even if now there are only two presses where once there were five. The problems are on the other side of the wall, where the Jews, their red Tunisian skullcaps worn, as always, toward the back of the head to distinguish them from the Muslims, who wear them, as always, forward, no longer find it so easy to participate in the scuffling give-and-take of public-square life.

The main setting in which this change in the beyond-the-wire rules of the game can be seen to be taking place is that most plein air of Maghrebian institutions: the bazaar. “Virtually all able-bodied adult males” of the Jewish community “are involved [in the bazaar] as sellers, producers or financiers.” It is “the locus of the most frequent and varied contact between Jews and Muslims”; the place where the lines of cultural demarcation “are most fluid and permeable”; “the arena in which important aspects of identity, self-image and mutual perceptions are defined and enacted.”

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Jews controlled most parts of the bazaar, not just in their own community, but in the leading Muslim town on the island, Houmt Souk. Itinerant Jewish traders and artisans circulated as well to the scattered Muslim villages, peddling petty manufactures, buying up agricultural products, serving as carpenters, harness makers, tailors, tinsmiths. In the present century all this activity began, at first slowly, then more and more rapidly, to diminish, until in recent years the confinement of Jewish traders and craftsmen to a few specialized occupations, largely reserved to them, has become extreme. In 1902, about 40 percent of the Jews were engaged in one or another sort of general commerce (textiles, foodstuffs, tobacco), another 40 percent in a wide variety of traditional crafts (cobblers, bucket makers, embroiderers, scribes), and 15 percent in the specifically Jewish trade of jeweler (often combined with moneylending).

In 1978, about 10 percent were in commerce, 20 percent in traditional crafts (mostly tailors), and 60 percent in jewelry and/or moneylending. What Udovitch and Valensi call “the gold rush,” but what might more aptly be called “the gold imprisonment,” has reduced what was once a varied and across-the-board trading community, reaching, if not without tension, into all parts of the general society, virtually to the status of an occupational caste. About half the Jewish labor force is now employed in the jewelry trade, and the proportion is growing; nearly 80 percent of the young men entering the labor market are choosing careers in it. The cosmopolitan side of Jewish life—in which if they were not precisely like everyone else, they were at least among everyone else, striking deals and forming alliances—is dissolving. And with it is dissolving the sense—theirs and that of their neighbors—that, distinctive as they may be, they belong where they are.

Of course there are many reasons for this progressive extrusion of the Jews from the larger life of Jerba. The influx of mass-produced consumer goods has caused the disappearance of most traditional trades. The rise of motor transport has rendered the itinerant peddler on his donkey obsolete. The improving educational level of the majority population has enabled it to dispense with Jewish commercial know-how. The general tendency to rationalize and integrate the Tunisian economy has made personal, face-to-face ways of doing business increasingly vulnerable to impersonal ones between firms and customers. But clearly the critical factor, entwined with these and with the entire course of postcolonial history, is the appearance of exclusionary nationalisms in the Middle East, and of states only marginally less so to go with them. “Staying on” as a Tunisian Jew, like doing so as an Arab Israeli, is an increasingly difficult thing to manage.

The signs are everywhere and getting clearer. The Jerban municipal council has officially renamed Hara Kebira—“The Large Village”—As-Sawani, “The Gardens,” a Jerban Jew wrote Udovitch and Valensi in 1981 after they had left the island.

When I asked [a Muslim official] why [the change was made], he responded that it was its proper name. The name Hara Kebira is to be erased and not to be remembered or mentioned anymore…. I thought to myself: We Jews, who reached this place long before them, who have a history of more than two thousand years here, not only are they seeking to push us out, but they are even conspiring to erase our past and the names of famous Jewish places from history.

Two years earlier, in 1979, a new synagogue, about to be inaugurated, was burned, presumably by arsonists. The Jews, comparing the event to the destruction of the Temple, fasted and mourned, and eighteen months later reconsecrated it.

We still recall that terrible night [the same correspondent wrote] in which the Torah was burned and the ark was laid waste…and we were helpless, unable to save them. We still remember the magnitude of the disaster which occurred. We all stood dumb-struck, confused and trembling in the destroyed synagogue. Thanks be to God…the synagogue and the arks were repaired, and the people contributed scrolls of the Torah. And on this night all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, stood rejoicing. It was a joy and gladness for the Jews. This was but a small restitution for that which happened—may it never happen again, amen.

The future, however, will bring what it will bring; and Udovitch and Valensi are not exactly sanguine.

Given that the [Tunisian] state is neither pluralist nor secular, and given that the Jerban Jewish communities are not prepared to accept a process of secularization which would condemn them to extinction, any integration into the dominant society and culture is [now] unthinkable….

[But] if they leave the island, [they] would also have to abandon their language, their costume, their elaborate system of local customs, their educational system, and…their history.

In the meantime, Udovitch and Valensi have told the community’s story, well and fairly. If, as seems likely, it turns out to be its epitaph as well, it is anyway an appropriate one, plainly eloquent.

  1. *

    L. C. Briggs and H. L. Guede, No More Forever—A Saharan Jewish Town, (Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1964).

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