Tunisian Synagogues Flourish Though the Jews Have Gone: Although Most of Tunisia's Jewish Population Has Relocated to Other Countries, Its Synagogues Are Thriving, Providing a Focus for International Tourism, Especially after President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali Took the Bold Step of Authorising Funds to Restore These Historic Monuments to Tunisia's Proud Heritage. A Report Special to the Middle East Magazine
Luxner, Larry, The Middle East
A MAN ON A donkey shuffles by, collecting trash in the midday heat. Merchants hawk their wares in French and Arabic from stalls lining the cobblestone streets. Here in Le Kef, a sun-drenched city of 120,000, where Jews are about as common as snowflakes, the local synagogue has become a tourist attraction.
"The last Jew left in 1984," said Salem Zenan, caretaker of the synagogue, known simply as the Ghribet El Yahud. "But when I was little, we lived with Jewish people. I'm happy that visitors still come here."
Zenan, 54, says about a dozen tourists stop by the shul every day. A glance at the official guest book reveals entries from the United States, Europe, Lebanon and even Libya.
Located in the heart of Le Kef's kasbah--a neighbourhood of whitewashed houses and turquoise-blue windows and doors the synagogue is a tidy little building open seven days a week, year-round. Inside, the walls are decorated with 139 plaques honouring the memory of long-departed families with names like Sabbah, Levy and Sassoon.
This synagogue, among the most isolated in North Africa, is one of several across Tunisia enjoying a renaissance of sorts, thanks to official support from President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.
Despite a lack of diplomatic ties between Tunis and Tel Aviv, the country's 1,500 Jews live relatively peaceful, prosperous lives. And their houses of worship--from Le Kef in the northwest, near the Algerian border, to the Mediterranean island of Djerba--are gradually being restored, even when there are no Jews left to pray in them.
It's clear the government wants to encourage Jewish tourism from Europe, Israel and the US. But Tunisians say it's not just about bringing in dollars or euros.
Monique Hayoun, a software engineer living in Paris, left her hometown of Nabeul in 1976 and occasionally returns to Tunisia to visit family and friends.
"The Israelis are nostalgic. For a long time, they wanted to come back here, but in the 1960s and '70s it wasn't so easy," Hayoun said. "Under President Ben-Mi, there's much more openness. He wants people to come back and visit the places where they were born and raised."
Hayoun's hometown, Nabeul, is a five-minute drive from the popular Mediterranean resort of Hammamet. In 1956, on the eve of Tunisia's independence, nearly 1,200 Jews--a quarter of Nabeul's population--lived in this town. Up to 400 people would crowd into the town's Great Synagogue for Yom Kippur services, while six smaller shuls served the rest of the community.
By 1976, Nabeul's Jewish population had dwindled to 115. Today, only four Jewish families are left, and the Great Synagogue is of interest mainly to tourists, explained Hebrew-speaking guide Ben Mansour Seyfeddine.
"I feel very close to the Jews," said Seyfeddine, 38, interviewed as he showed a group of Israelis around the empty shul. He explained that in Nabeul, there was never a specific Jewish neighbourhood, and Muslim and Jewish families often lived together--sometimes even in the same house.
That wasn't the case in Le Kef, where Jews only lived in a district very close to the synagogue, which is located only a few steps away from a Byzantine basilica that later became the town's grand mosque.
In the early 1930s, as many as 900 Jews lived in the town, according to Mohamed Tlili, former director of the Historical Society of Le Kef. But after 1967, most of Tunisia's Jews emigrated to Israel, and by the early 1980s, barely a handful remained.
"We had a moral obligation to do something," said Tlili, the man responsible for restoring Le Kef's synagogue. "Everybody wanted to help, but they didn't know what to do. It was chaos. There was nobody praying in there. It was dirty and in ruins."
In the end, the office of President Ben-Ali stepped in, providing 50,000 Tunisian dinars (about $40,000) for the three-month restoration project, which was supervised by Tlili and his staff. …