PHOTO ESSAY: Ancient Jewish community endures on Tunisian isle
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PHOTO ESSAY: Ancient Jewish community endures on Tunisian isle

On Djerba, 'we have a perfect Jewish life: schools, synagogues, and kosher shops. Even if there are not many of us'

  • A Jewish man rests in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015.
    A Jewish man rests in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015.
  • A Jewish man reads the Torah at La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015.
    A Jewish man reads the Torah at La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015.
  • A tourist visits El Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A tourist visits El Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A Tunisian Jewish woman prays in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A Tunisian Jewish woman prays in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Char Haddad, 45, prepares meat in his kosher slaughterhouse at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Char Haddad, 45, prepares meat in his kosher slaughterhouse at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Yona Sabbagh, 38, works in his Brik restaurant at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Yona Sabbagh, 38, works in his Brik restaurant at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A caretaker of the Synagogue of the Kohanim of Djirt, pauses before prayers, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A caretaker of the Synagogue of the Kohanim of Djirt, pauses before prayers, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A Star of David is seen outside the Synagogue of the Kohanim of Djirt, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A Star of David is seen outside the Synagogue of the Kohanim of Djirt, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Jewish holy books are seen at a library at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Jewish holy books are seen at a library at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A boy gestures to the camera as he and his relatives leave school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A boy gestures to the camera as he and his relatives leave school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Boys play outside their school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Boys play outside their school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Hebrew educational material is viewed inside a class at a Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. When school lets out, the streets around the ancient synagogue on this Tunisian island fill with rambunctious boys wearing Jewish kippahs and girls in long skirts, shouting to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and French.  (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Hebrew educational material is viewed inside a class at a Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. When school lets out, the streets around the ancient synagogue on this Tunisian island fill with rambunctious boys wearing Jewish kippahs and girls in long skirts, shouting to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and French. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Boys walk inside a Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. When school lets out, the streets around the ancient synagogue on this Tunisian island fill with rambunctious boys wearing Jewish kippahs and girls in long skirts, shouting to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and French.  (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Boys walk inside a Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. When school lets out, the streets around the ancient synagogue on this Tunisian island fill with rambunctious boys wearing Jewish kippahs and girls in long skirts, shouting to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and French. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Yofel Sabbagh, 46, walks inside a bakery as he prepares Challah, a special Jewish bread, on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Yofel Sabbagh, 46, walks inside a bakery as he prepares Challah, a special Jewish bread, on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Boys play with marbles outside their school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood in the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Boys play with marbles outside their school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood in the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A boy heads home with freshly baked Challah, a special Jewish bread, at the beginning of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A boy heads home with freshly baked Challah, a special Jewish bread, at the beginning of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A man prepares meals for his family on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A man prepares meals for his family on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • Boys walk past closed shops on the beginning of Shabbath, after sunset, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood in the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    Boys walk past closed shops on the beginning of Shabbath, after sunset, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood in the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A girl walks home after sunset, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A girl walks home after sunset, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
  • A student wearing a Kippah poses for the camera as he leaves the main Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
    A student wearing a Kippah poses for the camera as he leaves the main Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) — When school lets out, the streets around the ancient synagogue on this Tunisian island fill with rambunctious boys wearing Jewish kippahs and girls in long skirts, shouting to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and French.

The Jewish community in the resort island of Djerba traces its roots all the way back to Babylonian exile of 586 B.C., and is one of the few communities of its kind to have survived the turmoil around the creation of Israel, when more than 800,000 Jews across the Arab world either emigrated or were driven from their homes.

Here the faithful pray at the La Ghriba synagogue — widely believed to be Africa’s oldest — beneath intricate tile walls bearing blue and yellow geometric shapes that would not seem out of place at a mosque. The synagogue’s name can be translated as “strange” or “miraculous.”

The surrounding streets include a kosher butcher, a bakery that sells a traditional tuna-filled pastry known as “brik” and schools that teach lessons in Hebrew, French and Arabic. During the annual Lag BaOmer festival, the streets throng with Jewish pilgrims who venerate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century mystic.

“We’re almost 1,500 now across the country, maybe fewer than residents of a building in New York,” says Jacob LaLoush, 55, the owner of Mamie Lily, a popular kosher restaurant in the capital, Tunis. “But we have a perfect Jewish life: schools, synagogues, and kosher shops. Even if there are not many of us.”

Tunisia’s Jewish population has dwindled from 100,000 in 1956, when the country won independence from France, to less than 1,500, mainly as a result of emigration to France and Israel. But unlike in much of the rest of the Arab world, Tunisian Jews have seen little direct persecution and have only rarely been targeted by extremists.

LaLoush says their situation is “completely different from other Arab countries, where there were laws and policies that forced the Jewish communities out.” But he says there have been times when they were “not pushed out of Tunis, but were shown the doors.”

A suicide truck bombing carried out by al-Qaeda outside the Djerba synagogue in 2002 killed 19 people, mainly German tourists. To this day the neighborhood and the synagogue are heavily guarded by police.

“We have coexisted with our Muslim friends for a long time. We share food, music and tradition,” said Ariel Houri, who works in his father’s furniture shop in Djerba. As to the occasional friction, “it’s mostly the hot-headed youth, they get affected by the news. But the older ones are still sitting in cafes, sharing drinks every day.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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