In Ghriba, Jewish pilgrims pray for miracles, search for identity
By Natalia Roman Morte
Djerba, Tunisia, May 9 (EFE).- Every year, thousands of Jewish pilgrims and descendants of Tunisian Jews flock to the famed Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia to pray for miracles and try to connect with their Judeo-Tunisian identity.
For the first time, Daphne Bem Baren is going to the 2,600-year-old temple – the oldest in North Africa – with several of her friends to pray for a mysterious saint who grants wishes, according to legend.
On each of the dozen hard-boiled eggs she brought with her, the 40-year-old has written the names of her family and friends and makes wishes for pregnancy, marriage, and better health. She then puts them in a small cave before praying in Hebrew, with Tunisian dialect and French words mixed in.
Four years ago, Bem Baren took the “best decision of her life” when she relocated from Paris to the Tunisian coastal city of La Marsa, where her grandparents were born.
“I spent every summer of my childhood here so it was like coming home. A feeling of attachment that has built up over the years so it was vital at one point to return,” says the graphic designer.
Bem Baren converted to Judaism a few years ago despite her family renouncing the religion after her grandfather, a Jewish Italian-Tunisian communist, was deported by French colonial authorities and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
“Since then, my grandfather completely rejected Judaism and passed the renunciation on to my father, who was not even circumcised. When I converted, I felt like I was reconnecting with that abandoned part of my identity and this made my father end up reconciling with Judaism,” she tells Efe with pride.
A “reconciliation” between a dual Arab-Jewish identity is what pushed Cleo Cohen to come to Tunisia four years ago, despite her grandmother’s warnings: “There is nothing left there, they burned everything.”
More than half a century after her Tunisian and Algerian Sephardic grandparents were exiled to France, Cohen, in her 30s, is trying to restore the lost memory of a generation that did not have the opportunity to discover their country of origin.
Today, a new generation is returning to Tunisia to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents and discover firsthand the anecdotes they heard so many times over the years.
“There are more and more young people who are returning, and the fact of creating ties between us and sharing our experiences encourages them,” explains Cohen, who is undertaking this pilgrimage for the second time.
Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled to about 1,000, from 100,000 in the 1940s, with most emigrating to France and Israel.EFE