Keeping Kosher While Traveling

For those who choose to keep kosher, doing so at home does not present nearly the challenge of trying to keep a kosher diet while traveling. Still, there is no reason that you cannot keep Kosher while on vacation. Yes, it will require a little extra planning, but it can be done. Below are some tips to make it a little easier.
Order Ahead
If traveling by plane on a flight on which food will be served, be sure to tell the reservationist about your dietary requirements at the time you book the flight. As soon as you see your tickets, be sure to check that the special request has been printed on them.
Kosher and other specialty meals are almost always prepared only upon request. If not ordered ahead of time, it is highly unlikely you will be able to order such a meal while in flight.
Specialty Travel Services
One way to avoid the hassle of finding kosher meals on each leg of your journey is to book your vacation through a travel service that specializes in handling Jewish travelers. Such travel services will usually include arranging for kosher meals throughout your trip.
In the Foil
If you are eating a hot meal at a restaurant, ask the server to have your food cooked in aluminum foil and that it be served to you in the same foil in which it was cooked.
Check the Seal
While ordering a baked potato (to be served in foil as suggested above) seems like a great way to eat Kosher, be sure that you check the butter for hechser. When in doubt about any food, ask to check the label.
Fridge in the Room
When staying at a hotel, some find it is far easier to keep a stash of acceptable foods rather than trying to eat out for every meal. When booking your hotel reservation, be sure to ask for a room with a refrigerator. That way it will be easier to keep a stash of foods to hold you over during the times when finding a kosher meal is proving to be difficult.
Emergency Stash
Obviously, you do not want to eat a lot of junk food. However, when you are away, stocking up on snacks at the airport or at a local convenience store may be your only option. Some are surprised to find how many of the snacks in stores are Kosher.
Kosher Restaurant Websites
Another great tool for Jewish travelers are websites that list kosher restaurants in various locations. You can type in where you will be staying and a list of kosher restaurants will pop up. What could make keeping Kosher easier than finding a list of Kosher restaurants?
Some travelers pack cans of meat because finding kosher meat in a strange place can prove challenging. Others just determine to eliminate meat from their diet during the time that they are away.
Keeping kosher while traveling is not that difficult. With a little thought and planning you will be able to enjoy eating out during your vacation while still keeping kosher.

Jews of India

Because as much as 80% of the country of India is Hindu, you may be surprised to learn that there is a Jewish community here. The Jewish community of India is the fourth largest Asian Jewish community after Israel, Asian Russia, and Iran. Judaism was one of the very first foreign religions in recorded history to arrive in India. The Cochin Jews are thought to have arrived and settled in Kerala 2,500 years ago.

These first Indian Jews, called the Cochin or Malabar Jews, were the so called “Black Jews”, who are named thusly due to their dark complexion, similar to those of Jews from Yemen or Kurdistan. The Jews of Cochin traditionally say that they came to Cranganore (an ancient port near Cochin in south-west India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. The Pardesi Jews of Cochin, also called the “White Jews” settled later, immigrating to India from western European nations such as Holland and Spain. The White Jews spoke the ancient Sephardic language of Ladino. In the 1600s and 1700s, Cochin also experienced an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.

The Black Jews and White Jews formed two classes within Cochin, both of whom were equally strict in their religious observances. The Blacks Jews constructed their first synagogue in 1625, while the synagogue of the Whites, a gorgeous and ornate building, was erected in 1568. This synagogue was, however, burned by the Portuguese in 1662, rebuilt by Shem-Ṭob Castillia in 1668, then finally completed by Ezekiel Rahabi in 1730. Today, this Pardesi synagogue is still open, and is a protected heritage site.

Today, most of the Jews of Cochin have immigrated to Israel. While they numbered more than 1,000 in the late 1800s, today there are approximately 50 Jews living in Kerala, and practicing in their 3 synagogues. Some people fear that, due to their small numbers, the Cochin Jews will soon fade away.

However, India is not without other Jewish communities. These include the Baghdadi Jews, who are descendents of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, as well as those from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan; the Bene Israel Jews, who arrived in India approximately 2,000 years ago after a shipwreck stranded 7 Jewish families from Judea near the city of Mumbai; and the Bene Ephraim Jews, a small group who are sometimes called the Telugu Jews because they speak Telugu.

Today, the largest Jewish community within India is the Bnei Manashe community, which consists of about 9,000 members in the northeast Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram.

In the 19th century the community was converted to Christianity, however in the 1970s they began to return to Judaism. As recently as July 2005, the Bnei Menashe community built their first mikvah. Shortly after, a similar mikvah was built in Manipur. In mid-2005, the Bnei Menashe opened its first community center in Israel.

Today, the overwhelming majority of the Jews are concentrated in Bombay. In addition, there are communities in Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Poona and a few villages in Maharashton State. There is absolutely no pressure from within India itself for the exodus of the Jews. However, since 1948, approximately 20,000 Jewish residents have emigrated from India, primarily to Israel.

Jewish Points of Interest in Rome

There are hundreds of wonderful reasons to visit the great Italian city of Rome. Ancient architecture, fabulous museums and thousands of years of history are just a few. There is also great shopping and fine food. For visitors interested in Jewish history and Jewish life, Rome also holds a special appeal just for them.
While some may not consider Rome a city that is particularly steeped in Jewish history, the truth is that there are many Jewish points of interest in Rome. One of the many benefits of visiting this city while on a tour with Deluxe Kosher Tours is that the Jewish points of interested will be highlighted in a very special way.
The Jewish Museum
This museum first opened in 1959, but has undergone several renovations over the years. Jews have lived in Rome for thousands of years and some of the archaeological finds have been truly amazing. Those artifacts, along with records, photographs and other mementos are a record of daily life throughout the thousands of years that Jews have dwelt in the city, both in times of freedom and persecution.
The Jewish Ghetto
The Jewish Ghetto was first built in 1555. The intention was to try and force assimilation by forcing the Jews who lived there to listen to Catholic mass on Shabbat. The other intention was to keep the Jewish population separate from that of the Christians who lived in the city.
As with most ghettos, Jews were not allowed to roam freely outside of its walls. The gates were locked at night, forcing those who lived there to remain inside during the night. Those gates were not the only restrictions placed on the Jews. There were also strict limits placed on what kind of work a Jew could do.
Throughout the years, the Ghetto would be shut down only to be reestablished when another ruler decided he needed to suppress or separate the Jews. To add insult to injury, the Jews living in the Ghetto were forced to pay taxes for the “right” to live there.
Today, most of the original Ghetto is gone. There is an original wall that can be seen and some parts of the structures have been recreated.
The area that was once used to keep Jews separate is now a thriving community where visitors can sample delicious Jewish food and experience other aspects of Jewish life.
Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is not thought by all to be a Jewish point of interest, but it is. The beautiful paintings adorning the chapel are a gorgeous interpretation of some of the most important stories in Judaism.
While the Sistine Chapel is certainly an attraction with wide appeal, the artistic depictions will surely hold special meaning for Jewish visitors.
As mentioned above, there are many excellent reasons to want to visit the city of Rome. As a Jewish visitor, however, it is only natural for there to be a particular interest in the attractions and ruins that pertain to Judaism and the Jewish Roman people.
By visiting the city with Deluxe Kosher Tours, you will not only see the city at large, but will also be given special access to some of the Jewish people and traditions that remain in Rome.

How Did Jews Arrive in Peru?

Interestingly, the Jewish community developed in two different primary ways, or phases, if you will. The first phase occurred in the sixteenth century when Spaniards arrived in South America, and in the area today known as Peru. Included with this group were “Conversos,” meaning people who had recently converted to Christianity.

 

With these Conversos were a number of people who still secretly practiced Judaism despite their conversion. These individuals were forced to convert due to the Inquisition, but were unwilling to abandon their faith. It is thought that the Inquisition leaders were even aware that these Secret Jews, as they were known, were immigrating to South America, and therefore instituted a quota on the number of Conversos who were permitted to move to this area.

 

Today, however, there are no known descendants of the original South American Secret Jews living in Peru. The Jewish Community of Peru today comes from a second wave of immigration that occurred many years later in the early 1900s.

 

The first Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews arrived in Peru around 1910. By the end of the decade, there were approximately 400 Jews living in Lima. Following in the 1920s, immigration continued to the country, especially by Ashkenazi Jews. Many of them settled in outlying cities and began their own businesses. When the number of Sephardi Jews increased, they separated from the Ashkenazim and founded the Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita Sefardita (The Sephardic Jewish Welfare Society) in 1920. The Ashkenazim founded the Unión Israelita del Peru in 1923. Peru’s Zionist organization Organización Sionista del Perú was established in 1925. By 1930, the German Jews assimilated, and the Jewish population reached a unified total of 1,000 individuals.

 

The decade that followed brought much prosperity to the Jews of Peru, and many were able to realize the dream of financial security. There were plenty of work opportunities for immigrants. A new wave of immigration from Germany and Austria began in 1933 and the Sociedad de Beneficencia Israelita de 1870 (The Jewish Beneficial Society of 1870) was re-established. The Sephardi synagogue was consecrated in 1933 and the Ashkenazi synagogue was consecrated in 1934. However, In 1938, the Peruvian government completely banned Jewish immigration. At this time, Peru had some 2,500 Jewish residents.

 

In the 1960s, the Jewish community of Peru hit the peak of its population, while undergoing a period of change. The second generation of Jews, most of whom were born and educated in Peru, assumed roles of leadership. The community continued to prosper, ties with Israel intensified, the number of people making Aliyah increased. More than 80% of Lima’s Jews were connected with the Jewish school that had attracted emissaries (shlihim) who served as teachers and as well as the principal. The Jewish population in the city of Lima reached 5,500.

 

Following the 1960s, the Jewish population in Peru began to decline, and today it is quite small. In the 1990’s, it hit an all-time low, and began to visibly deteriorate. The number of Jews making Aliyah decreased, while intermarriage increased further, and immigration to the United States intensified. The number of pupils in the Jewish school steadily declined to only 430, and the number of financial contributors to the Jewish community also dwindled. The total Jewish population dropped to only 2,700 people.

 

Even though the Jewish community dwindled at the end of the 20th century, they are well represented in Peru. Jews own many of the important businesses. Many Jews also serve in the government. One extraordinary case is Efrain Goldenberg Schreiber, who served as finance minister and prime minister in the 1990s.

 

The first lady of Peru, Eliane Karp is Jewish,

 

as is the second vice president, David Waisman.

 

Georgian Jews: Part I, An Ancient Community

The term “Georgian Jews” designates Jewish people, also referred to as Gurjim or kartveli ebraelebi, who migrated to Georgia, located in the Caucasus. They comprise one of the oldest communities in the Georgian republic. Their history is one of both great strife and courageous survival, dating back to ancient times.

The origins and timelines of Jewish settlement in Georgia are debated by scholars. Some attribute the origin of Georgian Jews to descendants of the ten tributes who were exiled by the ruler Shalmaneser. Others believe that Jews fled to Georgia after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city of Jerusalem. Another theory places the settlement of the Jews in Georgia during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. Regardless of their origins, most scholars believe that Jews resided in Georgia as early as 2,600 years ago.

Throughout their settlement in this region, Jews have been subject to frequent persecution and dislocation during numerous changes in control of the region. At various times, they have lived under the reign of the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim Empire, the Mongols, the Persians, the Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks, and the Soviets. During each period of occupation, Georgia Jews have faced such trials as serfdom, blood libels, secularization attempts, and overall religious persecution. The Georgian Jews’ loss of identity was often threatened by continued upheavals, and Jewish traditions were difficult to maintain at times.

This fragmentation began to change in the 1800s, however, with the abolition of serfdom by the Russian Tsar. By the mid-19th century, former Jewish serfs relocated to villages and towns and re-established a sense of community. Synagogues were built, and thriving Jewish quarters were established in numerous towns and cities. During this period, Ashkenazi Russian Jews were required to move to Georgia, and, after centuries of mutual distrust, the two groups were united through a common involvement in Zionism. By the early 20th century, the Zionist movement was robust in most parts of Georgia.

While the sense of Jewish identity grew, so did the scourge of anti-Semitism. Blood libels became more common in the mid- and late 19th century. However, with the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Georgian Republic gained independence, and economic prospects for Georgia Jews improved. After this brief taste of freedom and relative prosperity, the invasion of the Red Army changed the landscape once again. Many fled the country, and those who remained were subject to discrimination, including economic restrictions and forbidding of all Zionist activity. Farm collectives were established, then disbanded, leading to disruption of the Jewish community. Increased attempts at aliyah were largely opposed, and Zionists were often imprisoned or murdered.

By the middle of the last century, Jewish culture in Georgia appeared almost non-existent, with few remaining synagogues or other Jewish institutions. During World War II, Georgia Jews served honorably in the Soviet Army. But after the war ended, Jews were frequently arrested and synagogues destroyed. Blood libels continued into the 1960s.

With the Six Day War changing the Jewish landscape, large numbers of Georgian Jews sought exit visas in order to make aliyah in Israel. Facing government resistance, they turned to a public campaign of letter writing, hunger strikes, and other expressions of protest. Soviet anti-Jewish policies softened somewhat as a result, and over 30,000 Georgia Jews subsequently left the country for Israel and other nations, representing about 17% of the entire Soviet Jewish population.

Throughout their centuries of life in Georgia, Jewish people have demonstrated a tenacity and sense of community that has characterized their way of life around the world. Although their numbers are much smaller, a thriving Georgian Jewish community continues today, as testament to a people’s courage and strength.

Famous Peruvian Jews

It is difficult to find a pure descendant of the Peruvian Jewish community, and I can safely say that not more than 3,000 of them still remain in the Peruvian capital city of Lima. The Inquisition which gained momentum in the colonial days saw many Jews from Europe arrive into South America including Peru. Later, the rubber boom in the late 19th century also attracted Jews who settled in Lima as agents for the trade. I soon realized the community had made its mark in history. During their difficult journey and settlement, many famous Peruvian Jews came into the limelight which made the world sit up and take notice.

Efraín Goldenberg Schreiber:
A famous politician who rose to become Peru’s Prime Minister. He was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant and studied humanities and law in Lima. In his school, he was the only Jew. It probably made him very resilient, and he grew up to study humanities and law. His political career was very bright, as he first became Peru’s Prime Minister in 1994 and later the Finance Minister in 1999. Taking up his family business, he was appointed to the board of the Lima Jewish Community Association.

Isaac Mekler:
Another Peruvian politician, he became the leader of the Association of Jews in Peru. A member of the Congress, he has been serving as a national politician representing the Constitutional Province of Callao since 2006 till date.

David Waisman Rjavinsthi:
An active politician, he has been a congressman for three years in his career. Born to Romanian parents, he came to Peru and started a small clothes business and later sold machinery for making them. He was a Jewish convert and is very vocal about his viewpoints, especially about the economic status in the country. At present, he is seriously considering contesting the Vice President’s post in 2011.

María Francisca Ana de Castro:
Renowned for her beauty, she came to Peru as a Spanish immigrant in the late 17th century. She is the most famous victim of the Inquisition and was burned at the stake just for being a practicing Jew. It left a bitter taste, and people began questioning irregularities that existed in the system.

Barton Zwiebach:
A leading expert in string field theory and armed with a doctorate in physics, he was responsible for writing the book “A First Course in String Theory” for undergraduate students. He has taught Physics in the United States in several universities including Berkeley, California, and MIT.

Baruch Ivcher: An Israeli-born business tycoon, he became famous when his television station Frecuencia Latina exposed government corruption. He studied law in Jerusalem and attained Peruvian nationality to expand his business. The exposure that took place pulled him down a bit, and I suppose he would have been in more trouble had the Human Rights Commission not interfered.

Raul Geller: A soccer player of repute, Geller is well known because he was also a qualified orthopedist, probably the only one I guess. He had the honor of representing the Peruvian National team and practiced his skills in Israel with Betar Jerusalem scoring 41 goals in the year the club was promoted to the First Division.

Famous Indian Jews

Jews in India can be traced back to at least 2,000 years. Well, some believe they are the direct descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes that moved out of Israel around 720 BC. From what is evident now, I gather we can go by the number of native Jewish communities left in India including the Baghdadi Jews, Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, the Bnei Menashe which lay claim to have originated from the Isreali Tribe of Manasseh, and the Telegu Jews also known as Bene Ephraim. I have seen many Jews in Maharashtra and Gujarat, especially in Mumbai, Navsari and Udwada where their “sacred fire” is kept. Through the generations, Jews have contributed greatly to the nation’s growth. The Tata Group is the modern entity that comes to mind besides other Indian Jews.

Jamsedji Nusserwanji Tata

14570077931133160300

A pioneer with great ideas, he was instrumental for laying the foundation to many of India’s great companies under the Tata Sons banner. Coming from a family of priests did not dampen his pioneering spirit. He laid the foundation for his ideas with a group that pursued industrialization in the fields of education, iron and steel, hydro power, and hospitality. He lived to see only the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai coming up in his time.

Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata

2005072905991101-17894

He was Jamsedhi Tata’s cousin and was instrumental in completing Tata Steel in Jamshedpur after the death of Jamshedji. He remained on the Tata Sons’ board as a permanent director till his death at the age of 70 years when his son took over.

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (JRD Tata)

23leaders1

He continued from where his father Ratanji left off and remains one of the greatest industrialists India has produced. Honored with the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, he was instrumental in launching Air India. Like so many others from across the world, I can identify with the Maharaja, the airline’s mascot that extends a royal welcome with humor and humility. JRD started a total of 14 enterprises in his time making the Tata group an even bigger company.

Ratan Naval Tata

ratan-tata

Taking over from JRD, Ratan Tata has made the Tata Group a truly international business group. He is a pilot and he never married. I guess the Board of Directors therefore kept increasing the age limit so he does not retire. We once again hear he is scheduled to retire in December 2012 when he turns 75. He has realized most of his dreams. He will be remembered for releasing the really cheap Nano car.

Dr. Dadabhai Naoroji (The Grand Old Man of India)

Dadabhai Naoroji

In August 1982, he became the first Indian and Asian to be elected as a member of the British Parliament. Later, he became one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. He believed in moderation and one of his most famous quotes was, “I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Parsi, but above all an Indian first."

Homi Babha

homi-bhaba

One of the pioneers in the field of science, he is the architect of India’s nuclear capability today. Many Indian scientists learned their trade from him, and he is fondly remembered for his effervescence, love of nature, and painting.

Jewish Life in Dublin

Jewish people have been part of life in Dublin, Ireland since the first Jews were recorded to enter the land in 1079. Sure, it took nearly 600 for the first synagogue to be established, and it would take hundreds of years more for the presence of the Jewish people to number in the thousands, but by the 19th century, Jewish people were a small but important part of life in Dublin.

The story of the history of Jews in Dublin is told in the Irish Jewish Museum. The museum opened its doors in 1985 in a former synagogue, which remains intact. It covers 150 years of history and Jewish life in Ireland

The museum, while on the small side, does contain artifacts and genealogical records. While located in Dublin, it also includes information and artifacts about Jewish history in other Irish cities.

One exhibit that many visitors find interesting is the fully stocked kitchen. This kosher kitchen appears exactly as it would have in any kosher home fifty or sixty years ago. For some it brings back memories of their mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen.

While there was, at one time, a thriving Jewish community, there is today, by some estimates, less than 1,000 Jews in the country. Some say that it is unlikely any Jewish community will remain for much longer. That is just one more reason why the museum is so important. It is also why now is a good time to visit Dublin if you intend to partake in any religious services while in the country.

While the country’s Jewish population is small, those who remain do what they can in order to preserve the Jewish traditions. For example, there are so few Jewish people in a city called Cork that on high holy days, Jews from Dublin come to help them mark the days.

It seems that as long as there is a Jewish population – no matter how small – the Jewish life will continue in Ireland. There are even a handful of Jewish bakeries and restaurants to be found within Dublin. A grocery store in the city caters to those who keep kosher at home.

The small population remains active in politics, charity and the community and works with other city leaders and citizens to be sure that the needs of all are met. Even though the Jewish members of society in Dublin are so greatly outnumbered, they still manage to be elected to political office which shows, perhaps, a lower level of anti-Semitism than in some other parts of the world.

That is not to say there is no such activity. In fact, the Irish Jewish museum was vandalized in 1995 at which time it was spray painted with anti-Semitic slogans. Still, overall, the atmosphere is one of acceptance and tolerance.

While many factors, such as assimilation, emigration and aging, have contributed to the decline of the Jewish population in Ireland the Jewish community that remains is committed to preserving their way of life for as long as possible.

When you visit the Irish Jewish Museum, you see not only the history of the Jews in the area, but also what may be an era that is rapidly coming to an end.

 

Cochin Jews

The Cochin Jews, also known as Malabar Jews, are the oldest group of Jews living in India. The received their name because they live in the city of Cochin (now part of Kerala) in South India. It is thought that these Jews have been living in India since the time of King Solomon. However, some believe that they moved here from Lost Tribes, and others believe that they arrived in India after being exiled from Israel by Nebuchadnezzar. One thing that most agree on, however, is that the Cochin Jews arrived in the area in different waves; there was not one single immigration.

 

The oldest documented evidence of a Jewish community in southwest India dates from 1000 CE, when a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban received a set of engraved copper plates from the Hindu ruler of Cranganore. These plates, which are still preserved in the Cochin synagogue, list economic and ceremonial privileges of the Jews, including exemption from paying taxes, the right to collect tolls, and the honor of using particular lamps, umbrellas, drums, and trumpets associated with high ritual status. Because of these plates, it is clear that by this time the Jews were firmly established in the area.

However, it is unclear as to which group of Cochin Jews were presented with the copper plates. You see, the Cochin Jews are divided into three groups. The biggest group is called Meyuhassim meaning “privileged” in Hebrew. This group’s forefathers are considered to have arrived in India as merchants during the period of King Solomon. The second group is called Pardesi, meaning “foreigner” in some Indian languages. The Pardesi Jews are those who came to Kerala at different periods from different countries, mainly from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain, and Germany. These two groups of people were merchants who had slaves. These slaves were converted to Judaism, then later on released from their status as slaves. They then became known as Meshuhararim, meaning “released” in Hebrew. The Pardesi Jews are sometimes referred to as White Jews, whereas Meyuhassim are sometimes referred to as Black Jews. One may assume that this distinction is based on skin color, although this is another fact that is not necessarily historically clear.

 

The population of Jews living in Kerala, an area named for the kera, or coconut palm tree that flourishes here, has greatly fluctuated over the last 2 millennia. By the 1700s there were 8 different synagogues in 5 different towns within Kerala. The community was said to be largest in the 1940s, when the population reached about 3,000. After 1948, however, many emigrated, and Cochin aliyah began in the 1950s.

 

One of the most interesting things about the Cochin Jews is that they have lived in southwest India for so long without experiencing anti-Semitism or threats of persecution from neighbors of India. Today, there are no more than 60-70 Jews living in Kerala. But you can still find evidence of a Jewish community and neighborhood here, along with a synagogue. However, there are as many as 4,000 Cochin Jews living in Israel, where they carry on their proud traditions and heritage as Jews of India.

As a Jew, Is it Really Safe for Me to Visit Tunisia Today?

 

A question I’m asked frequently these days: is it safe for Jews to travel in countries like Tunisia? So far, my answer continues to be yes.

Turmoil in Tunisia

Concerns stem from the recent ouster of longtime dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali. While he was an inflexible ruler, his government did provide protection to the Jewish community. Apart from an isolated incident in 2002, when a terrorist attack on a Jerba synagogue killed 21 people (none Jewish), the community had not felt under seige since the days of official state persecution and pogroms.

In a recently published interview with the president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, hope was expressed for the future, based upon the fact that many local Jews considered themselves to be a part of the upheaval that led to Ben Ali’s ouster. While they are happy that his dictatorship has gone, hope is guarded, due to concerns that someone might exploit the power vacuum and Jews become caught in the middle. But so far, the only troubling event has been the burning of a synagogue, but this was felt to be part of a larger wave of arson overtaking the country.

Jewish Roots in Tunisia

The corner of the Mediterranean in which Tunisia is located has been home to Jews since antiquity. Prior to the 1940s, approximately 100,000 Jews resided in Tunisia. By 1967, the number had dropped to 20,000. Today, only about 1,500 Jews live there, mainly in the capital city of Tunis and on the island of Djerba (or Jerba). Djerba has been a Jewish stronghold for over 2,000 years.

Judaism in Tunisia Today

While the Jewish community’s numbers are greatly diminished, only one Jewish family appears to have left the country for good since the January 2011 uprising. Pilgrimages are still made to Jerusalem, but travelers generally return to Tunisia. Jews live peacefully in a country that is almost entirely Muslim and that holds Islam as its state religion. However, Jews are permitted to hold joint Israeli-Tunisian nationality, and Jewish and Muslim neighbors co-exist comfortably.

Apart from the synagogue, few Jewish institutions still exist. There is no Jewish school in Tunisia, no social club or community center. The primary event that focuses Jewish celebration of its traditions is the annual pilgrimage to La Ghriba Synagogue by thousands of Sephardic Jews from not only Africa but elsewhere. Together, they celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer, and enthusiastic crowd fill the streets with festive music and food. I was privileged to experience this event, and joined students and pilgrims in toasts of fig liquor and a huge barbecue. I also watched as Torahs, some over 200 years old, were paraded through the streets of Hara Seghira.

Tunisian Tourism

If you’re feeling more reassured about the safety of Tunisia for Jewish visitors, let me share with you some of the sights and experiences of Tunisia that would make a visit worthwhile.

Tunisia sits on an upper corner of Africa, on the Mediterranean coast between Libya and Algeria, and just a stone’s throw from Italy. As a Middle Eastern country without oil, Tunisia relies heavily upon tourism. And there’s certainly much to see, from ancient ruins to beautiful seas and desert vistas.

Following are some of my top recommendations.

The Island of Djerba

Famous for its beautiful sandy beaches, olive and fig groves, quaint villages, and the Ghriba synagogue, the island is Tunisia’s primary tourist attraction. Djerba is sometimes known as the “Land of the Lotus Eaters” of Homerian legend. Like the famous Greek character, if you eat the fruits of Djerba, you may be in danger of forgetting your past life, too. It’s a hypnotic and lovely island. Its centerpiece is the Ghriba synagogue, originally built in 586 B.C.E.

Tunisian Medina

Built by Arabs centuries ago, medinas are a common feature of many North African cities. They consist of walled sections of the old city, with narrow and maze-like streets, usually closed to all but pedestrian traffic. There you’ll also find merchants setting up their wars in markets that are famous for both their variety and their vigorous haggling. You can buy anything from jewelry to a donkey – but be prepared to barter! My favorite is found in the capital city of Tunis. Make sure you venture behind the more touristy section. Many of the streets are cobblestoned with arched stone gates, and you’ll find diverse shops, cafes, a mosque, and museums. Wear comfortable shoes and take your time. I have often sat in a little café and sipped mint tea with pine nuts while watching the street life.

The “Tunisian Riviera”

The city of Hammamet is a resort town with a prime location on the Mediterranean. Check out its Roman baths and palm-lined beach. Travel a bit farther inland, and you’ll come upon one of its most unusual sights, and a favorite of mine. The villa of George Sebastian, built in the 1920s, is such a striking building that it led the architect Frank Lloyd Wright to declare it the most beautiful house he’s ever seen. It’s now a cultural center which you can tour. Check out the 4-person baptistry-style bath and the huge arcaded swimming pool, among other features.

Some Final Thoughts

If concerns about safety are still in your mind, let me offer this final reassurance. Whenever I’ve treated people in Tunisia with kindness and respect, they’ve usually reciprocated. Remember to say thank you – shukran. They’ll be delighted at your efforts, and you’re sure to earn smiles.