Celebrating Yom Kippur in Tunisia
La Goulette, Tunisia - While the pope was celebrating interfaith coexistence in the United States, the spirit of religious tolerance was being expressed, albeit with much less publicity, in Tunisia.
The Jews of Tunisia celebrated Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religion, on September 23rd, at the same time Muslims were celebrating Eid al-Adha. The idea that Jews would be openly celebrating their religious holidays in an Arab country may be a surprise but, despite all the West’s fears — justified and unjustified — fanaticism is not the new normal in all of North Africa and the Middle East.
Tunisia has always been a country known for coexistence between different ethnic and religious communities. The population of Tunis was nearly 15% Jewish in the middle of the 20th century. The cultural imprint of the Jewish community was considerable, from music and art to trade and business. Even those who emigrated remained attached to their “Tunisian identity”, whether they resided in Paris, Marseilles or Tel Aviv.
“I was a teenager when I left for studies in Rome,” said Max Journo, whose grandfather Raoul Journo, was well-known for singing Tunisian traditional music. Raoul Journo’s songs are still the sounds with which Tunisian Muslims celebrate their weddings, circumcision ceremonies and other life events.
“I did not know I was leaving Tunisia for good when I left in 1970,” Max Journo said. “I can very clearly remember the warmth of Tunisians, particularly with our Muslim neighbours in Ariana with whom we would exchange holiday greetings during our respective holidays.”
Max Journo, who returns to Tunisia frequently, chose to celebrate Yom Kippur at La Goulette synagogue. He said he still feels that Tunisia is home.
Religious tolerance is particularly anchored in La Goulette. Jews, Muslims and Italian Catholics have historically lived together there. Throughout the year, Sabbath services in the seaside suburb north of Tunis are regularly performed before a small but dedicated group of attendees.
Many Jews who live in other parts of Tunisia and Europe but grew up in La Goulette fondly recall their formative years living with Muslim, Christian and Jewish neighbours and friends in an atmosphere of harmony.
“While today there may be less than 500 Jews in all of Tunis, we regularly see Tunisian Jews who live outside of Tunisia return to visit friends or to do business. Wherever Tunisian Jews live, they are Tunisians at heart,” said one parishioner.
This year there was a number of American Jews at the synagogue. They seemed mostly in Tunis to study Arabic or to work for some of the many international non-governmental organisations in the country.
“When I tell my friends and family in the US that here, in this Arab country, I was able to celebrate the Jewish holidays in a warm, festive and safe setting with Tunisian Jews, no one would believe me,” said Daniel, an American in his 20s who was attending Yom Kippur services at the synagogue.
“I could hardly believe the sight of Tunisian Jews practicing their faith here but clearly their sense of identity as both Tunisian and Jewish is one and the same,” he said.
Daniel could not help drawing political conclusions from this. “I have no doubt it is this unusual attachment and comfort that Tunisian Jews feel for their country and their sense of identity as Tunisians above all differences that probably has allowed Tunisia to be the one country among all the so-called ‘Arab spring’ countries to undergo a relatively peaceful transition to a democracy,” he said.
Leah, another young American in attendance concurred. “I wish my American friends could experience what I have learned and personally witnessed here in Tunisia, as an American and as a Jew,” she said. “If they did, they would stop lumping Tunisia in with the rest of the region’s problems.”
But for now Tunisia will have to live with its unfortunate reputation as an unsafe destination. The recent terror tragedies at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and Sousse beach attacks has dimmed the deeper and more meaningful legacy of tolerance and peace.