Celebrating Passover with a Tunisian Twist

With Passover one of the Jewish world’s most celebrated holidays, we thought it interesting to explore what makes it special in Tunisia, a country with a small but vital Jewish population that is heir to many ancient and rich Jewish traditions.

We asked Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s Country Director, to guide us, and he came up with a delightful mélange of holiday preparations and customs that differ from community to community—and sometimes from family to family. His notes follow:

“As Pesach approaches, the Jews in Djerba, an island off the south Tunisian coast, are busy preparing handmade matzah in a new facility. Yeshiva students are enlisted to become mixers of dough and attendants along the short matzah production line. All concerned pay very close attention to the amount of moisture in the dough (too much and the dough could “rise” and become “hametz”, the leavened bread prohibited on this holiday). As a result, the round matzahs of Djerba come out as dry—if not drier—than any other matzah in the world. 

“The 1,200 Jews now living in Djerba claim to be the descendants of those who fled the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Certain families, however, who settled in Djerba only a few centuries ago, preserve a unique custom from their days in Spain as Anusim—or Marranos, who practiced their Judaism in secret. As if to protect themselves even today from the spies of the Inquisition, they do not allow anyone other than the immediate family to attend their Seder night. Other Jews in Djerba remain puzzled by this practice—for this is an occasion when the very first prayer invites all in the community who are hungry or in need to come and partake of the Seder. 

“On the afternoon of the last day of Pesach, the Jewish children in Djerba gather for an event they call Taronah. One boy covers himself completely in a burnoose (a hooded cloak) and leads the other children from house to house shouting ‘Taronah! Taronah!’  Using a stick to knock on all doors, the procession receives chocolates, wine, and other sweets. The children share some of the bounty with the poor. 

“Another Djerba family custom that comes at the conclusion of the holiday involves taking an olive branch and lightly tapping the back of each family member. The gesture is accompanied by the blessing ‘Kol l’chai’ (‘Everything is for life’).

“In the capital city of Tunis, the adjoining classrooms for the nursery and kindergarten at the Chabad School are converted once a year into a matzah production facility. The special Passover oven, kept in readiness from year to year, is located just on the other side of the wall. Matzah meal (for baking) is also produced, using a special machine located in the basement of the Grand Synagogue.

“At this time of year, the ground floor of the main community building in Tunis is converted into a special site for preparing 'Pesach baskets.' These are then distributed to elderly Jewish poor throughout the capital. The Claims Conference, JDC, and the Jewish Community of Tunis together finance these baskets, which give these elderly Jews the means to share in celebrating Passover.

“On Seder night in Tunisia, the Hebrew text of the Haggadah is amplified by a full translation into Djudeo-Arab (a form of Arabic written in Hebrew letters). Those most familiar with the tradition sing the translated prayers in a particularly enchanting fashion. But even in Djerba, where Arabic is the native language for all Jews, the younger generation finds the language of these chants from another era, and can barely understand the words, I am told.

“Finally, a lovely Pesach custom still known at least in Tunis takes place at the very end of the holiday. The entire family gathers together to spread fresh leaves of lettuce all around the house—on the lamps, the cabinets, the chairs, and all kinds of furniture—all the while reciting a prayer calling for the coming year to be green—to be flourishing. 

“On behalf of all the Jews of Tunisia, let me pass that hope on to you, along with best wishes for a Happy Pesach!”

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