The Enthusiastic Pilgrim


Jerba (also spelled Djerba) is an island off the coast of southern Tunisia, the fabled home of the lotos-eaters of classical antiquity. It has an ancient Jewish community, concentrated in two villages known as Hara Kbira and Hara Sgira (the Great Quarter and the Little Quarter) which, until recently, were completely Jewish. The Muslim population of these villages is rising as more Jews join the 80,000 who have left Tunisia since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. However, there is still an active Jewish life on the island with synagogues and schools in operation.

The pride of the community is the Griba ("wonderful") synagogue, located at a short distance from Hara Sgira, which was reputedly built in the time of Ezra (fifth century, B.C.E.) It is reported that Ezra visited the island, and that relics of the Temple in Jerusalem are contained within the synagogue walls. Visitors reverently remove their shoes, and in the antechamber elderly men study Jewish holy books continuously.

On the holiday of the thirty-third day of the Omer, about a month after Passover, there is a great pilgrimage to the Griba in honor of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the Talmudic sage to whom the mystical book the Zohar is ascribed. This pilgrimage is still made. Hotels on the island make kosher food available, and a charter flight from Paris brings expatriates to the island airport. Like the author of the following poem, they do not wish to miss the big day.

It was here that on April 11, 2002, what at first was designated an accident took the lives of a number of German tourists. It was later declared to be an act of terror, and was widely reported in the press.

This poem was printed in a little book, undated, in Tunis. The author's name, David, appears in the last stanza. It is a touching monument to simple and ecstatic religious faith. After a pious messianic hope, he describes the joy of pilgrimage, the certainty of the acceptance of any petition made on such an occasion, and then proceeds to mention the various places in Libya and southern Tunisia from which the pilgrims, filled with spiritual intentions, come. Sfax and Tripoli perhaps now have a couple of hundred Jews each. Gabes has a few dozen. Medenine and Ben-Gardane, two small towns on the mainland opposite Jerba, have none at all. Sic transit.

In Praise of the Griba

Until when shall we hope for him?
The Messiah has not come.
The Lord will bring him.
You never know when.

Listen brothers,
Men and women,
How precious is this place!
There is nowhere like it.

How tremendous is this spot!
Happy the one in whom
Light dwells, and his star
Rises among the twelve.

Place precious and exalted!
Sanctuary of God most High,
Visiting it is sweet to me,
No year will I forget.

Whoever has a request
Far or near
Makes for the Griba.
He does not miss his goal.

When people in trouble
Who experience grief
Make for this pilgrimage
Their ills fly away.

Joy comes to them
Every moment, every step.
Their brightness is splendid,
And their light does not go out.

They come here
With pure intent.
Every design is fulfilled,
No injury remains.

Every design is accomplished
For him who knows its worth.
Even the barren woman
Through God brings forth a dozen.

Our Lord will make good the loss
Of him who visits with full heart,
And grant his request
When he comes to the sanctuary.

The place glows
With burning lamps,
And he who comes to the festivity
Spreads frankincense.

Poems and worship,
Reading and repetition.
The feast will not cease,
Never will it perish.

Pray at the Ark –
You will get everything!
Money will be without counting,
It will be as nothing.

Our brothers from Tripoli,
Likewise from Gabes –
Their pilgrimage is acceptable,
Their presence well received.

The pilgrims from Sfax –
Not one of them falls short
Guileless they are,
In private as in public.

May the Merciful One have mercy
On the pilgrims from Medenine,
For long years
And yet more.

The pilgrims from Ben-Gardane
From the provinces and towns –
The Lord of the festivity
Will bring them soundness of body.

Today is a happy day.
Every year there is a holiday –
I, David, your servant
Will not forgo your company!

Picture of the Synagogue
The original Arabic text
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Alan D. Corré