Purim in 1907 Tunisia: Charity, revelry and Haman’s funeral in the Hara

The Hara (Jewish quarter) of Tunis in 1886.


There are perhaps 1,500 Jews in Tunisia in 2017. Within living memory, though, the country had a Jewish population of more than a hundred thousand.

From the 13th to 20th century, in the capital city, Tunis, the Jewish quarter was a poor neighborhood called the Hara. It was home to an intense, often insular Jewish community that spoke Judeo-Arabic.

This 1907 article suggests that the Hara celebrated every aspect of Purim in a big way: commemorating the story of Esther, widespread charity and hospitality, and, for some Jews, heavy drinking (of which the author clearly disapproves).

The writer’s description of Purim foods may be slightly “off,” but the article gives a vivid account of celebrations in what was once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood in North Africa.


PURIM IN TUNIS
by Mebasser

(Archives Israélites, March 21, 1907.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Passover is almost here, but perhaps it is still not too late to talk about Purim. In the Courrier de Tunisie, we find a piece by our contributor Mebasser, with picturesque new details about how Jews in Tunis celebrate the victory of Mordecai and Esther over Haman:

On the Saturday before Purim—known as Turnip Saturday or “Shabbat el Lefta,” which refers to a local legend—the young Jewish boys of the Hara are in the habit of celebrating Haman’s death. This mock ceremony is most unusual.

Early that morning, the boys gather in a very old house that lies in ruins at the heart of the Hara, in a place called the kharba.

There, as best they can, they use whatever they find at hand to fashion a small effigy—the kind that people try to knock over at a fair by throwing balls at it. This represents the famous Haman. They place him on a funeral litter and begin walking with it. They are followed by “Haman’s ten sons,” each with a funeral pall or wreath of similarly crude construction. This procession, numbering about a hundred urchins at the outset, travels through all the streets of the Jewish quarter, singing a popular Continue reading

Purim on enemy lines: a French Army rabbi and a minyan of Algerian soldiers celebrate at the front (1915)

Zouave soldiers crossing a river in northern France in World War I, preparing to attack German trenches. A large minority of the North African Zouaves were Jewish. [Image from the London periodical The Graphic, April 10, 1915.]


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is a rabbi who served in World War I. Under the pen name Un Aumônier Israelite (“A Jewish Chaplain”), he wrote articles about his wartime experiences for the French Jewish magazine L’Univers Israélite.

In 1915, he was chaplain to the Jews in an Algerian division of Zouaves (French light-infantry forces, originally recruited from African countries that France had invaded and colonized). Below, our anonymous rabbi tells us how he and his minyan sought Purim joy and comfort in perilous conditions, close to the front line.


Memories of Purim at the front

(L’Univers Israélite, March 24, 1916.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Circumstances keep me from celebrating Purim among soldiers this year, and so my thoughts return to a year ago when I was just starting out as a chaplain.

I arrived at the front a few days before Purim. At my request, I had been assigned to an Algerian division. I suspected there must be a number of our believers there, but I did not know any of them and did not know how to find them. I considered trying an approach that had served me well a few weeks earlier in Saint-Denis, when I had wanted to identify some Jews among the Zouaves stationed there. I had posted myself outside the door to their quarters, and each time a Zouave came out, I would ask, “Do you know Shema Yisrael?” “No, I don’t,” replied one. “Which company is he in?” asked another. “I knew someone with a name like that, but he’s not here anymore.” After other disheartening responses, finally one Zouave’s eyes lit up at my question, letting me know he had understood. Through him, I met other Algerian Jews, but one after the other, they were all Continue reading