Friday, May 27, 2005

Jewish heritage in Algeria

The French Catholic newspaper La Croix has been closely following the progress of some 130 Jews on a return visit to the town of Tlemcen in western Algeria. The visitors, the largest group to come back since independence, saw three former synagogues.

The Rabb (rabbi) synagogue in the street of that name has become a martial arts centre. A few Stars of David are still visible on the walls - a large one on the end wall. Large wooden seats with storage space for prayer books are used in a meeting room on the first floor.

In the next street another synagogue is today a library. The facade has not changed but the Stars of David have been scraped off. Ditto with the third house of worship, which is now a cultural centre. A quarter not far from the mosque is known as 'derb el jihoud' - the street of the Jews.

Some ten rabbis ministered to a third of the total population - some 10,000 mostly observant people, according to Abdelaziz Hamza-Cherif, a local cultural councillor.

Apart from its synagogues, Tlemcen is known among Jews as the site of the tomb of the 16th century Rabbi Ephraim Enkoua, one of the leading lights of Algerian Judaism.

Tradition has it that the rabbi, a refugee from the Spanish Inquisition, cured the Sultan's daughter and obtained for his community the right to settle in the centre of the town and to build a synagogue. The community in Tlemcen dates back to this time. The visitors will go on a Hillula pilgrimage to the tomb, traditional at Lag Ba' Omer. The tomb was restored on the initiative of president Bouteflika whose family came from this area. Not far is the cemetery which though unkept has never been desecrated. The pilgrims will try to locate their ancestors' tombs.

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