While other Tunisian cities have been losing their Jews, Djerba has maintained its Jewish population at about 1, 000. The reason, argues Lucette Lagnado, is the high fertility rate among the orthodox Jewish women of the island. But a bid to improve female education may soon end all that. Feature article in the Wall St Journal (with thanks: Lily; Dan):
Over the longer term, the greatest threat to Djerba’s Jews may come,
not from without, but from within. Jews have lived on this storied
island for centuries and, some believe, since Biblical times. Ancient
traditions guide every aspect of Djerban Jewish life, but modernity is
slowly encroaching. Laptops, iPhones and TV sets are ubiquitous.
the biggest question mark revolves around the role of women in society.
Largely absent from the workforce, Djerba’s Jewish women generally are
expected to lead traditional lives tending to husbands and families.
result has been an off-the-charts birth rate. Women here bear an
average of four to five children, according to local leaders. Some have
10 or 12. That has contributed to a virtual population explosion in
recent decades, with roughly 50% of the population 20 years of age or
younger, according to local leaders.
In Tunis, by contrast, only 300-400 Jews remain—down from tens of thousands. Many of them are elderly and frail.
the president of the community, argues that Djerban Jews have
done better than other Arab Jews precisely because they have fought
against the lure of modern times—including assimilation and the changing
role of women.
“Listen, the Jews in Tunisia, they had their
freedoms…and they all left,” he says. “Our synagogues are full every day
and on the Sabbath, we don’t work—nothing. If you look at France you
don’t see that even on Yom Kippur. That is why we don’t want modernity.”
yet, at the fringes of society and in subtle ways, Djerban women are
evolving. Two agents of change are cousins Alite and Hanna Sabban, who
have fought to bring greater educational opportunities to the girls of
They are far from radical. Married to two brothers, Hanna, 34
years old, has four children, while Alite, 33, has seven. Neither has an
advanced education. Both are deeply observant, and embrace the
importance of religion and the traditional role of Djerban Jewish women
as wives and mothers. But they are also critical of their culture’s
failings with respect to women and feel that even within the confines of
Djerba’s conservative beliefs, there is much room to evolve.
girls hasn’t been a high priority in Djerba’s Jewish community.
Historically, in fact, they weren’t educated at all, and most were
illiterate until well into the 20th century.
For boys, an
education, at least a religious one, has always been a key part of life
on Djerba. They study Hebrew and the Torah from morning to night, in
classes taught by rabbis. That education was formalized with the
establishment in the 1960s of modern-day religious schools known as
But women’s education didn’t exist. In the early
1950s, resident David Kidouchim
started a part-time school for girls teaching them to read and
write in Hebrew. Though it was only two hours a day, his school was seen
as transformational, and he became a local hero.
To the Sabban
women, it is no longer enough. “When a girl goes to school for two
hours, what can she do?” Alite asks. “We wanted more studies, we wanted
for the girls to develop academically.”
They speak from personal
experience. Growing up, Hanna was the luckier one. Her parents allowed
her to attend the Arab public lycée outside of the main Jewish quarter,
so she received more of a secular, full-time education. But she left at
14, she says, before she could get the prized baccalaureate. The two
women bonded because of shared frustrations and a sense that life for a
Jewish girl could be better—even within the confines of faith and
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Hanna Sabban and her sister-in-law Alite Sabban stand in the middle of an abandoned house they recently purchased in hopes of establishing Djerba’s first full-time school for girls. (Photo: Danielle Zalcman, WSJ)