Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tunisian memories of the 9th of Ab



On this Sunday falls the saddest day in the Jewish calendar: the 9th of Ab, also known as Yom Ekha. Sephardi and Mizrahi customs differ slightly for this period of mourning for the two destroyed  Jewish temples and other calamities to befall the Jewish people. Only in Tunisia, however, does the 9th of Ab have a special name. Writing in Harissa, Dr Victor Hayoun recalls his childhood memories of how 9th of Ab was marked in Tunis.

In Tunis, the 9th day of Av is Nhar-Ekha, named for the book (of Lamentations  by the prophet Jeremiah,  about the destruction of the First Temple) which  we read on that day in the synagogue.

In Tunisia, and only in Tunisia it seems to me, it is also called Nhar-Eguein. It is not easy to trace the origin of the name and several 'wise men' to whom I posed the question, could not give me a satisfactory answer. The most likely is that the word comes from the Hebrew: Yaguen would be short for "Hashem yaguen a'leinou" (God protect us), in the same way as "shimassilinou"is a distortion of Hashem yatsilénou (God forbid) when one lists the 10 Plagues of Egypt at the Passover seder. Would we be the only Jewish community to wish for protection on that day against all the misfortunes that have befallen the Jewish people?  In English we would say: Never Again.

 My childhood memories of that fateful day were full of violent scenes and the sufferings of our people throughout its history. The holy texts tell us they all took place on the  9th of Av. All the infamous figures, whose cruelty my father described to me, merged into one: from Amalek, through to Nebuchadnezzar, Torquemada, Titus and others. The Shoah had not yet taken up its place in our collective memory.

In my little world it was hard to rank all these wicked sorcerers according to time and place. My space was my small town, and my protagonists were toy soldiers that I placed on the battlefield, ours against the evil ones.


Our Arab neighbors, whose conduct toward us ranged from sincere fraternity to humiliation and even pogroms (Gabes  1941 was still fresh in my young memory), had sharpened my childish feeling that we were tolerated by the 'masters of the place' and they could get so angry as to make my status precarious. My destiny was not in the hands of my father.

 
Around the 9th of Av, all the villains inhabited my nightmares. I saw the synagogue square on fire, I saw the Romans who tortured Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, while others killed Hannah and her seven sons. Beside them, I saw our Arab neighbors who had murdered my uncle Azzar and his daughter, while others danced with  Torquemada
around a bonfire. Above all, you could hear the cries of the Jews who were fleeing in search of refuge.

These images of desolation were accompanied by the daily routine that preceded that fateful day. For three weeks we did not eat meat, my mother no longer washed the  couscous, it was  coarse and less spicy. The only consolation was the fish which she prepared in different ways.


The meal of the day before the fast was made up of  squash with lentils with a boiled egg. My father symbolically sprinkled a few ashes (a sign of mourning), instead of salt.


Later I accompanied him to  the synagogue. The floor was covered with mats (h'ssira). All were sitting on the floor. Sometimes we heard someone scold children who had dared climb on the benches. In the evening, my father slept on a mat outside his bedroom. He had a stone for a pillow.


The next day we were not allowed to touch any metallic object, especially not a knife, until after 1 pm, the time of "th'alett essaqina".

 All prayers were  lamentations  whispered in a  monotone. I have seen men weeping as they prayed.

I remember that in the synagogue there was a large framed map which included the countries bordering the Mediterranean. My father pointed to me one day, two distant points on the map."On the right", he said, "is Jerusalem, on the top left is Rome whose soldiers  burned the Beit Hamikdash and destroyed our holy city." I will never forget what he then said: "Jerusalem will be rebuilt on the day Rome falls. "


I'm sure he knew that ancient Rome no longer existed and that the Jerusalem of the 1940s was taking back its place in the world, but my dear father repeated what preceding generations had told him. Unfortunately, he died a few months after the declaration of the state of Israel, just two days before the 9th of Av.


Read article in full (French)

Something light for Tisha B'Ab

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