Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shabbat in Tunis’ Jewish Ghetto

Albert Memmi was born in French-colonial Tunisia, into a Tunisian-Jewish population of around 50,000.  His father owned a saddle-making business and the family lived near Tunis’ ghetto, known as  the Hara.  Memmi spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, French at school, and Arabic in the street.   His semi-autobiographical novel, The Pillar of Salt, recounts growing up in the Jewish ghetto of Tunis.  In a chapter titled “The Sabbath,” he notes the phyisical and mental pleasures Shabbat brings, capturing its spirit, taste, and smell.
“Friday was always born in an excited dawn, and it blossomed majestically into a triumphant Sabbath that made us stiff and solemn in our holiday attire, all lit up by the solemn candles.  Kalla and I had no new duties, but we enjoyed the happy excitement of the household.  Mother and Joulie, our neighbor, assisted by the latter’s daughter Touria, hurried all day at the chores, with twice as many fires in their earthenware hearths, for they had to set out, all over the rooms, the meals for two whole days.  They only just managed to get everything done by the time the first star appeared to announce the Sabbath.  At five o’ clock, the darkness that was beginning in our room discovered a new order: the laden table spread with an embroidered white cloth, the chest of drawers bearing a bowl of yellow narcissus, the bed and the sofa covered with white sheets. 

“The great brass  candlestick and two Phoenician lamps replaced the oil lamp.  The olive oil sizzled as it burned, with an occasional sputter, and cast trembling shadows that were soft and unfamiliar on our walls.  For the Sabbath, even the light seemed unusual.  Scrubbed in warm water, combed and dressed in our best, we waited for Father to come home earleir than usual.  But on his way he had stopped at the barber’s so that when he appeared he was well shaven and combed, already Sabbatical in spite of his working clothes.  He dropped his heavy keys on the marble top of our chest of drawers and drew oranges, sweet lemons, or dates and nuts from the depths of his coat pockets, or else a big bag of roasted chick-peas and a smaller one of pistachio nuts, all of which he handed to Mother. 

“One after another, our Friday evening friends then began to arrive: Didakh the cobbler, Hmaïnou the watchmaker, sometimes Joule, the landlady’s son who felt happier with us than with his own mother.  My father, with everything about him clean, his hair carefully brushed flat, and a sprig of jasmine tucked over his ear, was happy and relaxed, seated Turkish style on the divan as on a throne.  The men would then drink their little glasses of araki as they ate force-meat  balls, chick-peas, and strongly seasoned pickled carrots and squash.  As for me, I greedily accepted the little drop of alcohol that they often offered me; and as the feast went on, my eyelids began to grow heavy... I cannot remember ever having done to bed on a Friday night; I suppose I used to fall asleep while still at the table, as I have often seen Kalla fall asleep, her white face disappearing beneath her beautiful black hair.

“Sleep, when one has no worries, taste like honey.   We woke up without haste, and found ourselves in a morning filled with an unusual happiness… Oh, these Sabbath mornings!  In our room, through the wide-open window, the blue stretches of sky with their slow white clouds and streaming sunlight, the sun swimming in the limitless universe as in those dreams where I felt myself rise in the open sky, my heart and my breast so brimful….So far away, I still suffer whenever I think of Saturday mornings.  All my life, the bitter and oily odor of the narcissus, their fresh explosion of gold in the transparent glass of the bowl, will remain rich with implications of holiday.

“My father was in no hurry to finish dressing and took unusual pains, letting a few drops of eau do Cologne fall on his shining hair.  I always demanded the same ritual for myself, but immediately protested when the alcohol made my eyes and my scalp smart.  But it was already too late: “Let it be and don’t be silly, it’s good for the skin.”  Mother would hasten to dress me and always ask my father: “Will you be taking your son along?”  My father would ask me: “Do you want to come along?” as if it were possible for me to refuse the greatest joy in the whole week….

“We felt pure and clean and had the assurance of the well-dressed who enjoy leisure. [The faithful] walked daintily in the soft sunshine, holding with the tips of their fingers their book and the little bag that contained their taleth.  Fat and happy, their faces quite unresponsive, they went along unhurriedly, as sure of the absolute harmony of the universe as they were of finding their home full of flowers perfuming the air, with a white cloth on the heavily laden table.”

Memmi’s desciption of the “excited dawn” of Friday and its characteristic hustle-bustle, reflect a statement by the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3a), “He who prepares on the eve of Shabbat will eat on Shabbat.”  The down-to-the-wire preparations Memmi recalls happen in Shabbat-observant homes around the world as the urgency of Shabbat’s imminent arrival impels everyone to action.   
Typical, too, is the almost tangible peace that floods the home, causing small children to drop to sleep at the table (adults have been known to do this, too).  ‘Sleep, when one has no worries, taste like honey.”  On Shabbat, even adults can be ‘with no worries.’ Memmi unconsciously echoes the Talmud (Shabbat 7b): “Sleep on Shabbat is a delight.”   The tranquility of Shabbat morning, with its slower pace, the smell of the hamin or cholent perfuming the air, the knowledge that stopping to smell the roses – or narcissi – is the spirit of the day, leads one again and again, back to that open window of billowing curtains, time stopped.
Memmi’s poignant account of his quiet pride at spending time with his father, knowing that there was nothing to distract his father’s attention, is a vital ingredient to Shabbat’s power to nurture families and bind parents and children together.  The dreamy quality of the synagogue-goers, thinking about nothing more pressing than a delightful lunch with their families and a little nap afterward, perhaps.

For more about the Jews of Tunisia, see Jean-Pierre Chemla's blog & links.

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