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Sephardic Jews on Pilgrimage Find Roots, Business Opportunities

May 9, 1993

DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) _ The thousand or so Jews of Tunisian descent who made the annual pilgrimage to the island of Djerba this weekend are rediscovering their roots. Many are also discovering business opportunities.

Most came from France, and others from Italy, Britain, Israel and elsewhere to visit the ″Ghriba″ or ″marvel″ on Djerba, 350 miles southeast of Tunis.

The Ghriba, one of the oldest synagogues in Africa, was built on a rock that legend says Jews brought from the ruins of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, destroyed in the 6th century B.C.

Although they or their families left Tunisia for Europe or Israel, hundreds of Jews continue to carry out this pilgrimage to the Muslim land where many of them were born. The odyssey this year was officially Friday through Sunday.

″My family left with heavy hearts 25 years ago, and now we find ourselves here today, overjoyed,″ said Isabelle Zeitoun, who now lives in Paris.

Miss Zeitoun returned to Tunisia two years ago to rediscover the country of her ancestors and to say a prayer in the Ghriba.

Tunisia has lost most of its Jews in recent decades. More than 100,000 Jews lived in the country at the turn of the century, but today they number a mere 2,600, living mainly in the larger cities.

Tunisian authorities promote the pilgrimage to demonstrate religious tolerance in this Muslim country. But they also jump at the opportunity to encourage business contacts by spreading word of the economic possibilities here among Jews overseas.

In particular, the government is interested in promoting private investment in Tunisia among pilgrims on the annual trek, which is covered each year by government-run Tunisian television and other media.

″What we want to do is organize direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tunis,″ said Estel Lombroso, a travel agent who lives in Paris. But Israel and Tunisia do not have official ties, and Tunisian authorities will not discuss such links publicly.

For others, it is simply in their blood to return.

″The fiber of our country of birth clings to our skin. You can’t help it,″ said Josette Chelli, who owns a clothing shop in France.

She and her husband are also proud of the movie theater they own in central Tunisia. ″We wouldn’t sell it for all the gold in the world,″ she said.

The pilgrimage is marked by three days of song, dance, feasting and toasts with boukha, a local liquor made from figs.

Most pilgrims come to Djerba to wish for good health, fortune or a child. In a cave under the Ghriba, they place an egg on which they write their wish with a felt pen. If the following day the egg is intact, so the belief goes, their wish has a good chance of being fulfilled.

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