Djewish Djerba

HARA KEBIRA, DJERBA, Tunisia — I flew in to Djerba at 8:15 a.m., a 45-minute hop from the capital, Tunis, with nary an idea about how I was going to photograph the 1,000-member strong Jewish community. With more than a dozen synagogues and numerous institutions, not to mention the rich daily life of the community here split between two “ghettos,” my finger was itching to start photographing as soon as the wheels came to a stop. After all, with only three days in town, I had no time to lose.

Jewish street. Hara Sghira, Djerba.

Jewish street. Hara Sghira, Djerba.

“I still have no idea,” I told Eric Painblanc, a Belgian expat and the owner of my guesthouse, Dar Zina. “My guy in Tunis promised to give me a name of someone local to assist me.”

I sighed.

“Let’s do this: I’ll get settled in my room, and if by 10:30 I have not heard from him, I’ll ring him.” Long before my arrival, I had secured Eric’s assistance, and I thought I’d be ready on arrival.

At 10:15, I received a text message with a name and phone number. “Does he speak English?” I responded. No reply.

So we called. No English. No Spanish. But no French either? That left us with Hebrew or Arabic. I don’t speak Hebrew (but for the odd word or two). That’s where Eric’s wife, Halima, came in. She’s Tunisian.

Realizing Aron did not speak English, I fumbled the phone over to Halima, and, in Arabic, a plan was arranged. Thirty-minutes later, we’d meet Aron Haddouk, a 21-year-old community member, who accompanied me everywhere for three days. The first half of the first day, however, I went to work with a veritable entourage: Eric, the driver; Halima, the translator; and Aron, the guide. It actually worked quite well. There after, Halima made arrangements over the phone for the next day’s plan, or the plan for after lunch or evening, whatever the situation called for.

JEWS HAVE BEEN IN TUNISIA since the Carthaginian Empire ruled northern Africa between 814 B.C. and 146 B.C. Where once there were upwards of 1,000,000 Jews (more than 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia in 1948, many of whom emigrated to Israel, others to France), the region is now home to all but some 5,000, about a fifth of whom live on this wind-swept, dusty island just off the coast (in fact, the island is connected to the mainland by a causeway first built by the Romans). Though dwindled and challenged by political and religious pressures, Jewish life here is as buoyant as any community I’ve visited anywhere.

The community today lives a devout orthodox lifestyle and keeps traditions alive that date back centuries. For instance, most of the men work in the jewelry trade as buyers, sellers, and/or makers. They are, however, free to work as they please within or outside the community. The women, by contrast, are almost exclusively teachers or hairdressers, some are both. They are also expected to marry young, raise the children, and tend to their husbands. While boys enjoy both religious and secular studies in classrooms kitted with modern-day technology, girls are still under-educated and discouraged from being too curious. I found that at odds with the strong traditions of education for all Jews that I’m accustomed to. Here in Djerba, however, it may be more about self-preservation. The less one knows, the more likely they are to stay put. Conversely, education brings temptation, and temptation tugs at the fabric of ancient ways of life.

But none of that was the first thing I learned or saw here. As we pulled the car into an unpaved lane in the heart of Hara Kebira, one of two Jewish neighborhoods (or “ghettos” as some call them, but they are not by any means closed), the other being Hara Sghira (7 kms/4 miles south), there were Jews everywhere strolling around, chatting, eating sandwiches — and all boys were wearing kippot that seemed to be from different bar or bat mitzvahs, while the girls’ long dresses and headscarves flapped in the breeze.

My first excited thoughts were, “Wow, look at that. So many Jews! And look at those kippot! How do they stay on their heads?” My first thoughts were followed by my first Djerba meal at a kosher hole-in-the-wall — a tuna and egg baguette with a side of staring, if welcoming, young boys. I washed it down with my first photo op, the kosher butcher flame-grilling a sheep’s head in the glaring sun in front of his shop. He didn’t seem to mind a bit that I was fast filling my memory card.

Kosher butchery. Hara Kebira, Djerba.

Kosher butchery. Hara Kebira, Djerba.

And that is just how welcoming the community is. In three days, I was refused photo permission only once by a less-than-impressed minder of one of the synagogues. But with at least 15 synagogues between the two neighborhoods, I was quite pleased to have photographed 12 of them by the time I was done. That was not all I photographed, of course. My whistle-stop Djerba jaunt was a whirling dervish whirlwind photo frenzy. I had arrived completely up-to-date with my photo editing and website updates. I left with several days’ worth of work. I loved it that way.

Synagogue La Ghriba. Hara Sghira, Djerba.

Synagogue La Ghriba. Hara Sghira, Djerba.

TOURISTS ARE DRAWN to La Ghriba Synagogue in Hara Sghira for two reasons: one, it is the only synagogue open as a tourist sight, and, two, because it is said to be Africa’s oldest synagogue with foundations dating to 586 B.C. including a stone schlepped here from Solomon’s Temple (the current building dates only to 1929, however). Despite its storied, even fabled, history, it was not on the top of my list of synagogues to photograph simply because it is so well-known and so well photographed. Perhaps that is why it was selected as target in 2002 by al Qaeda militants who set off a truck bomb nearby that heavily damaged the building and killed 21 tourists, mostly Germans. That tragedy is marked by a memorial plaque on a wall of the police check point as you enter the site.

 

While La Ghriba is certainly beautiful, I visited others that were more quaint, and more importantly, rarely visited or photographed by outsiders. My two favorites were Synagogue Rabbi Avraham in Hara Sghira for its coziness and rich blue interior and Synagogue Rabbi Pinchas Yana in Hara Kebira for its carnival-like colors and strings of balloons. When I visited, I had them to myself, but I could only imagine the life that has taken place there over the years. It was in a synagogue like these that I imagined I’d be celebrating Purim. But that was not to be.

Synagogue Rabbi Avraham. Hara Sghira, Djerba.

Synagogue Rabbi Avraham. Hara Sghira, Djerba.

Synagogue Rabbi Pinchas Yana Hara. Kebira, Djerba.

Synagogue Rabbi Pinchas Yana Hara. Kebira, Djerba.

 

In fact, I had imagined unbounded Purim revelry on the very last night in the very last destination of my very last Jewish Africa journey. But that was not to be either. In reality, it was the calmest, most sedate Purim ever — something more of a thud than a bang.

Aron had secured permission for me to attend ma’ariv (evening) service and the reading of  the Megillah at Synagogue Trabelsia, one of the newer synagogues. It’s bright and airy with straight (mostly) angles and marble fixtures. Instead of drowning out the sound of Haman’s name, anyone who made a noise was shushed. The girls’ chatter spilling in through the windows was also stamped out with a wag of a finger from one of the men. Perhaps most surprising of all was that no one, not even the children, was wearing a costume (though I had spotted Superman and a court jester earlier in the day). For that, I was a bit relieved as I had forgotten to bring something along to wear.

THE SENSE OF SECURITY AND EASE I personally felt while in Djerba is really the manifestation of the Tunisian central government’s assurances of protection of its Jewish communities. In Djerba, and in Tunis, too, there is a police presence around most synagogues. But things have not always been this way.

Holocaust memorial, Jewish Cemetery Borgel. Tunis.

Holocaust memorial, Jewish Cemetery Borgel. Tunis.

Tunisia was the only Arab country to fall entirely under German occupation during the World War II. Local collaborators assisted with the implementation of forced labor, confiscation of property and money, deportations, and executions. After the nation’s independence in 1958, a number of synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed in the name of “urban renewal.”

Today, in the heart of Tunis, the leafy Parc Habib Thameur was the site of the first Jewish Cemetery. Local Jews refrain from entering this hallowed ground. Only a handful of Rabbi’s graves were reinterred at the Borgel Jewish Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Arab world, before the rest were bulldozed into ruin. It was in the Borgel cemetery that I found poignant memorials to both the War and the Holocaust specifically.

Parc Habib Thameur, site of a Jewish Cemetery. Tunis.

Parc Habib Thameur, site of a Jewish Cemetery. Tunis.

Other political and security challenges over the years have included the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel’s October 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters near Tunis. Each event has had repercussions on the Jewish communities. In some cases, Jews were attacked in the streets. In others, Jewish shops were torched. Of late, however, the central government has openly provided security measures, subsidized synagogue restoration projects, and even paid the salary of the Grand Rabbi. Still, it’s a delicate balance for the community to keep its heads down and its spirits up.

ON MY SECOND MORNING, Eric and I drove to “the continent,” as he liked to call the mainland, to the town of Zarzis via that 7-kilometer (4-mile) Roman causeway. There are only about 100 Jews there and one synagogue. As luck would have it, one of the very few English-speaking community members answered my knock on the door. It didn’t take more than a few moments of introduction and name dropping my contacts from Tunis and Hara Kebira before I was allowed to photograph.

I got more than I bargained for. With limited time, I wanted to make sure I included the town because it is only an hour’s drive from Hara Kebira. With Yeshiva (religious boys’ school) in session, I was allowed to take some photos of the shy students, but they had given me the thumbs up before I started.

Beit Midrash, Synagogue Mishkan Yaacov. Zarzis.

Beit Midrash, Synagogue Mishkan Yaacov. Zarzis.

From there, we walked over to a cluster of shops. I saw similar Jewish-owned jewelry storefronts as in Djerba. One welcomed me in in near-perfect English. He lived in Boston, Massachusetts, USA for 10 years before returning. It was the jeweler who pointed me a few shops further up the street to a Mr. David, owner of a construction supplies business. He was the man with the keys to the cemetery. Actually, he made a call, and within 15 minutes, the key arrived, and he then accompanied us in his well-worn Mercedes.

By the time I was done, Eric and I were hungry. Mr. David dropped us back in town at a sandwich shop and bid us farewell. Later, after we had eaten, my payment was refused because Mr. David had quietly paid for our lunches in advance. How nice was that, I thought.

In the afternoon, we rendezvoused with Aron who accompanied us to Hara Sghira. I had hoped to photograph outside, but there was a sandstorm bearing down on us. Severely limited, I worked mainly inside a few synagogues, including La Ghriba, and we also walked a few of the Jewish streets before calling it a day. Sand was in my eyes, my nose, my ears, my hair, my chest, my shoes, but I most certainly did not want it in my camera.

MY LAST DAY OF MY LAST Jewish Africa photo tour was Purim. I was really looking forward to it. The day before, Aron has said something about attending a morning event, but it was not quite clear — something about burning something. What it was was something I had never seen before. In fact, I’d never even heard of it before — burning an effigy of Haman, that Biblical figure who wanted to kill all the Jews of ancient Persia.

As we approached, the streets were suddenly filled with people in various states of costume dress, mostly not, however. People were walking in every direction while boys on mopeds zipped around. It was chaos. I followed Aron into a courtyard enclosed by high walls adjacent to a synagogue. I could smell the fire even before I could see it. Inside, a couple of hundred people were swaddled in heavy smoke while a couple of dozen men and boys hurled rocks and sticks at what appeared to be a cross (or a maypole).

Burning of Haman's Effigy, Purim. Hara Kebira, Djerba.

Burning of Haman’s Effigy, Purim. Hara Kebira, Djerba.

And then I realized what I was seeing. I also realized had Aron come for me just 10 minutes sooner, I’d have seen Haman up there like Jesus on the cross. They were crucifying him. I know, that seems so weird to say, but that is what went through my mind. From some of my photos, one might think I’d entered a street war in Syria or Gaza, but I knew that wasn’t a politically correct thing to say to anyone. Nor would I dare suggest how, frankly, barbaric it all looked. Thank goodness for those high walls. I wondered if, after all these years, their Muslim neighbors knew just what was going on here.

In the afternoon, Aron led me to a few more extraordinary synagogues, and, most thrilling of all, a magical matzoh bakery with a rather mundane name, Institutions Or Torah Djerba Matzoh Bakery. My mind was thrown back to 2010 when I photographed a matzoh bakery in Brooklyn, New York. Now, like then, I could only think how they seemed like Santa’s helpers, and that all they were making would bring smiles to all who received their precious round shmurah matzohs.

Institutions Or Torah Djerba Matzoh Bakery. Hara Kebira, Djerba.

Institutions Or Torah Djerba Matzoh Bakery. Hara Kebira, Djerba.

That evening, following that quiet reading of the Megillah, I was welcomed to the Sayada family home for a meal. From the outside, all the homes are quite modest. Inside there was heavy, well-crafted furniture, chandeliers, mirrored walls, a very modern bathroom, and a warm welcome. The head of the household has earned his living in the jewelry trade. His sons, both of whom spent time in England and speak excellent English, will probably follow.

Mrs. Sayada covered the table with dishes of local home-cooked treats. As I bellied up, I maintained two simultaneous conversations  — one in the left ear, one in the right —  with the boys before it melded into one.

“But I have to get married,” said the older one, 25. And then he explained how most marriages here are almost always arranged.

“We meet a few times, perhaps three times,” he explained. “And then we talk on the phone as much as we want, and then we get married.”

His younger brother, 21, then piped in.

“You have to get married,” he insisted. “You must have a wife and a family.”

In the few (broken) words of Hebrew that I know, I turned to his own father and said, “Ben shelcha, abba sheli (your son is my father).”

An hour or so later, I thanked them all for the divine meal and the delightful welcome and I returned to the comfort of my cozy guesthouse. I pondered all that had transpired in the previous 72 hours. When I landed in Djerba, I had no idea how I was going to do my work. When I left, I had no idea how it all happened.

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Ceuta – A Part of Africa, Apart from Africa

CEUTA, Spanish Autonomous City — She sauntered up Paseo del Revellin pedestrian street like a fashionista on a runway though I wasn’t sure she was headed my way. We’d had plenty of email between us, but this kind of felt like a blind date.

“Jono?” she queried with widened eyes.

“Ramona. Yes, I’m Jono. It’s so nice to meet you at last.”

Things started in September 2015 when the esteemed member of the community wrote, “We have read your request and we give our agreement to make the story of our community.” But just about everything else remained pretty uncertain until I looked into her eyes. They were friendly. They were welcoming. They were trusting. They warmed me on that chilly Shabbat morning.

We met me in front of my accommodation smack dab in the middle of this comely Spanish outcrop regarded by many as the southern-most frontier of the country. It is, in fact, a rocky speck of jealously guarded land on the northern coast of Africa, a little wedge — geographically and politically — on Morocco’s northern border.

Screen shot 2016-03-19 at 1.28.46 AM

Ceuta vista.

There is nothing whatsoever African about its 18.5 square kilometers — except for its geographical location. And that was reason enough to include this territory in my Jewish Africa photo project just as I included Melilla, that other Spanish territory nestled into the northern coast of Morocco. In every regard, Ceuta (pronounced, the-oo-ta by the Spanish, and known as Sebta by the Moroccans) is Spain. Europe. It is most assuredly not “Spanish Morocco,” as it has contentiously been called at times.

As we sauntered the few minutes’ walk to the synagogue, Ramona added some color to the very sketchy image I had in my mind about photo plans. She spoke so fast, however, that my Spanish lagged on Moroccan time (which his to say, an hour earlier than Ceuta). I was pretty sure she was telling me when I would photo the one and only remaining synagogue, the one and only cemetery, a few shops, a butcher…slow down, I’m thinking…and where I’d be having Shabbat lunch.

“Oh,” I thought. “Another home cooked meal.”

Bet El Synagogue. Ceuta (Spain).

Bet El Synagogue. Ceuta (Spain).

I’d only arrived the evening before, just a couple of hours before Shabbat fell, after a long schlep from Casablanca to Tangier by a 5-hour train ride, then a delightful 75-minute taxi jaunt along the stunning coast, complete with vistas of Africa and Europe in one single eyeful. I had totally forgotten about the one-hour forwarding of the clock, so that added to the sense of a long journey, not to mention it rushing me to get to the synagogue in time for the start of Shabbat.

As I hurriedly settled into my diminutive but comfortable digs, I received several Facebook messages from a “friend”:

“Hello jono david, my name is Kemina, my granfather was Jacobo behar behar y my grandma amparo behar, they are from santiago de cuba, i found a picture of them in your page, i lose my grandfather a year ago, i ask you if you have more pictures of them and if you can send to me.some; thanks for your work [sic].”

Then a few more notes popped up, one by one.

“hi jono”

Then,

“i already see you ar in ceuta”

Pause. Then,

“i live here 100mtrs of the sinagoge”

Then,

“are you going there for shabbat?”

I just didn’t have time to respond, so I didn’t, and mainly because it appeared this person lived in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. That’s what the profile said, anyway. A response could wait, I thought. Unwittingly, it wouldn’t be long before we’d meet.

There weren’t many people at the synagogue when I arrived, but they were deep in prayer as a Shabbat crowd steadily filed in, including Isaias. He beckoned me over and had me sit next to him. He leaned in and started to talk to me. With an extended digit, he guided my eyes to the upstairs ladies’ gallery and I saw a pair of eyes looking back down upon us. It was Kemina, his wife.

Kemina. My Facebook friend.

I kind of felt like I’d been busted by a complete “stranger friend” on Facebook. She admonished me with her gaze, or so I perceived it. I sort of bowed my head in both acknowledgement and shame for not responding. But, hey, it’s not that I didn’t want to reply. It’s that I didn’t have time to reply and then get engrossed in a texting volley.

Only a few minutes into our banter and Isaias invited me to share a Shabbat meal with him and his wife and little girl.

“That’s really nice,” I said. “But I’ve already been invited to Rabbi Yavin’s home.”

Later that night, I found another very welcoming FB missive from Kemina: “tomorrow afternoon my husband can get you to take pictures and Sunday also, there are many good places to take pictures, he likes a lot and always going to take pictures so you’ll know where to take you, and the cemetery also if want to go, he has the key. let me know right?”

“Hi, thank you,” I wrote back. “Very nice to meet you all this evening. A very special Ceuta welcome!🙂 I am happy to join you tomorrow if you are offering. I am going to the synagogue with Ramona at 10:30 a.m., so after the service is ok for me…I do not know if Ramona has a plan for me. I will know more when I meet her tomorrow. Good night. Thank you.”

“Ok jono you tell me tomorrow. If Ramona has no plans, you can have lunch with us…and in the afternoon we can go with the car  so you can see Ceuta.”

“That is REALLY SUPER nice of you! THANK YOU!” I wrote back, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the tremendous Ceuta reception.

WHEN I ARRIVED AT THE SYNAGOGUE on Shabbat evening, it seemed utterly closed. I wasn’t exactly sure of the start time, so just judged a time from the light in the sky. After about 10 minutes, someone approached the door.

“Excuse me,” I said walking over. “Shabbat shalom,” I added to put him at ease.

My meeting with Mannie was fortuitous, and as luck would have it, there was no one better suited to meet. As the caretaker of both the synagogue and the cemetery, he soon became my guardian angel. I gave him my passport, and a few minutes later he returned to the door and welcomed me inside. He had confirmed my visit with Ramona.

The next morning, Ramona gave Mannie the full outline of my photo goals. Taking care of my photo needs mostly fell on him, and he was exceptionally gracious and eager to assist. He, too, soon became a Facebook friend.

“If you need anything,” he wrote, “you have my Facebook.”

And that is just how the Jewish community of Ceuta is: totally welcoming, completely warm, unreservedly friendly, whole-heartedly kind. Beyond photographing the synagogue and cemetery which he oversees, Mannie also took me to photograph the only remaining kosher butchery, whimsically named, Delicatessen Happy Kosher.

Delicatessen Happhy Kosher. Ceuta (Spain).

Delicatessen Happy Kosher. Ceuta (Spain).

For Shabbat dinner, I was invited by Rabbi Yavin to his home for a meal with his wife and daughter (and rabbit). Apparently, their apartment, long before they moved in, used to be used as a synagogue or a prayer house. There’s no indication of that today, however.

After eating too much and serving a few slices of life to one another, I was back in my hotel room minutes after I said goodnight. Nothing is too far from anything in Ceuta (mainland Europe is only 14 kilometers / 9 miles away). As I took a mental inventory of all the people I had just met in such a condensed period of time, I went to sleep amazed by the welcome and thinking it pretty amazing that I was (again) in a slice of Europe in Africa.

Jewish Cemetery. Ceuta (Spain).

Jewish Cemetery. Ceuta (Spain).

A JEWISH PRESENCE IN CEUTA reaches as far back as the 12th century. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the population grew a bit as Jews made their way to this fortress city and relative safety from decrees on the mainland. In fact, they were mostly left in peace to carry on with their lives as craftsmen, traders, and small business people. Today, the community is comprised of some 300 delightfully spirited souls with strong Moroccan ties, particularly to the Jewish community of Tétouan, a Moroccan city just 40 kilometers (24 miles) south. They exuded a zest for their community and they clearly cherish Ceuta itself.

Isaias took me out not once, but twice, to show off his hometown. The first time was an afternoon drive to all the best vistas in town. This hilly outcrop has more roads than I’d imagined, not to mention more cars (I realized there are many hidden underground parking lots). On one side of Ceuta is the bustle of downtown. On the other side, there is a forest that is a world away, nothing but the sounds of the breeze through the trees and wide views across the big blue to Europe or the long, curved beaches of northern Morocco.

On my last evening, Isaias sent me a Facebook message, an invitation to go for a walk. “I am here, outside the hotel,” he messaged me. He and a friend of his took me for a beer, then a walk around the bulwark that once fortified this town.

But my day started with Ramona in the Central Market, a beehive of activity, complete with boisterously hectic cafes. Before I could even order, a plate of piping hot churro — a fried dough pastry — and a coffee was served. I wasn’t quite sure why, but the bill came to zero. It was a great Spanish start to the beautiful day.

Plaza Menahem Gabizon. Ceuta (Spain).

Plaza Menahem Gabizon. Ceuta (Spain).

Late morning, Pastora, another welcoming member of the community, strolled with me around the central streets to some Jewish-owned shops and pointed out some Jewish-named streets.

By the time I crossed the border back into Morocco, I wondered why I had ever worried about who I’d be meeting and what I’d be photographing. I always hope to get photographs that not only I’m pleased with, but are worthy of the time and the welcomes I receive.

“Vale lo intento!! (Worth the effort),” Ramona emailed me two days later upon reviewing the images.

“:),” I replied.

— NOTE: For privacy and security reasons, the names of the persons in this story have been changed.

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Click for JEWISH AFRICA PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS.

FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSIONBIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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Better Late Than Never

DAKAR, Senegal — I was meant to be here two years ago. Then Ebola happened in West Africa, but not in Senegal. Then Cape Verde authorities imposed a travel restriction on anyone coming from the hot zone within 30 days. I had planned on flying there from Dakar. In the end, I went to Cape Verde from Portugal in August 2015 and slipped Senegal into my 8th and final Jewish Africa journey. But what’s two years when you’re thinking back to biblical times?

In the east of Senegal, not far from the Mali border, there’s a village called Bani Israel. Some of the residents apparently claim to be of Jewish descent. They believe their forefathers came via the Horn of Africa from Egypt. But that’s pretty much as far as the story goes because today they are, in fact, Muslims.

Others believe a Jewish presence in Senegal came as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and the movements of Jewish Berber groups. Many of them were probably traders and craftsmen. There is a documented Jewish presence in this region from here to…wait for it…Timbuktu. That’s no exaggeration. In recent years, however, the political mess in Mali has made it far too dangerous to even consider traveling there. So I didn’t.

In more recent times, Dr. Alioune Dème, an anthropologist and archeologist at Cheikh Anta Diop University (better-known as University of Dakar), has been researching evidence of the Holocaust in Senegal and teaches a course called, “Blacks, the Holocaust, and Archaeology.” In 2013, his investigations took him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and he has subsequently discovered the names of at least 75 victims of the Holocaust born in Senegal.

I was connected to Alioune by Tali Nates, the Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in South Africa. “The Holocaust is not really discussed in the schools. This is one reason genocide happens,” Alioune says.

I took a drive with him and car full of other interesting people to Sebikotane (30 kilometers/18 miles) from downtown Dakar (including an American expat involved with Helen Keller International and the wife of the Ambassador of Israel to Senegal). I wanted to photograph the remains of an alleged WWII French Vichy prison where at least several Jews were incarcerated.

Ruins of WWII French Vichy forced labor internment camp (unconfirmed, building 1). Sebikotane, Senegal.

Ruins of WWII French Vichy forced labor internment camp (unconfirmed, building 1). Sebikotane, Senegal.

“I don’t know,” he says flatly when pressed for details. It was not a fruitless excursion, but it  opened more questions than it gave answers…and few photographs, which is to say, about as many as I had anticipated.

 

He showed us three buildings, but his incomplete research meant he is not sure which was the actual prison. I photographed all three in the hopes that one day sooner than later he’ll make a confirmation.

But not so fast. “I will have to wait a few years more,” Alioune lamented. “The National Archives is closed while a new building is completed.”

Ruins of WWII French Vichy forced labor internment camp (unconfirmed, building 2). Sebikotane, Senegal.

Ruins of WWII French Vichy forced labor internment camp (unconfirmed, building 3). Sebikotane, Senegal.

That sounded funny, but it hardly surprised any of us in that car. Dakar itself seems only partly completed despite fresh architectural sparks here and there. And on a continent where everything takes only “five minutes,” it’s anyone’s guess when those files will actually be publicly available.

The day before that jaunt, I journeyed to Rufisque, a dusty, fly-infested, fish-stinking town about 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of Dakar with Aicha Gadiaga, an M.A. candidate at the University of Dakar. She’s been researching the Sephardic history in Senegal.

Ruins of WWII French Vichy forced labor internment camp (unconfirmed, building 3). Sebikotane, Senegal.

Ruins of WWII French Vichy forced labor internment camp (unconfirmed, building 2). Sebikotane, Senegal.

As with Alioune, I’d had contact with her via email for two years. When we finally met at Alioune’s home, she showed me a photo of a grave with Hebrew on it. I was excited because I was really uncertain about what I’d be finding and photographing in Senegal. I threw caution to the itinerary winds as I’d arrived with only a vague general overview.

“There’s a Jewish cemetery there,” she told me, “and also a synagogue.”

But that’s not exactly what I found at the end of the traffic slalom. There was exactly one Jewish grave. It’s in perfect condition, clearly etched with Hebrew, but alone midst a sea of crosses.

A lone Jewish grave in the General Cemetery. Rufisque, Senegal.

A lone Jewish grave in the General Cemetery. Rufisque, Senegal.

“This was originally a Jewish cemetery,” Aicha assured me.

“Then why is there only a single grave?”

“Because here was a cemetery in the 15th century or as late as the 17th century,” I was told.

But this didn’t add up in my mind because the date on that sole grave is 1919. That’s hardly the same time frame.

And what of that synagogue? “We think it is under the sea.” When I inquired if a diver has been in the water to investigate, she shook her head from side to side.

Alleged site of a former synagogue (lost to the sea?). Rufisque, Senegal.

Alleged site of a former synagogue (lost to the sea?). Rufisque, Senegal.

While the cemetery has a few other graves with possible Jewish names such as Layousse,  Gaffari, and Jozen, they are all adorned with crosses.

“Are you satisfied with what you have photographed?” Aicha asked me as we got back in the car.

I assured her I was, but I was left underwhelmed by the certainty of these Jewish Senegalese connections. History tells us it is a virtual certainty about a long-lost Jewish presence in the region. But we need those archives opened and a diver to look under the waves of time.

The next day, I met with five Ambassadors of Israel — well, sort of. Ambassador of Israel to Senegal Paul Hirschson is also the Ambassador to Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde. My aim in meeting him was merely to add a bit of color to the Israel-Senegal connection.

Paul Hirschson, Ambassador of Israel to Senegal (and Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde). Dakar, Senegal.

Paul Hirschson, Ambassador of Israel to Senegal (and Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde). Dakar, Senegal.

In a very remote sense, I felt as if I’d already met him because his wife had accompanied me to Sebikotane two days earlier. But it was after our meet-and-greet that I discovered he is actually friends with someone who grew up on my street. It is a small world after all.

The Ambassador graciously recorded a two-minute video commentary for me on the “three Jewish foundation stones of Africa.” Namely, he pointed out: “We were slaves in Egypt. We were refugees in exile in Ethiopia. And we left Europe and North Africa looking for a better life.”

It took me a while to get to Senegal, and I’m pleased I made the effort. But from my point of view — and I leave history to the historians — there are too many open questions here.

It’s never too late to find the answers, however.

#end

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See You Again, South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — I remember my first morning of the first day of the first leg of my Jewish Africa odyssey as if it were yesterday. Where have the last three and a half years and tens of thousands of miles gone?

I arrived bleary-eyed from Osaka via Hong Kong at 6:30 a.m. on August 1, 2012. There was a cerulean sky above and a whole lot of uncertainty within. Just what had I gotten myself into? What was I doing here? Any doubts — about my digs, anyway — were soon allayed when I reached my guesthouse in the cozy Norwood area of town. Karen Morgan, proprietress of Uxolo Guesthouse, welcomed me like an old friend, and her staff warmed me with smiles and handshakes.

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With Ella (center) and Thando at Uxolo Guesthouse, Johannesburg.

We shared some chatter on the terrace, and I perked up with toast and a hearty cup of coffee served by Ella, an amiable, smily staff member who hails from Malawi.

 

She just served me my last cup. It, as the journey itself, was good to the last drop, if a tinge bitter-sweet.

As I leave my home-away-from-home guesthouse today, the only accommodation I’ve had on every long and short stay here in Johannesburg, it seems ironic that on this very last night in South Africa for my project that I must vacate to another nearby guesthouse because my “home” was fully booked up months in advance for a wedding party. My ending meets their beginning.

And so, it really does feel like the end. But it’s not. I still have Senegal, Morocco, Ceuta, and Tunisia to get to and add to the Jewish Africa opus. So, there’s that. But there’s also the post-project journey of publishing a book, securing more photo exhibitions, and sharing the adventures in talks and presentations.

Just yesterday I had a lively second meeting with an enthusiastic book scout for a publisher here in South Africa. There’s still a long way to go to get a book across the finish line, but the discussion at once energizes the next phase of my project while infusing me with a different sort of uncertainty that I felt on day one of this whole journey — in this case, that of whether I’m doing this publishing thing correctly or not. So, there’s that too.

People ask me why I do this work. Isaac Reznik, something of a legendary member of Jewish Johannesburg society and host of Talk of the Town radio show on ChaiFM, put that question to me live on air again the other day.

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Isaac Reznik, ChaiFM Radio presenter. Johannesburg, South Africa.

“Because it’s important,” I said. “These journeys are not about me. They are about the people in the communities I photograph along the way. They are about the good souls that help make it all happen.”

And I’ve been fortunate to have met so many amazing and interesting people along the way. In South Africa alone, not only have I met hundreds of people, I’ve been assisted and welcomed by hundreds of people. Some encounters are brief, perhaps even limited to a few emails, while others are involved. I’ve disrupted routines, taken up time, and pestered people to open doors — literally and figuratively — to a Jewish world that is by and large rarely visited and little-known by people beyond Africa’s borders.

I returned to South Africa 7 out of the 8 Jewish Africa photo tours (plenty more if you count the multiple ins and outs to other countries I launched from Johannesburg within a single leg). I have seen more of this great land than most of the natives, and I have by now what is probably the largest Jewish South Africa photo archive of its kind (same goes for Jewish Africa at large).

Cape Town stole my heart when I first visited in 2000, long before I ever dreamed up this Jewish Africa project, and never gave it back. On this, my final leg, I was initially booked only for Johannesburg. Foolish, I thought, not to go to my favorite city in the whole wide world, so I squeezed in a three-night weekend visit purely for social reasons. It’s never a bad decision to go there. I even flew down from Johannesburg without my main camera gear (which I left with the staff at my guesthouse). Not all of those people I went to see played an organizational role in my project, but they came into the Jewish Africa fold by providing nuggets of friendship and enthusiasm that no doubt propelled me forward and lured me back again and again.

No one individual was more central to opening doors for me than Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft. As the Country Communities Rabbi (an office within the South African Jewish Board of Deputies), he oversees virtually all facets of Jewish life, culture, history, and religion in the small or the dying or the former Jewish communities, predominantly in South Africa, but further afield too. Once I was able to pry open his door, which took months of persistent unanswered emails (more likely pestering emails from his point of view) and third-party introductions, the flow of information, introductions, and friendship — and sometimes, partnership — never ceased. No one has been a bigger champion, supporter, nor assistant than the Travelling Rabbi. We journeyed numerous times together, near and far, on day trips and overnight jaunts. It is no exaggeration to say that he alone is responsible for the lion’s share of my Jewish Africa photo success across the entire Southern Africa region stretching from here to Kenya in the north, to Namibia in the west, to Madagascar and Mauritius in the east, to Swaziland in the south.

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On the road with the inimitable Travelling Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft.

 

On this, my final week in Johannesburg, he took me along on a day trip to the “Tel Aviv Strip,” a swath of farmland in Mpumalanga Province about two hours drive east of Johannesburg that was once a tapestry of some 70 Jewish-owned farms, one after the other. Today, there remain only about five Jewish farms. Our destinations for the day included cemetery inspections and visits to former synagogues in the towns of Middelburg and Bethal.

In Middelburg, I met Issy Moshe, an Israeli expat who’s been doing business in this bucolic zone for some 30 years. Judging by his style and demeanor, I’d have guessed he just arrived. About 10 years ago, he purchased the former synagogue building, and today it’s a toy shop. He also has an electrical goods supply business. We’d actually exchanged emails when I was planning for leg #2 three years earlier, but I realized Middelburg was too far to get to on my own.

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Middelburg Synagogue (former). Middelburg, South Africa.

In Bethal, Rabbi Silberhaft and I met Gavin Kotzen at the beautifully kept Jewish cemetery. He’s one of those remaining Jewish farmers. After a quick look at the two former synagogues (now churches) also, we relaxed at his lovely home over a selection of cheeses and crackers and were also welcomed by his very talented wife, Megan, a Judaic artist.

The final excursion with the good Rabbi seemed fitting in that we visited these once thriving communities that now cling by a thread.

“I wonder what will become of these communities in 20 or 30 years time,” I pondered aloud.

“There’ll be no one left,” came an immediate reply.

That sad fate gives all the more importance to my work, and to Rabbi Silberhaft’s. We do what we can do now and hope to pass on the baton of preservation. For all he does, for all I do, it seems like such a drop in the bucket for what should be done, for what needs to be done, for what can be done, for what will be done. The Rabbi and I share that realization, but we also share an optimism for what will be.

Inside the confines of his SUV conveyance, we also shared some private conversation which I regard as a bonus. As different as we are as people, I discovered many shared goals and life experiences. Here’s a man in great demand (there’s not a lot of time between phone calls) and I felt privileged to have so much concentrated time with him, not just on that day, but every day we spent out and about.

As I tip my cap to Rabbi Silberhaft, I recall his comment to my Facebook Jewish Africa Photo of the Day post (the pic of us cruising along in his car) at the end of that day: “Indeed, it was my great privilege to play a small part in your wonderful and important project. LEHITRAOT Jono David,” he wrote, downplaying the enormity of his assistance.

Yeah, see you again, Rabbi. See you again, South Africa. Thank you for an extraordinary journey and for gifting me with priceless memories and experiences. 

### end

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Gabon, C’est bon!

BITAM, Gabon — Watching the community elder explain his vision for a future synagogue and community center made for great theater. He pirouetted, gesticulated, lunged, and screeched in a histrionic performance of wishful thinking. As his arms flailed right then left then skyward, I could hear his dream, but I couldn’t quite envision it. I wasn’t sure his audience of fellow community members could either.

Field of Dreams -- Community elder (R) describes his vision for a future synagogue on his land. Oyem, Gabon.

Field of Dreams — Community elder (R) describes his vision for a future synagogue on his land. Oyem, Gabon.

“Next time you come,” said Pascal Meka, spiritual leader and president of the fledgling Jewish Community of Gabon, “we will have a great synagogue here.”

Nope, despite his conviction, I still couldn’t see it.

My Jewish photo tours have taken me to some far-flung places. Sometimes I stop and think to myself, “How did I get here?” Here was in the middle of an improvised soccer field hacked out of the surrounding lush forest at the end of a dusty untarred road on the fringes of the threadbare town of Oyem in northeastern Gabon in the western region of Central Africa a smidgen north of the equator.

Where's Gabon? Here!

Where’s Gabon? Here!

I was told it was only a 45-minute drive from Bitam, the principle town where I stayed for two nights. By now, I should know better. Put a 1 in front of that, and there’s reality.

“Pascal was worried that if he told you the community is actually outside the town, that you wouldn’t want to come,” said Ezechiel, my traveling companion and translator from the Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community in Yaounde, Cameroon.

“I just need to know what to expect so I can prepare mentally for these journeys,” I explained. But that’s thinking too logically because time does not equal distance does not equal time in Africa. Everything, it seems, is “5 minutes.”

Not only could I not picture the synagogue in my mind’s eye, I could not imagine a return journey. In the case of the former, I don’t know how these gentle, warm souls will ever secure the funds to build their dream. Per the latter, I don’t ever again wish to run the gauntlet of road blocks minded by corrupt sweaty police in t-shirts who spend their days trying to squeeze passersby with trumped up problems with their official documents. In the 80 kilometers (45 miles) from Bitam to Oyem, we passed no fewer than 10 ramshackle checkpoints and were stopped and questioned at 7 of them. I ceased putting my passport and vaccination card back in my pocket after stop number three.

Bitam Jewish Community members (with leader Pascal Meka, far L). Bitam, Gabon.

Bitam Jewish Community members (with leader Pascal Meka, far L). Bitam, Gabon.

Nearly two hours into the journey, and having already passed through and back out of Oyem proper, I knew we had to be no more than about, well, 5 minutes from our ultimate destination. Perhaps we would have been if not for one final hard-ass policeman who seemed to have quenched his thirst with a beer or two. Beer and bullets are not a good mix. Put a uniform on it, and you’ve got yourself a harassment cocktail.

The lithe, sharp-jawed officer came ambling over to our vehicle and stared inside. He doesn’t see too many white faces out here. Pascal handed over his ID card, then I handed him my passport and vaccination card.

He flipped it open with a snap of his wrist. “You don’t have all the required vaccinations,” he insisted. “Where’s your tetanus vaccination?”

“That’s not a communicably transmitted disease and it is not internationally required,” I retorted.

He didn’t like that. He looked at me hard, and muttered in French that I didn’t respect him.

By now, the three local community members I was traveling with, plus Ezechiel and I, were fed up. We all stepped out of the vehicle and sauntered over to the makeshift shelter. Ezechiel and I stood off to one side with another officer who seemed more sensible (and sober) while the others took a seat on the sagging bamboo benches.

Rene may be an elder member — probably in his mid-70s — of the Jewish community of Gabon, but he’s feisty. Our seventh inspection by the gendarmerie (military police) proved too much. He flexed his ballsy certitude by telling off the upstart officer for his behavior and the incessant harassment en route.

“How do you think people feel about our country if you behave like this,” he wailed, nearly screaming. “There is no problem here. You are trying to make one! You shame our country!”

I explained to the sensible officer that there is no way I could get my visa approved, then cross the border, and slip by the checkpoints if all my documents and vaccinations were not in good order. Ten minutes later, we were allowed to go on our way. Five more African minutes after that, exhausted and relieved, we arrived in the village.

By that point, it dawned on me that Gabon was the single-most challenging country of the 140 or so that I’ve visited. And though we had just arrived into the open arms of a warm welcome, I couldn’t wait to get back in the car to make haste for Bitam to be sure we would be back by nightfall.

Lunch at Oyem community house. Oyem, Gabon.

Lunch at Oyem community house. Oyem, Gabon.

OUR BORDER AND POLICE INSPECTION woes began as we tried to exit from Cameroon to Gabon. Arriving 30 minutes before the crossing closed for the evening didn’t help. But the main issue was that Ezechiel did not have a visa (I already had my Gabon visa from the Embassy in Tokyo). We managed to get the necessary stamps from the Cameroon authorities, though even that required running here and there and even backtracking a mile up the road to the immigration police office. A stamp here, a whack there, then our details written down in triplicate by three very bored looking officers is a good test of patience.

Finally, we got the go-ahead to cross a narrow bridge over a putrid river to the Gabonese bureaucratic labyrinth of dissatisfied officials. The first one we met berated us for coming so late. In the end, he told us there isn’t time to issue the paperwork and get through three security checks…and then register at the immigration office in Bitam 40-minutes down the road.

Everything literally came to a standstill — utter silence and people standing at attention — as the Gabon national flag was lowered for the night. We had no choice but to turn around and head back to Kye-Ossi, the border town on the Cameroon side. There, we checked into the Saratel Hotel. I was more than pleasantly surprised, if relieved, to find it clean and cozy, complete with wifi, a restaurant, agreeable staff eager to please, and, best of all, Santa Claus standing like a sentry at the front door. Inside, there was a Christmas tree decorated with winking lights and shiny globes. Apparently, everyday is Christmas here.

Santa and me. Kye-Ossi, Cameroon.

Santa and me. Kye-Ossi, Cameroon.

The only gift we wanted was a peaceful night. Santa came through for us. We rested well that night.

At 7:00 a.m., we made our way back to the Gabon side of the border smoothly. Then we waited. The same border cop was there. He demanded that Pascal come in person to verify our visit (but he should have told us that the evening before). Somehow, we managed to call him, and nearly 2 hours later, he turned up with a driver and Rene. Surely, I thought, two elder and dignified Gabonese would make this crossing easy.

It was, mostly, until we reached the third and final layer of the border check. Everyone in the car but me was wearing a kippa.

I sat in the car and saw the guard peeking out the window at me. He was repeatedly tapping the top of his head then gesturing with an open hand.

“Where is your hat,” as he called it. I wasn’t sure how to respond because I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny, or if he was serious. So I kind of just glared back at him with confused eyes. Finally, after he kept his banter up, I rolled down my window and said, “Because I still have hair on my head. They don’t,” and rolled my window up.

My local conveyance. Bitam, Gabon.

My Gabon conveyance.

Finally, we left the border behind and Gabon was rolling beneath our “Hebreux” wheels. But then there was another gendarmerie, and another before reaching the Bitam immigration office. Now about noon (yeah, noon — it took us that long to finally cross the border), we deposited our passports. Mine was returned and approved almost immediately. It took another 5 minutes and an hour a half (yep, nearly 2 hours) to get Ezechiel’s Gabon visa. We were all kind of squirming by this point.

I felt like a captive. I was hot, fed up, bored, and hungry. We couldn’t leave the office because we had to be there when we were called. Documents back in hand, we went for a nice lunch in a dilapidated alfresco hole-in-the-wall before checking into Benedicta Hotel (which I had pre-booked). It seemed aptly named — by now, we needed a blessing. A sign, a signal. Something. Anything that could make all these inspections go away.

Enter the king. Elvis. He was our friendly receptionist and the man who had fielded my reservation emails: “Welcome to my world, won’t you come in…Leave your cares behind. Welcome to my world.” — sang the other Elvis.

At last, I was truly in Gabon.

I FIRST MET PASCAL in Sa’a, Cameroon in February 2014. At the time, he was just beginning a religious metamorphosis from Pentecostal minister to spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Gabon. His journey really began with the encouragement and assistance of the emerging Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community of Cameroon and their eager spiritual leader, Serge, Etele (who went on to study at Yeshiva in Israel after my first Cameroon visit).

“Truth is in Torah,” Pascal said. “Our community feels a deeper connection to Hashem’s path than to Jesus’.” About two-thirds of his flock flew the coop when he switched teams, but the split was amicable.

“We’ve not had any problems with our former members or with our neighbors,” Pascal noted.

Friday service, Bethlehem Synagogue. Bitam, Gabon.

Friday service, Bethlehem Synagogue. Bitam, Gabon.

As with other emerging communities such as in Madagascar, Ghana, and Kenya, I believe their hearts and minds are in the right place, but they have much to learn and still have some skin to shed from the previous religious followings. During the service at Bethlehem Synagogue in Bitam, they held out their open hands in a sort of Christian surrender and they kneeled on their pews with heads bowed for another prayer. Clearly, these are not the ways of Jewish prayer. But with guidance, commitment, and some outside support, they will learn fast.

Still, they do their best to follow the Tanakh (Tanach) and they treasure a small kosher Torah presented to them by a supportive rabbi from the United States (I brought them some kippot and a couple of kosher mezuzot). And they sure can sing! The belted out a number of familiar tunes such as Shalom Aleichem and Le’cha Do’di.

Saturday service, Bethlehem Synagogue. Bitam, Gabon.

Saturday service, Bethlehem Synagogue. Bitam, Gabon.

I could hear their voices when I first arrived at Bethlehem Synagogue in Bitam. The scene felt almost Biblical. There, on a dusty slope, a shepherd whipped his flock of cows past the simple concrete house of worship down to a gurgling river just a stone’s throw away. They came out to greet me before I could reach the door encircling me with smiles and handshakes. Inside, I introduced myself and explained why I was there, and they all seemed pleased to receive only their second non-African visitor.

They asked a couple of questions and wished me a good visit. Little did they know just how arduous crossing the border can be so it may have been a bit disingenuous when I replied, “Gabon, C’est bon! (Gabon, it’s good)” That won a chorus of giggles. From then, the phrase became a sort of mantra for Ezechiel and me.

THE FOLLOWING LATE AFTERNOON, after returning from our abridged but spirited visit to Oyem, I joined the Bethlehem members again for Shabbat service. It was marked by the lighting of candles and the reading of Shabbat prayers. Then there were a few songs.

“Be ready at 9:45 a.m., punctually,” insisted Pascal as we bid each other good evening.

“Really?” I thought. “Does that word even exist in Africa?”

When he showed up 12 minutes late, I gestured to my watch to admonish him. I, on the other hand, was bang on time, ready and waiting.

Pascal came for us thinking that we should head straight for the border. It wasn’t a bad idea, actually, but I was compelled to partake in the Shabbat morning service. I was glad I did.

Bethlehem Synagogue. Bitam, Gabon.

Bethlehem Synagogue. Bitam, Gabon.

I got to see how bonded this small community is. They share the burden of preparing meals, the ladies each bringing different dishes. With the men and boys on one side and the ladies and girls on the other, I didn’t feel so far from something familiar after all. When the service ended, they blessed the wine and broke bread, then put out a Shabbat kiddish to be envied. There was grilled fish and baked chicken and an assortment of vegetables, rice, and pasta.

OUT IN THAT FIELD, I interrupted Pascal and the members of the Oyem community, but not because I was anxious to head back to Bitam.

“You know how I know you are Jewish?” I asked. “Two reasons: One, you like to eat. Two, because you like to talk over each other.”

So that’s how I got there. Getting back? Well, that’s another story.

### end

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Let My People Know — Reprise

CAIRO, Egypt — “Jewish Africa would be Egyptless.” I thought so, anyway, when I wrote that in my blog story, “Let My People Know” in July last year.

At that time, I had surrendered to the hard fact that acquiring official government permission to access and photograph the remnants of Jewish Egypt in Cairo and Alexandria was a hurdle too high. I later realized, however, that I could not, I should not, I will not complete my Jewish Africa journey without at very least going to steal a few Jewish images somehow, some way. Something, anything. I was determined because there’s been a Jewish presence here for longer than anywhere else on this continent making Jewish Egypt a crucial chapter in the story. No Jewish Egypt photos at all would be a gaping hole in my Jewish Africa opus, and not making every reasonable effort would be a regret for the ages.

Jewish Africa has no room for regrets.

So I leapfrogged the bureaucracy and went to Egypt as a tourist. That’s easy enough: just book a flight, and get a tourist visa upon arrival. But to make things go a 1000% easier, I booked myself a private 5-day Cairo tour, plus a day in Alexandria (that was ultimately cut short to 4 days in Cairo due to the brilliant services of Turkish Airlines). Without being too explicit about my purpose, I explained to the tour agency that I was very interested in visiting certain Jewish sights and hoped to get some photos for my personal interest and use.

Signing them up proved to be a hugely wise move. They were brilliant. They did everything possible to make it happen for me, even when they first doubted access to a couple of the places on my wish list. My guide, Osmond, a 60s-ish father of five, was my partner and friend for the duration (and Tariq was my reliable, responsible driver too). He would say things like, “I like to be outspoken” and “Sadat was far-sighted” and, perhaps best of all, “Moses, peace be upon him.”

ON MY FIRST FULL DAY in Cairo, I visited a few extraordinary mosques, including the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Built in the 1830s, its soaring domes are fantastic engineering feats. With my Jewish eyes, the one single detail literally above all else that I noticed was a Magen David adorning the very center of the very highest dome.

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Ceiling, Mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha

Ok, so maybe it’s not a true Star of David, but this was my first day in Egypt and I was eager to photograph anything “Jewish” that I could find. I lay flat on my back and zoomed in. Later in the day, I spied other Jewish Stars here and there. Seeing them made me feel optimistic that something more legitimate would be coming my way.

For lunch, Osmond asked if I wanted “koshary.” I was not sure what he meant, but the name piqued my curiosity. He took me to a divey neighborhood spot, just the sort of local dining experience I like. Koshary (or kushari) is an Egyptian dish from the 19th century made of a mixture of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas and topped with fried garlic and tomato sauce, even a garlic juice and hot sauce if you like.

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“Koshary” lunch

“Interesting and tasty,” I said, tucking in. “Perhaps this is named for the fact that it’s kosher. There’s nothing here that would make it forbidden for even the most observant Jew,” I noted. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. We chased it with some outstanding rice pudding.

“Mmm. Almost as good as my mother’s,” I stated.

DAY 2 was pyramids day. We set off from the hotel at 8:00 and first visited Dashur, about 45 minutes south of town. I got to see the so-called bent pyramid and also got inside another nearby. It was a little unnerving being in there on my own.

From there it was a short drive to Saqqara and the famed step pyramid and a number of other tombs. With all the great columns and old main square, I almost felt as if I were in Luxor.

But it’s the Great Pyramids of Giza that really are most impressive. Being a blustery, chilly day, and already a bit tired after exploring the other pyramid groups, I didn’t really want to linger in the elements or the crowds longer than necessary. I spent most of an hour or so imaging these remarkable triangles as one half of a great Magen David. Two pyramids inverted on top of each other make a star, a Jewish Star. That’s what Jewish eyes in search of Jewish things to photograph do.

pyramids magen david

Magen David Pyramids (image uncredited)

MY THIRD AND FINAL DAY started at 8:00 a.m. “Tariq has turned my whole plan around,” explained Osmond. “He thinks we should go to the Bassatine Cemetery before people are up and out. Once their bellies are full,” he warned, “some of them maybe ready to look for trouble.” Yes, I mused, earlier seems smarter.

We pulled off the main road down a bumpy, dusty side lane leading to the cemetery. It was the road below the flyover from where I snapped a few overview shots two days earlier. From ground level, things felt somewhat sketchier than from the relative safety of the main road. 

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Bassatine Jewish Cemetery

After Tariq positioned the van, Osmond and I stepped out — my camera in my pocket. We strolled over to the gaping hole in the wall and I began to quickly shooting around. A 20-something local came over immediately and Osmond gave him a short comment on my interest in cemeteries. I had told him to keep whatever he says short and simple. The fewer the words, the better. Turns out, this local guy was actually looking out for our interest. He told us to be quick, and that if the guard saw a camera, he’d seize it.

I was uneasy the entire 5 minutes we were there, and so was Osmond, though he didn’t confess that till we were away from the area. This historic cemetery is in dire straights. It’s filled with fetid garbage and animal droppings, and has basically been left to ruin. The few headstones that I managed to approach had no readable markings on them. But I only saw a sliver of this gigantic burial ground. After banging out about 50 images, I put the camera back in my pocket, then Osmond and I made haste for the vehicle.

“Let’s get out of there,” I said, closing the door. Later, Osmond told me Tariq was nervous being there.

We bounced ourselves out of there and headed to Old Cairo to visit Ben Ezra Synagogue which is open daily to visitors, so I had no concern about getting in. I was, however, skeptical about getting photos as taking photos is officially not allowed. Completed in 1892, it’s supposedly located on the site where baby Moses was found.

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Ben Ezra Synagogue

Also called El-Geniza Synagogue or the Synagogue of the Levantines, Osmond had warned me about a very strict lady guard who forces people to delete unapproved photos. But she was not there, but there were several guards and police. In these parts, a little backsheesh (a bribe to the giver, a tip to the receiver) goes a long way. And with no one else there, I was able to bang out about 75 images of marginal quality…for a small price.

I was impressed with the fine condition of the building. It’s one of several religious buildings in the immediate area that is on the tourist circuit, so it’s no real surprise actually.

Round about noon, we headed downtown to the Shaar Ha’Shamayim Synagogue, also known as Temple Ismailia and the Adly Street Synagogue. Getting in here is a little more involved. Fittingly built in the Egyptian architectural style, this fortress-looking synagogue is today surrounded by high-rises and steel and concrete barriers and a well-armed police presence (completing that fortress look). But they were, in all fairness, welcoming and friendly.

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Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue (aka Temple Ismailia and the Adly Street Synagogue)

“Are you a Jew?” the head honcho dressed in plain clothes asked. He also asked who told me it was possible to enter, and for the life of me I drew a blank on the name of the President of the Jewish Community whom I’d not only written about in a previous blog story, but had spoken to briefly on the phone a few times and as recently as 10 days earlier.

As I struggled to remember her name, I said, “A lady…aarrrghhh…I just forget her name. The president of the community.”

“Haroun,” he said.

“Yes! Magda Haroun. That’s it.”

Then he handed me his cell phone with Magda on the other end.

“Hello, Magda. My name is Jono. I am sure you don’t remember me. I spoke to you recently about visiting and you told me the synagogue is open. But I’m not sure why he wants me to speak to you.”

“Yes, it is open,” Magda confirmed. “But you have to pay a 100 Egyptian Pound (US$12) entrance fee. It’s for maintenance.”

I agreed, but I told Osmond that it was only worth it to me if I could get some photos. Osmond quietly asked the caretaker, not the policemen, and he nodded. That required “greasing the wheels,” as my guide liked to call it. Upon leaving the synagogue, that caretaker was more direct. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together and said, “A little backsheesh?” He seemed pleased with the additional 25 pounds in pushed into his hands.

I was again the only visitor and the synagogue keeper, once inside, gave me the go-ahead to take some photos. He made it clear in his broken English that the police don’t allow photos, so I had to be quick. But just when I thought he was telling me to stop, he gestured to this corner and that fixture to take more photos. I got out of there with about 100 images. I thought I’d get zero. Not too shabby, I thought. Though I was a bit nervous because the last thing I wanted was trouble — or to have to delete the prized images I had just taken.

When I was done, I walked out with my camera tucked in my pocket. The head security guard returned my passport and he started chatting, telling me he was in England in 1985 and hadn’t been back since. When I told him I was in Egypt for the first time since 1985, he seemed to consider it was time for his own return trip. After a few niceties and thanks, I stepped outside the security barrier to wait for Osmond and Tariq to circle round the block for me. I was eager for them to show up and be on my way.

“Come on! Where are you guys?” I muttered to myself.

And then the caretaker beckoned me over and wanted my passport again.

So I handed it over again trying to be cool but thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding. Let me go!…Let my people go!”

He also asked where I was staying so I gave him a card from my hotel, and he dashed off across the street and out of view to photo copy it and my visa. I had visions of never seeing him or the passport again. He returned an eternal 5 minutes later and returned that precious document (but not the hotel card, oddly enough).

I spent the rest of the day and evening distracted by wild, irrational thoughts that I was going to be stopped and questioned by immigration. At the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, where I spent the remainder of the afternoon, my mind drifted betwixt Osmond’s enthusiastic guidance, the glint of Tutankhamen’s gold, and thoughts of interrogation. Egypt’s unrest in recent years was not lost on me, and there were people via Facebook who made it clear they were worried for me.

“Be careful and maybe share those pictures after you leave the area,” one commented in response to my Jewish Egypt highlights gallery. It had crossed my mind to delay any postings, so I did refrain from posting all my galleries. Out of an abundance of caution and paranoia, I changed my mind and “hid” the Egypt highlights gallery too till I was back in transit in Istanbul.

At Cairo Airport the next morning, my mantra was: “Just get past immigration, and you’re in the clear. Breathe. Just get past immigration, and you’re in the clear. Breathe.” I felt like that guy in Midnight Express when at the end of the film he walks out of the prison in disguise, and when he realizes he’s made it, he walks faster and faster till he runs with joy. At any given moment, I thought someone was going to tap me on the shoulder or to call me over or to ask me to open my computer. Or I imagined having to open my camera gear bag and getting drilled with questions in a very small room. With all the wires and cables and chargers, it looks like I have a lot more gear than I actually do.

So, after all the rush rush, hush hush, quickly snap snap the photos and move on, I thought it was fitting that I should make a quick getaway from Egypt via gate F1.

Gate F1 boarding pass

Gate F1 boarding pass

It wasn’t until the wheels raced down the tarmac and lifted off the ground that I thought I should have just turned up as a tourist from the beginning. Too many questions, too many problems. All the bureaucratic fuss was for nothing, nothing but aggravation.

Now, my people know.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pyramids

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The Pyramids of Giza loom large over Cairo.

CAIRO, Egypt — The Jews wandered the deserts of Egypt for 40 years. It took me nearly that long — 31 years — to get back after my first visit, the lion’s share of that time feeling as if it took place in the last 30 of those hours.

It was not a smooth ride. The checkin girl (can I say girl?) at KIX Airport in Osaka said she couldn’t check my bag through to Cairo because I had booked the Istanbul to Cairo leg on a separate ticket. Well, she tried to tell me that.

“Not going to happen,” I said firmly, not letting her finish. “That bag will be checked to Cairo.”

Then her supervisor piped in.

“Thank you for flying Turkish Airlines,” she started. I felt like I was having a live, in-person telephone call with customer service. “We’ve had problems with bags connecting, so…”

“My bag is going to Cairo.”

“But you’ll have to sign a paper…”

They checked the bag through to Cairo. The problem, they said, was that transferred bags with Egypt Air often don’t make the flights. “But you’re a codeshare. And I bought these tickets on Turkish Airlines website. I paid you money…to get me and my bag to Cairo.”

I got my boarding pass, my baggage claim ticket, and free aggravation as a bonus. I was on my way. And I never did sign “that paper.”

I stepped on board only to realize the bulkhead seat I had twice confirmed actually had a row built in last minute in front of it. Annoyed, I told the flight crew, and in the end, I got the seat I had initially been promised.

5:30 a.m. Arrival at Istanbul. Departure to Cairo: 1:00 p.m. Round about 8:00 a.m., I checked with the reception staff at the Turkish Airlines (Star Alliance) lounge to see if my bag was in the system.

“Yes, sir. It’s fine.”

So I spent the next 5 hours relaxing. Then I went to the gate to board my flight, but not without checking once more to see the status of my bag.

“It’s not here. I think it’s still in Japan.”

“My bag is going to Cairo.”

I had to make a swift decision: go to Cairo without a bag and hope to make a claim there, or go a day late to Cairo and sort it out in Istanbul. The final leg of my Jewish Africa photo tour quickly unravelling flashed through my head. I opted for the latter. I was glad I did.

I ran — literally moving people out of the way with forceful “excuse mes” — from one end of the terminal to the other. I went back to a Turkish Airlines help desk. (Help desk? I think it should be called the Aggravation Desk.)

I quickly explained. “Yes, your bag is on the flight to Cairo.”

“But they told me it’s not….”

What to do? I started running back to the gate when suddenly I hear, “Mr. David! Mr. David.”

It was the two jerky Egypt Air agents who had been unhelpful at the gate — the ones who insisted my bag must still be in Osaka. The ones who put the blame on Turkish Airlines. “The gate is closed. The plane has gone.”

I breathed deeply and said, “Please. I. Need. Your. Help.”

They went with me to the Turkish Aggravation Desk. A discussion ensued, a call was made, a search was set in motion. A few minutes later, someone called back. Voila. My bag had been found. So much for it still being in Japan.

“I will put you on the 5:15 p.m. flight, ok?”

“Yes, so long as my bag really is going to Cairo.”

I retreated to the lounge once more, and made myself comfortable. But I started feeling uncomfortable when it dawned on me: if I missed this Cairo leg, will the other 4 legs on this same ticket automatically be cancelled?

I panicked all over again. I went to the reception of the lounge. Three stooges later, and after demanding I get a printed proof, no, the other flights will not be cancelled.

So, airborne at last. My bag and I were finally going to Cairo. We landed. I was met as planned by the pickup service by none other than…wait for it…Mohammed. (What are the odds?)

We passed immigration. No problem. We went to the baggage claim. I saw my bag immediately.

I hugged it.

Then I realized one of the “feet” had come off exposing the razor sharp screws that were supposed to hold the rubber cover on. Oy. We went to the Office of Baggage Aggravation. I was told the airline will send me a check for $150 in about a month’s time.

“Well,” I thought. “That was a waste of ink and paper.”

Finally, I took a breath of Cairo’s freshest air. Oh, it was good to be back.

“How long is the ride to the hotel,” I asked Mo.

“About an hour.” Ok, better pee first then.

Two excruciating traffic choked hours later, exhausted, drained, nearly beside myself, I was at last at the hotel. I was pretty sure we had driven down every single Cairo street.

I don’t remember too many of the finer details of my trip to Egypt in March 1985, but I knew that the Barcelo Pyramids Hotel — while not exactly sheer luxury — was luxury compared to where ever I stayed three decades and a year ago. It was in Aswan, after all, that I stayed in the cheapest hotel I ever stayed in…US$0.50. That’s not a typo.

So, here we were — just my bag and me in Cairo.

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Reunited and it feels so good!

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8

 

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OSAKA, Japan — On February 4, 2016, I will embark upon the 8th and final leg of my Jewish Africa photographic survey project. But “final” this project is not. Jewish Africa can never be fully documented, of course, because it is in continual growth, change, and flux. Its history is in the making daily. For followers of this project, it goes on to exhibitions, presentations, and a book. For me, however, it goes on through the personal connections I’ve made. Certainly the experiences and memories will last a lifetime. And Jewish Africa itself, I think, will continue to call to me in ways that I perhaps do not even yet realize.

This final jaunt will take me to Egypt, Cameroon, Gabon, South Africa, Senegal, Morocco, Ceuta (Spanish enclave), and Tunisia before wrapping up — and winding down — in Israel and Turkey. As I wonder about what lies ahead, I muse on all that’s gone before.

The end has me feeling nostalgic for the beginning. I’m recalling the audacious plan I set out for myself and wonder how it must have sounded to others. “You wanna do what?” they must have thought. I had even considered quitting my job to give the project my undivided time and attention.

From landing on leg #1 in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 1, 2012 onwards, Jewish Africa blossomed for me like a baobab tree of life. Each in their own way, the communities of Jewish Africa have welcomed me and revealed their ways of life and Jewish observance. Each and every soul I’ve met has been a friend, a guide, a teacher, and a partner. Without them, my project would never have gotten off the ground.

As I clean my lenses and pack up my gear for this final leg, I question whether I have adequately captured the soundtrack of Jewish Africa to visually play the symphony in a book or to play it in a presentation. I wonder if I have sufficiently answered the question, Who are the Jews of Africa? Is my doubt a lack of confidence or a lack of material? I am not sure I can be the one to say. But that uncertainty propels me till Jewish Africa is completed (whatever “completed” means).

JEWISH AFRICA PHOTO EXHIBITIONS:

  • The Children of Abraham and Sarah” (January 28~November 30, 2016) — featuring 34 of my “black Jews of Africa” photos from 8 countries. Beit Hatfutsot Museum (the Museum of the Jewish People), Tel Aviv, Israel.
  • “Jewish Africa” images will also be on show at The Goldman Gallery at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, D.C., USA (spring 2017); The Jewish Museum of Morocco, Casablanca, Morocco (dates pending); The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa (dates pending); The Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, Australia (dates pending).

PAST EXHIBITION:

  • “Ama Juda eAfrika? Yes, Jews in Africa.” The Irish Jewish Museum. Dublin, Ireland. July 13~October 15, 2015.

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Traveling with the Travelling Rabbi

EAST LONDON, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa — “Hold onto your kippa!” I shouted above the howl of the wind and roar of the jet engines as we reached the bottom of the airplane stairs. “Let’s take a selfieeee!”

A windy selfie with Rabbi Silberhaft, East London Airport. East London, South Africa

A windy selfie with Rabbi Silberhaft, East London Airport. East London, South Africa

We had just landed at East London airport on a 6:10 a.m. flight from Johannesburg, about 75 minutes away. Just a few days previous, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a day-long adventure to the Eastern Cape Province cruising around to inspect several Jewish cemeteries and a couple of former synagogues. Being up at 4:00 a.m. meant I was tired out even before we took off. But this would not be a day soon forgotten because traveling with the Travelling Rabbi (he uses British spelling, I use the American spelling) is never dull and always full of serendipity. It is also an honor.

This was not our first outing together, not by any means. Since the start of my Jewish Africa project in August 2012, we’ve journeyed in and around Johannesburg and taken excursions to Swaziland and Botswana together. We’d even been on a plane before on a jaunt to Livingstone, Zambia. It is an understatement and no exaggeration to say he has been the king pin in my southern African Jewish journeys because he’s connected me to so many key people and opened so many photographic doors for me. But this was the first time to fly “there and back” in day. We were day trippers, yeah!

THE TRAVELLING RABBI NEVER REFUSES a photo op. Not that he’s vain, by any means. I think he just secretly enjoys the limelight — and 5 star perks — his demanding job affords. He likes to be in the picture, literally and figuratively speaking.

Snapshot over, time to get our wheels for the day.

“I booked a Merc,” he said. Mmm, I pondered. A Mercury? “A Mercedes,” he clarified with a twinge of glee. I told him that I don’t actually like Mercedes. No, not because of some personal boycott of German automobiles, but because I’ve never really had a comfortable ride in one.

“Good sturdy cars,” I said. “But the ride always feels stuffy and hard to me.”

A few minutes later, him behind the wheel and me as the First Captain, the Rabbi tried to synch up his iPhone to the built-in hands-free system. It didn’t work.

“That’s the way the Mercedes bends,” I said (repeating an old joke I heard donkeys years ago) and thinking, “So much for 5 star cars.” For the next 9 hours, my silent mantra was, “Please say I’ll ring you back. Please say I’ll ring you back.” (The Rabbi makes and receives a lot of calls.) I think I can say that without fear of retribution because the good Rabbi acknowledges that his driving at times gives me unwanted thrills.

RABBI MOSHE SILBERHAFT IS A MAN of many kippas. He is the President of the African Jewish Congress Zimbabwe Fund and Spiritual Leader & CEO of the African Jewish Congress. But it is for his work of the last 22 years as the official Country Communities Rabbi of South Africa (and the Southern African region) for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) that he is truly known and which really drives him. We are in the Eastern Cape for merely 10 hours to inspect Jewish cemeteries in King William’s Town, Queenstown, and Dordrecht, three bucolic towns that today have no Jewish life to attend to. A day like today is par for the course on his hectic itinerary.

“Where ever there were trading posts and business opportunities, you can find Jewish history in South Africa,” he said. But by now, after all my visits and travels in this majestic country, I knew this. I wanted to know what made those pioneers give up their lives back home for these far-flung landscapes. Certainly, they had to be motivated by more than financial opportunities.

“We got out here in just over a couple of hours,” I said in Dordrecht, our furthest point from East London airport. “Imagine the journey back in the day. It would have been a 3-day trek.”

As the Country Communities Rabbi, Rabbi Silberhaft oversees everything from the A to Z of religious, cultural, logistical, historical, even personal, needs of long-dormant communities like Dordrecht and of those communities clinging on, like the 100 or so souls who make up the East London Jewish community (whom I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years back). In many ways, the Rabbi is truly a one-man show. And with many people in those communities aging, the Rabbi’s schedule can change at a minute’s notice when, for instance, he is summoned to officiate a funeral.

But his job is not always so emotionally demanding. I think it’s more mentally challenging because being on the go so much can be grueling, especially if there is no way to plan too far ahead. On this point, he and I relate well.

AS WE ZIPPED OVER HILL and through dale, we were treated to some extraordinary vistas and colors and comely pastoral hamlets — the sorts that made me fall in love with this country on my first visit in 2000 — leading us to our first stop of the day, King William’s Town Jewish cemetery. I was shocked to see it in such a mess, until I wasn’t.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft (L), speaks with his restoration man Selwyn in the Jewish cemetery. King William's Town, South Africa

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft (L), speaks with his restoration man Selwyn in the Jewish cemetery. King William’s Town, South Africa

We met Selwyn, a Jewish man in his 60s from Johannesburg who’s been the Rabbi’s cemetery restoration point man for at least five years. He works where ever the Rabbi needs him and he then hires local laborers. The restoration requires, among other things, laying upright headstones down flat and affixing them to the top of the their respective grave. Though moving the headstones from their original positions may seem problematic, even offensive, to some people, doing so is smart for time’s wrath and the occasional vandal’s stupidity pose much less risk to the reclining stones. The burial ground must also be demarcated by a sturdy wall or fencing. With hundreds of Jewish cemeteries across the country, Selwyn seems gainfully employed for the foreseeable future. He joined us for our further-flung jaunts.

Synagogue (former). King William's Town, South Africa

Synagogue (former). King William’s Town, South Africa

Before speeding off to Queenstown, we made a fast stop at the former King William’s Town Synagogue and Community Hall. I’m not certain when they ceased to be functioning, but I am always pleased to see these old buildings still standing and maintained. Currently, the synagogue building is the Potter’s House Christian Church signaled almost whimsically by a Magen David at the top front. Inside, above neatly arranged rows of chairs, the flags of South Africa, the United States, and Australia hung from the rafters (I read later those flags were flying because the church was founded in the US and then became huge in Australia).

Jewish cemetery. Queenstown, South Africa

Jewish cemetery. Queenstown, South Africa

UPON REACHING QUEENSTOWN, we dusted off the crumbs of some food supplies we had picked up in King William’s Town. There, out in the middle of a beautiful no where, we pulled up to a magnificently maintained cemetery announced by a Magen David and “HEBREW CEMETERY” in English and Hebrew atop the cemetery service building. Out here, it just sort of seems so unexpected even though I knew I was going to a well-preserved cemetery. We merely stopped there en route to Dordrecht, another 45 minutes or so afield.

Synagogue and Community Hall (former). Queenstown, South Africa

Synagogue and Community Hall (former). Queenstown, South Africa

In Queenstown, too, the former synagogue and community hall are still standing in fine shape. In fact, the foundation stones are still in place at the front of the buildings. In many cases, they are removed and preserved elsewhere when a community closes its doors. Today, the buildings house the Khululeka Kids High/Scope Early Learning Centre. That’s always more comforting than a disco (as I once saw in Adelaide, New Zealand). But, hey, whatever it takes to keep the past in tact. Rabbi Silberhaft was also pleased to see the site being employed as a place of learning.

EVEN IN DEATH, Jews and Muslims just don’t seem to able to keep themselves apart. I’m always amused to find Jewish and Muslim burial grounds side by side. Consequently, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find this scenario, even out here in this beautifully rustic place.

As we pulled up to the Dordrecht Jewish cemetery, the first thing the Rabbi pointed out had nothing to do with the Jewish sector.

“Look, Jono,” he said drawing my eyes to the adjacent Muslim cemetery. “Notice anything unusual about the star? It looks like a Magen David.”

“Oh, wow,” I guffawed. “That’s funny.”

Muslim cemetery with Magen David, adjacent to the Jewish cemetery. Dordrecht, South Africa

Muslim cemetery with Magen David, adjacent to the Jewish cemetery. Dordrecht, South Africa

I’ve seen Jewish and Muslim cemeteries side by side in many places around the world, the General Foreigners’ Cemetery in Kobe, Japan and one in Durban, South Africa are two examples that come to mind. The surprising, even comical, thing was the egregious design error on the Muslim cemetery: a 6-pointed star — a Magen David, for my money — resting comfortably next to a crescent moon, the symbol of Islam (the star should have only 5 points). With all due respect, this was funny. Who knows? Perhaps it’s an offering of peace from our Muslim brethren.

IT WAS 1:30 P.M. We needed to be at the airport by 4:15 and we had some 200 kilometers (120 miles) of meandering ground to cover, plus we had to drop Selwyn off where we met him, not to mention we needed to return our Merc.

As we high-tailed it back to where we started, I maintained chatter with Rabbi Silberhaft as much to keep him awake as myself. I don’t like falling asleep in the car, but I was exhausted. Each stop had been a photographic whirlwind blur. In fact, the entire day felt like a blur. We’d used just about every hour of the day, flown over a 1,500 kilometers (800 miles), driven just shy of 500 kilometers (300 miles), and I had banged off nearly 1,000 images.

And to think the Travelling Rabbi does this sort of thing regularly. I was impressed. It’s what he does, though he’s made no secret of the fact that he’s got his sights set on retirement in a couple of years down that long and winding road.

“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” I asked him as we relaxed in the airport lounge before boarding.

“A full morning of meetings from 8:00 a.m.,” he replied.

I didn’t have the heart to say I’d still be sleeping at that time.

NOTE: Read more about the Travelling Rabbi in my blog post from February 2, 2013.

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Cliff Hanger

FUNCHAL, Madeira (Região Autónoma da Madeira, Portugal) — “I have some bad news,” were virtually the first words I heard from Dr. Carlos Pestana Pereira, a general surgeon and historian enthusiast.

I thought for sure my one and only contact on this emerald isle was going to tell me the Jewish cemetery was closed.

“The cemetery” …here it comes, I was thinking… “is under renovation. Much of it is covered. I didn’t know this until just the other day,” he said with some regret.

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

I sighed. It was the main thing — nearly the only thing — that I’d come all this way to photograph.

“Can we get in?”

“Yes, I think so,” he replied, “But I think you may have some trouble.”

I insisted we go anyway. What had I got to lose?

The Jewish cemetery in Funchal is the only Jewish cemetery in Madeira, a Portuguese autonomous region located in the east Atlantic Ocean some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the Canary Islands and a bit further than that west of Morocco (the island’s proximity to mainland Africa was all the reason I needed to include it in my Jewish Africa project). The cemetery clings to a cliffside 100 meters (330 feet) above the wrath of the sea below. Even before Carlos’ worrying news, I really had no idea how safe it would be to enter. Some graves, I had read, had fallen into the sea due to erosion. Only one grave, however, is confirmed to have been lost.

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

So, as it turned out, the restoration was both good and bad news: the former because I was pleased to learn it is being taken care of, but the latter because, clearly, it interfered with my work though the three workmen there went out of their way to accommodate me. Before leaving me at the cemetery for a while, Carlos explained what I was there for. They didn’t mind a bit. In fact, one of the men assisted by uncovering some of the protected headstones and even washing them off with a blast of water from a hose.

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Jewish cemetery, Funchal

With a crane towering overhead, half the tombs covered by scaffolding, others hidden under a protective cover, and one worker literally hanging by a steel thread in a basket over the edge, I spent over an hour figuring out how to photograph the 30 or so graves. Eighteen-fifty-one is stamped into the stone doorframe of the cemetery, but none of the graves I could access and read were older than 1869. It was hot, sticky, noisy, and a little unnerving being on the edge of terra firma with all this dangerous equipment overhead. This was definitely a hard hat zone. I didn’t have one.

Beach below the Jewish cemetery, Funchal

Beach below the Jewish cemetery, Funchal

“You will be the only one with photographs of the cemetery under renovation,” Carlos noted. Perhaps that is so, but it was little consolation.

Joao Goncalves Zarco, Christian convert from Judaism and settler of Madeira island, Funchal

Joao Goncalves Zarco, Christian convert from Judaism and settler of Madeira island, Funchal

MADEIRA WAS SETTLED BY A JEW, Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco (c. 1390 – 21 November 1471). But Zarco was a Converso, a convert to Christianity. In the afternoon, Carlos gave me a mini-tour of central Funchal, the island’s charming capital city. It graces verdant hills that spill from mountain peaks down to the sea. The tour included observing a statue of Zarco high on a perch in the center of town, and a visit to the Santa Clara Convent where he and several of his relatives are buried. Unfortunately, Zarco’s grave is actually covered by a hardwood floor that was apparently installed to protect the graves beneath it. Consequently, one cannot actually view his grave, though a small segment of the floor opens to reveal his father’s grave.

Menorah, chapel ceiling, Santa Clara Convent, Funchal

Menorah, chapel ceiling, Santa Clara Convent, Funchal

Up above, the ceiling of the main chapel is decorated with attractive murals, several of which depict scenes from the Bible, including Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant, the Jordan River, and a Menorah.

TODAY, THERE IS NO JEWISH COMMUNITY whatsoever to speak of in Madeira, though no doubt there are Jewish residents on the island. No wonder the former Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue on Rua do Carmo Street in central Funchal was long ago shuttered. Today, the ground level is divided into a cafe frequented by locals, and an architectural design shop.

Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (former) (aka Rua do Carmo Synagogue), Funchal

Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (former) (aka Rua do Carmo Synagogue), Funchal

“I think they are away until the end of the month,” the barista told me about the shop owners next door. “They have the keys.”

Bad timing again, I thought.

I wondered what, if anything, is upstairs. “It’s an empty space,” I was told. But I gave up trying to gain access thinking that it is quite possible the upper floors still look very much like the synagogue it once was when it was built in 1836. It first served Moroccan Jews who arrived in 1819, then refugees who fled the First and Second World Wars.

I left Madeira after only two days surprised that Jews have not been lured back by its beauty in numbers large enough to warrant cleaning out those upper floors of the synagogue. Perhaps one day soon, a Jewish community will resettle on this alluring island.

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