May 18th, 2011
04:16 PM ET
By Joe Sterling, CNN
(CNN) - The political tension bubbling across Tunisia, Libya and the rest of North Africa has forced the cancellation of an annual Jewish pilgrimage to a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.
Roger Bismuth, a leader in the Tunisian Jewish community, said the community is concerned about the possibility of disruptions amid the ferment in Tunisia and the warfare in nearby Libya.
"We are scared people will take the opportunity to do something," said Bismuth, leader of a community that endured a deadly 2002 al Qaeda truck bombing in Djerba. "It's irresponsible to do it."
The annual pilgrimage is always held around the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, which comes this weekend, and it is centered on La Ghriba, a revered and iconic synagogue in the heart of the island. It was targeted in the 2002 attack, which killed 21 people, including German tourists.
According to legend, Jews came to Djerba after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 586 BCE, and the synagogue has foundation stones from that edifice.
Many of the people who attend the pilgrimage are Tunisian and Libya Jews living in France, Italy and Israel.
But Israel's National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau has recommended that Jews and Israelis refrain from visiting "in light of the intention to perpetrate revenge attacks following the elimination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden."
Jerry Sorkin, who operates the Philadelphia-based TunisUSA, a tour company that specializes in cultural and historical tourism, called the cancellation a "prudent" move.
Speaking from Tunisia, he told CNN that tourism is down "tremendously" in the region and security is a concern.
"There are people in Tunisia who are bearing the brunt of the revolution," he said. "Is it the time to be celebratory?"
Lag B'Omer, which starts Saturday night and goes into Sunday, is a minor but joyous holiday on the Jewish calendar and is widely observed by Orthodox Jews.
It falls between Passover, which recalls the Exodus of Jews from Egypt, and Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to Israelites by God.
The period is known as the Counting of the Omer, and Lag B'Omer falls on the 33rd day during that period.
One explanation for the joyousness is that it signaled a break in the plague that killed thousands of rabbinic scholars in Palestine during the second century, and another is that it pointed to Jewish military achievements against the Romans.
During the Counting of the Omer, there are mourning practices relating to the plague but they are lifted on Lag B'Omer.
It is a day of picnics, marriages, song, archery games, and bonfires. Three-year-old boys get their first haircuts on that day.
People in Israel make a pilgrimage to the burial place in Galilee of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who allegedly authored the Jewish mystical text called the Zohar and died on Lag B'Omer.
The Djerba festival has features that are colored by North African religious expressions, according to Jane Gerber, professor of Jewish history and director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the City University of New York graduate school.
She said that along with the picnics and bonfires, the day in the Middle East and North Africa has been traditionally a time of pilgrimage to gravesites of pious people.
She said the day serves as a "pause" in the mournful period and has "taken on its own special quality of holiness and joyousness."
"It's a break in all that solemnity," she said. "it's joined with the local indigenous customs of visiting tombs of righteous or learned rabbis."
She stresses that the Djerba event is a form of regional Judaism, promoting nostalgia and ethnic revival.
"It is characterized by a carnival-like celebration," she said.
Lag B'Omer festival resembles a "big feast holiday," says Isabelle Miller, a Philadelphian whose family has Tunisian Jewish roots.
She has been to the Ghriba synagogue but never to the Lag B'Omer event. Nevertheless, she was able to say the event is a "very big deal" in the Tunisian Jewish community.
"The Ghriba is very interesting," she said, noting that with a Tunisian flag on top, it's like a "national monument."
"I would call it a shrine," she said.
In Djerba, the event celebrates the fruits and hopes of spring. There's a procession, a festival, and an auction to help the local Jewish community. Women will place eggs in the synagogue to pray for fertility.
It is a celebration of a Jewish culture - distinct in its food, clothing and jewelry, and one that has long mixed amicably with other elements of the population, which includes Muslims and the Arab and Berber ethnicities.
"It deals a lot with the springtime and spring harvest, the life cycle of the spring rebirth, and the abundance of spring planting," Sorkin said.
Men and women mix together to celebrate, a dynamic not seen on other days of the year.
"This is one day it's almost like Mardi Gras," Sorkin said.
Many observers say that Jews and Arabs mix well in Tunisia and there's national pride from and toward the island's ancient Jewish community.
"Tunisia, as well as Morocco, has been one of the unique countries in the Arab world that has been very forthcoming toward Jews and Jewish practices," said Stan Urman, executive director of the American Sephardi Federation.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.