Friday, January 18, 2013

Tunisia, Another Vanishing Jewish Community in the Moslem World --
We Uncover 150-Year-Old Pictures of One Family in Three Different Collections

Two Jewish girls on the beach in Tunis, Tunisia.   "Jeune filles
Juives" by Neurdein freres  taken between 1860 and 1890.
The girl on the right appears in the photo below, too.
(Credit: Unless otherwise marked, pictures are from the
Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress)
Jewish communities existed in the Arab/Muslim world for millennia, in some cases even pre-dating the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Large communities and great centers of Jewish study existed in Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo, Morocco, and Tunisia, to name a few locations.

In the 1940s the Jewish population in the Arab world numbered between 850,000 and one million.  They were integrated into their societies, although over history they were often subjected to religious persecution and even pogroms. Some Jewish families were wealthy and owned considerable property. 

It all came crashing down after 1947 and the UN Palestine Partition vote when anti-Jewish violence swept the Middle East.  The Jewish communities fled for their lives or were expelled. Their homes and properties were confiscated.  Most of them found refuge in Israel, Europe or North America.

Today, perhaps only one percent of that 1947 Jewish population remains in the Arab countries.   

Postcard of Mother and daughter on
Tunisia shore. "The woman’s robes and
conical headdress are representative of the
traditional dress of Jewish Tunisian women
 during the early 20th century." The woman
also appears in the photo below.
(credit: Yeshiva University Museum)

Researchers for the Israel Daily Picture, searching through the Library of Congress/American Colony archives, unexpectedly came across 19th century pictures of some of these extinct or vanishing Jewish communities.

We present here pictures from the Tunisian Jewish community which numbered over 100,000 in 1948. Today, there are an estimated 1,500 Jews in Tunisia with two-thirds living on the island of Djerba.

The photos in the Carpenter collection of the Library of Congress were "produced and gathered by Frank G. Carpenter (1855-1924) and his daughter Frances (1890-1972) to illustrate his writings on travel and world geography," the Library explains.

Jewish woman on Tunisia shore,
possibly on the island of Djerba. She
appears to be the same woman
in the photo from the Yeshiva
University Museum. Is she
holding a baby in both photos?
(Jewish Postcard Collection)

We came across a picture in Yeshiva University's Museum of a mother and daughter on a beach in Tunisia presented here. The Museum dated the picture from the early 20th century, but the girl is clearly the same girl in the Library of Congress picture above, photographed decades earlier.

View an incredible collection of antique postcards from Tunisia in Stephanie Comfort's Jewish Postcard Collection.  The hand-colored picture of a young Tunisian woman is just one example of the amazing photos in the collection.
Young Tunisian Jewish woman. The picture
was hand-colored. (circa 1900)
(Jewish Postcard Collection)

In the Comfort collection we also discovered another photo of a woman on a beach who appears to be the same woman in the Yeshiva University photo above. Comfort identifies the photo as taken on the island of Djerba.  The woman appears to be holding a baby under her gown in both pictures.  If the three photos are from a series of the same family, they were taken between 1860 and 1900 by the Neurdein brothers of France.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Click on captions to view the original pictures.

Below is a listing of some of the photo essays we posted in the past on vanishing or extinct Jewish communities.   Click on the city to view the posting:
Jews of Aleppo
Jews of
Jews of
Jews of
Jews of
Kifl, Iraq (Ezekiel's Tomb)  
Tunisian Jewish Karouby Family (Jewish Postcard

Tunisian Jewish couple (circa 1900)

Keeners, hired mourners, at Jewish cemetery in Tunis (circa 1920)

Two Jewish women in Tunisia (1900-1923)


  1. My husband was born in Tunis - his family came to Israel when he was five years old - in 1957.

  2. "Is she holding a baby in both photos?"

    No, she was so fat, because the Jewish women on Djerba was artificially fattened before marriage. A custom that still exists in many places in Africa.
    The reason is that women's fertility falls if they are very thin, as they must have a fat reserve in order to breastfeed a baby.

    “Goddesses of Flesh and Metal”: Gazes on the Tradition of Fattening Jewish Brides in Tunisia