Not a single Jew remains in Libya today but their history remains alive. Many of those who once lived home, are scattered all over the world, with stories to tell to their grandchildren. I am sure stories worth telling! Once upon a time, Jews and Muslims lived together in Libya embracing their differences and living in harmony. It is important to know that Jews lived in many parts around Libya, not only in major cities. Indeed, the fact that Libya was an Italian colony and did not fall under the Vichy regime in France made the fate of the Jews of Libya different from that of the Jews of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
I embarked on the journey to find answers about the once who lived home, it is something we cannot simply erase. This dates back to 2016 when I started the process of questioning and though it has only been four years, but I know for fact, I still have a long way to go. However, I managed to get to know Libyan Jews and talk to them and know their families’ stories.
I always try to picture how life was for them in Libya. When I read Mr. Raphael Luzon’s book on his family’s story and how they lived in peace, it makes me wonder of the alternative story they would tell if they were still home. They may no longer live in Libya but their stories are still alive for generations to come.
I think earlier this year, I bought a book online entitled ”The Jews of Nafousa Mountains”. Once I found it, I was thrilled because I remember my grandmother once told me that when she was young, Jews lived with them and they were neighbours but I never thought I would find a book in Arabic telling parts of their story.
The book is written by Mordechai Hakohen and translated by Mohammed U-Madi and Marwa Shahata. This book inspired me to write this piece that would not summarize all the findings but will give an introduction to those reading it for the first time. The writer, Hakohen, was a Jew born in Tripoli in 1856 of an Italian origin. He started a long research through the countryside of Libya’s west to document the lives of the Jews who once lived there.
I believe in documenting information and stories. I am sharing with you some of the interesting findings in this book. It says that the town named Awlad Attiya is given its named because it descends to a Jewish family named Attiya and remains can be found of those Jews there. Many locals say that Jews lived there. Another district named Fissatu where Jews and Amazigh lived together. There is a cave in Jado which the locals say that it used to be a Jewish synagogue.
They practiced many traditions, for example, if a Jewish man eats two figs, he would be asked to eat three instead to avoid bad luck. They always go with odd numbers for good luck. Also, a Jewish woman would wear a silver bracelet in her left arm because they say that the left side is hard and silver is delicate and mercy. This wisdom is taken from Kabbalah wisdom. For a Jewish bride, she would throw an egg on the wall of her house before entering it and this tradition is practiced by the Jews of Tripoli as well.
Close from Reheibat, there is an area called Kharab Assabt (Saturday destruction) which indicates that it was resided by Jews as the Jews spend Saturday’s home practicing Shabbat (However, this area does not exist today or the name may have been changed). It is said that in a small town called Al-Hiraba, these were occupied by many Jews and they used to own Silver jewellery shops.
In Alaweniya, you can find many shallow aquifers. Amongst these aquifers, there is one called Bir Al-Yahudiya (The Jewish Lady Water Well) because it was used as a Hammam for after menstruation traditions and women would reach it through a steep stair and the area around it was almost entirely lived by Jews.
On the other hand, Gharyan’s Jews lived for hundreds of years in rock-excavated dwellings (underground caverns) in three communities about 100 kilometres south of Tripoli City. During the Second World War, Gharyan Jews sheltered Jews who had fled from other towns and villages of Libya.
The traditions were numerous. Gharyan’s Jews were hardworking both in the field and at home. They were not religious in Torah (The Hebrew Bible) on Saturdays while the majority of Jews were, they would study the Midrash instead and it is ”an ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, attached to the biblical text. The earliest Midrashim come from the 2nd century AD, although much of their content is older.”
They would also wake up in early mornings to study Zohar which is an equivalent to Sufism and Zohar is ”Composed in Middle-Age Spain (c.1100 – c.1400 CE). The Zohar (Splendor or Radiance) is the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. It is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and scriptural interpretations as well as material on mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology.” (Sefaria Library).
They have the same traditions to those Jews in Yefren in terms of weddings. Majority of Jewish men wear silver or gold jewellery and the same outfit like the ones in Yefren, the only difference would be in wearing an old cloth around their heads while those in Yefren didn’t.
Many towns were named after Jewish families as the book stated. For example, Kamoun (I am not aware of this town and I asked my parents and they couldn’t locate it) was named after a big Jewish family and another called Bin Ayyad after a Jewish family too while another named Gaheisha was a Jewish descendant called Hasan in which they lived in it.
There is a Jewish graveyard named Gimamish (I am not sure if it is still there today). The Jews has three houses of worship, one is archaeological located in Bin Abbas town (This too, I found difficult to locate) but it was destroyed. Another two located in Taghirna. One was built around 1885. This book tackles many aspects of the Jews who lived in Nafousa Mountains back in time, from social and political structures to the traditions they practiced. However, many of the information which I have not shared require more investigation for accuracy but I highly recommend this book for those interested to know more.