Cave dwellers

It is almost a hundred years ago and Nahum Slouschz of Paris is perched on the swaying deck of a camel’s back. He and his guide are en route to visit the legendary Jewish cave dwellers of Djebel Gharia. Afraid of local bands of robbers, they keep traveling throughout Shabbos.

Even today, cave dwelling is more common than people think. From the Yaodong cave people of China, to the Andalusia cave dwellers of Spain, and Arab cave dwellers of the Judean Desert, tens of millions worldwide continue to enjoy the tranquility and mild temperatures of cave dwellings. Underground homes are also a growing fad in the West.

One hundred years ago, thousands of North-African Jews throughout Algeria, Morocco and Libya were still spending their lives in villages where almost every structure, from goat stable to shul, was buried underground. The only overt signs above ground of the existence of these subterranean communities were fi elds and tombstones. In these places, no one slept under the stars except after one’s passing.

As part of an effort to “civilize” North African Jewry, the Alliance Israelite of France had sent Nahum Slouschz to survey the “primitive” Jewish communities of North Africa. One of his ports of call was Libya which had been inhabited by Jews at least since King Ptolemy of Egypt sent Jewish soldiers to strengthen his Libyan garrisons, three centuries before Churban Habayis.

By the time of Slouschz’s visit, the Golden Age of Jewish cave dwelling was at its nadir. Of the hundred cave villages of the Djebel Gharian region, only three were still inhabited by Jews – Tigranna, Beni-Abbes, and Tasgot. Tigranna Jews still recalled how Moslems had driven them from an earlier village. Every Shabbos, Moslem neighbors had sneaked up to their pots of chamin (cholent), left simmering in a common courtyard, and surreptitiously slipped a frog or two inside to render the food treif. When the situation had become untenable, the Jews moved out.

Approaching the Beni-Abbes cave village with his guide, Slouschz is surprised to see nothing but empty fields.

“A strange spectacle this,” he records in his travelogue, Travels in North Africa. “Hills and fertile valleys, where, except for an occasional ruin or mosque, not a sign of human habitation showed above ground… Then we discerned a number of square holes, great pits almost concealed by the red hillocks around them; we could hear the wailing of infants, the lowing of cattle, the shrill cries of women, all issuing from the depths like the voice of the Sybil (mythical monster). Then we approached a hole, opening in the side of the hill like the entrance to a cave.” Slouschz and his entourage push open a massive wooden door and proceed down a long, dark passage.

“At the end of about fifteen or twenty yards,” he continues, “we found ourselves in a court illuminated feebly by rays of light slanting in from above. This was the stable into which our animals were taken, and which preceded the central court of the human habitations.”

The caves were designed in this fashion for defensive purposes. Attackers had to pass along the narrow passage in single file and anyone breaking through reached the animals first. Hopefully, this would have encouraged them to be satisfied with seizing the cattle and leaving, in accordance with the maxim, “Take all my possessions but leave me my life.”

“We continued the descent,” Slouschz recounts, “…and we reached a square subterranean courtyard fairly well lit by a patch of sky visible at a depth of about ten or twelve meters from the surface of the earth. This provided all the light and the air for the inhabitants. This court, which resembled a well in its triangular depth, fulfilled the purposes of a central dwelling place, a kitchen and a factory.

The living rooms, which were in caves either cut out from the walls themselves or dug out from the level of the subsoil, received a little of the light and air of the court…”

What did these living rooms look like? Ethel Braun, another traveler of those times, offers a worm’s eye description:

“The room is really a cave scooped out in the earth, the only light coming in from the doorway,” she writes. “As my eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, I can see the ceiling just over my head almost touching me. Rows of preserved fruit tins, sardine boxes, old bananas, Indian corn, and whatnot are strung across it as ornaments… Several holes have been scooped out of the sides of the walls to serve as receptacles for garments or foodstuffs and there are two old stools – otherwise the room is empty of furniture. There are other rooms, all much the same, all opening out into the courtyard.”

Jewish cave dwellers had an additional piece of décor. Since their cave walls had no paint or plaster, as a sign of aveilus over the churban, they always painted one corner black.

To his surprise, Slouschz discovers that the cave Jews enjoy better health than the Libyan city Jews. This is because of the fruit trees growing profusely at ground level, and also because cave dwelling is not as bad as one might think. The earth is a year round temperature regulator, excluding the worst of summer’s heat while soaking up enough warmth to stave off the fierce cold of winter.

Slouschz continues his saga: “The news of our arrival spread through the village; men and women… came hurrying into the cave… After a refreshing glass of lagbi (datetree juice), we climbed back to the surface to inspect the village and its surroundings.

“Yehud Beni-Abbes is on the very margin of the desert which lies between the oasis and Tripoli,” he goes on. “The village comprises two hundred and forty inhabitants, who take up six underground courts… The life of the Jews of the cave country is primitive in the extreme… Almost every Jew possesses an ass and, again, the Arab shows his unspeakable malice. On Saturday, the Arabs, insisting that there is no reason why the beasts should lose a day of work simply because the Jews do, appropriate the animals and set them to work.”

The Beni-Abbes Jews relate to him how their numbers were devastated during the 5600/1840 plague that left only four surviving families. Arabs seized advantage of this by stealing the Jews’ land and plowing up their cemetery. They also intended to destroy the Beni-Abbes shul, claiming that it desecrated a nearby mosque, until the Jews unearthed a document proving that the shul had already existed for about eight centuries and dated back five hundred years before the mosque was built.

“We returned to the cave of Said, our host for the night,” Slouschz recalls. “Here among the mysterious mountains of Libya, in a cavern fifteen meters below the surface of the earth, suffocating for lack of air, a prey to vermin… I passed a sleepless night… “The next morning, after attending morning prayers and partaking of a light breakfast, we mounted our camels to continue our journey. We sustained our rhythmic march across the picturesque hills and valleys of the Djebel Gharian… After a march of three and a half hours, we came across a square building dominated by a rather squat cupola – which is strange enough for these parts – and rising clear above the soil. This was the new synagogue of Tigranna.”

This larger village boasted a population of 650-700 inhabitants living around twenty subterranean courts. These Jews, too, had a sad tale to tell, as they were also the remnant of a far larger kehillah of former times. So relates the Chacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) Rav Halifa Hajaj, whose cave boasts the only chair in the whole village, a shabby specimen shipped in from the capital city, Tripoli. The rov explains that despite savage invasions and devastating wars which robbed them of their ancient documents, there was evidence of extensive Jewish settlement here during times past.

“There are in the district, numerous villages where one may find traces of deserted Haras (Jewish Quarters) and of Jewish cemeteries, now abandoned,” he says. “The ancestors of the Jews of the cave country have transmitted the tradition that, in very ancient times, the Jews formed the majority of the population but that wars and epidemics decimated their numbers. There were, moreover, frequent conversions to Islam for many generations. And in addition, as a result of the fearful epidemics, a large part of the Jewish population of the recent generations had preferred to leave the Djebel Gharian in order to settle in the oasis on the coast of Tripoli.”

Regarding his personal ancestry, Rav Halifa explains that an ancestor came from Morocco seven centuries earlier and proclaimed himself chief of the Djebel Gharian region. Then the Moslems took over and now, after centuries of bloodshed and pillage, nothing is left to him but his medical practice and his title of Chacham Bashi.

“But G-d is just,” he concludes. “Misfortunes of every kind have beset me. I have been denounced to the authorities for the illegal practice of medicine. [Though] I have tasted the sweets of a Turkish prison, the zechus of my fathers, peace be with them, redeemed me. I lost my only son, but G-d was merciful. He has been pleased to leave me one child who is my only heir and my only consolation. May it be His will to deliver us from the hand of the barbarians and take us out of the Galus, Amein!”

A testimony to their stormy history is the cave Jews’ custom of closing their doors tight during the recital of “Kol Dichfin” of the Pesach Seder. This violation of normative minhag perhaps dates to periods of Moslem or Christian persecution when it was forbidden to observe Torah and mitzvos.

The Jewish cave dwellers of Djebel Gharia live there no longer. During 5710/1950-5711/1951, when almost all the Jews of Libya fl ed to Eretz Yisroel, they too swapped their beloved mole tunnels for the sunny Porat settlement, north of Tel Aviv. Many of them live there until this day, above ground.

(Sources: [1] Slouschz, Nahum, Travels in North Africa, Philadelphia, 1927. [2] Blady, Ken, Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, pub. Jason Aronson: Northwale, New Jersey- Jerusalem, 2000.)

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