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The Jew From Timbuktu

By Tzvi Fishman
6/11/2008, 12:00 AM

Continuing  our update on thriving Jewish communities in the Diaspora, I put in a phone call to one of the prime movers of the Timbuktu Jewish community. The outgoing, dynamic figure, formerly from South Florida, is known throughout the Mali region as Master Abraham, and is never seen without a safari hunting hat and walking stick.

He apologized for not knowing what a blog was, but said he was happy to do an interview for Arutz 7, in order to spread the word about Jewish Timbuktu.

Jewish Quarter Wall

To remind readers, the West African city of Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three large mosques recall Timbuktu's golden age. Although continuously restored, these monuments are under threat from desertification. Interestingly, Timbuktu is primarily made of mud.

Timbuktu Synagogue. "Ohel Avraham"

“Why Timbuktu?” I asked him.

“Why not?” he replied. “Jews have made a home for themselves all over the world. Historically, Timbuktu’s geographical setting has made it a natural meeting point for nomads and travelers. Its long history as a trading outpost brought Jewish and gentile traders together from all over the world. This is what gave it its fabled status as an exotic, distant land, as the saying goes, "From here to Timbuktu."

“What else can you tell our readers about historic Timbuku?”

“Well, Timbuktu's long-lasting contribution to Islamic and world civilization is scholarship. By the fourteenth century, important books were written and copied in Timbuktu, establishing the city as the centre of a significant written tradition in Africa.”

“What’s the Jewish population there today?”

“Just counting the locals, we almost have a minyan. But we host Jewish travelers constantly. Over the High Holy Days, there were over a hundred Jews at services. We get a lot of Jewish tourists and Israeli businessmen passing through. Also lots of young Israeli soldiers who have recently finished their army service. We see it as our duty to provide a warm, welcoming Jewish atmosphere for them during their visit. Including kosher food and a real Shabbat. Until recently, Jewish women who needed a mikvah could perform their ritual immersion in Timbuktu Lake, but one lady was eaten by a swarm of piranha fish, so we have embarked on a mikvah fundraising drive.” 

Class in Judaism

“What other plans do you have for the Timbuktu Jewish community?”

“Our plans include building a ten-million dollar Jewish Community Center with a kosher cafeteria, swimming pool and health club, basketball court, and cinema center. In addition, we have hired a group of renowned architects and landscapers to design a utopian residential complex, on the model of Boca Raton, with a wide selection of villas, and a country club featuring tennis courts, an eighteen-hole golf course, a mini shopping mall, medical center, and Ashkenazi and Sefardi synagogues.”

“Sounds like quite an investment.”

“One hundred and twenty million dollars. In the States it would be more, but labor here is cheap.”

“Don’t you think that an investment like that might better be planned for a place like the Golan Heights in Israel, which is in danger of being lost to the Syrians?”

“The Golan Heights is too far away from things to be attractive.”

“So is Timbuktu.” 

“You’re forgetting the lure. There is a magical pull to Timbuktu. And to be perfectly frank, not everyone is built for idealistic and military struggles, which is the case in order to live in Israel. Don’t get me wrong. We are a very Zionistic community. We’ll fly the Star of David on Israel Independence Day, and our doors will always be open to shalichim from ha’Aretz, but we see ourselves as a tolerant, academic, multi-denominational Jewish community in the historic tradition of Timbuktu, spreading the light of Judaism at the crossroads of the world.”

“Anything else you would like to tell our readers?”

“Sure thing. Come on down to Timbuktu!”

Shrunken head of former Timbuku rabbi. New applicants welcome.