Amid Security Threats, Tunis' Only Kosher Restaurant Shutters

Nov 4, 2015
Originally published on November 4, 2015 10:57 am

A kosher restaurant in Tunisia is closing.

It's the last kosher restaurant in the country's capital. The Jewish-run restaurant is shutting down because of terrorist threats.

It's one of many aftershocks in the country where the Arab Spring began.

A few years ago, I visited that kosher restaurant — a vestige of Tunisia's ancient and once-thriving Jewish community. We were traveling across North Africa, and we took a table with the owner, Jacob LaLoush.

We'd heard his restaurant served a vodkalike concoction made from figs called bukha — a type of Tunisian vodka. When we dropped by in 2012, he taught us how to drink it, retrieving a frost-covered, small green bottle from the freezer in his kitchen.

Do you drink all in one shot or do you sip it? I asked.

"L'chaim!" he said, using the Hebrew toast "to life!" "You test first and after, you [drink] in one shot."

Bukha, he explained, "was the basic drink in all the Jewish feasts." And non-Jews had come to drink what's become known as a distinctive Tunisian national product.

To LaLoush, alcohol symbolized freedom in a majority-Muslim country, but it was also becoming a source of friction in Tunisia. He celebrated that freedom even though, because of medication, he couldn't drink.

That was three years ago.

Now, his restaurant is closing. He told us by phone this week that authorities informed him of a possible attack.

"I'm obliged to close my restaurant because it's a security obligation for my clients, my mother and me," LaLoush said.

His country has become more restive since the Arab Spring. Islamist movements have emerged — some peaceful, some less so.

Yet LaLoush remained cheerful on the phone.

"I have big hope for Tunisia and I want to stay here," he said. "I want to continue my action in the cultural life of my country."

He plans to open a new restaurant in a different neighborhood, and he says he will preserve the kosher menu — and through it, a slice of Jewish culture.

But, for security, the new restaurant will serve customers by invitation-only.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A kosher restaurant in Tunisia is closing. It is the last kosher restaurant in that country's capital. The Jewish-run restaurant is shutting down because of terrorist threats. As we're about to hear, it is one of the many aftershocks in this country where the Arab Spring began.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, I visited that kosher restaurant a few years ago. We were traveling across North Africa, and we took a table with the owner, Jacob LaLoush. We'd heard his restaurant served a vodka-like concoction made from figs called bouha (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACOB LALOUSH: Do you want to try it?

INSKEEP: I thought you'd never ask.

LALOUSH: (Laughter) Just a minute.

INSKEEP: He goes to the freezer and comes back with shot glasses and a small green bottle covered in frost.

Do you drink it all in one shot, or do you sip it?

LALOUSH: (Foreign language spoken). You test first, and after you - in one shot.

INSKEEP: To LaLoush, alcohol symbolized freedom in a majority Muslim country. He celebrated that freedom even though, because of medication, he couldn't drink. That was 2012. In 2015, his restaurant is closing. He told us by phone that authorities informed him of possible attack.

LALOUSH: I'm obliged to close my restaurant because it's a security obligation for my clients, my mother and me.

INSKEEP: His country has become more restive since the Arab Spring. Islamist movements have emerged, some peaceful and some less so. Yet, LaLoush remained cheerful on the phone.

LALOUSH: I have a big hope for Tunisia, and I want to stay here. I want to continue my action in the cultural life of my country.

INSKEEP: He plans to open a new restaurant in a different neighborhood, and he says he will preserve the Kosher menu and threw it a slice of Jewish culture, although for security, the new restaurant will serve customers by invitation only. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.