fbpx
Monday, September 21, 2020

Family’s tale recounts Libyan Jewish dispersion


The trailer
“Any time you have a community that is erased, it’s a tragedy not only for the community but for humanity.”

The opening line from the documentary “The Last Jews of Libya” begins a nostalgic visit to an ill-fated community of 25,000 people living between the Mediterranean Sea and North African desert at the dawn of World War II.

It’s a story we know too well — pious, successful and family-oriented Jews living in coexistence with their neighbors suddenly become targets of racial hatred and are ultimately expelled or destroyed. Once in the United States, the immigrants struggle to find their place within an American Jewish life rooted firmly in Eastern European culture.

Told through the experiences of the Roumani family, the film, which airs Dec. 3 on the Sundance Channel, was inspired by a providential accident.

Following the death of their mother, Elise Tammam Roumani, director Vivienne Roumani-Denn and her brother discovered her memoirs, handwritten on legal paper, stuffed under her bed.

“It was really indescribable. Her presence became alive again but with a gift of all her life — our lives, as if she were anticipating her first grandchild’s question years later,” Roumani-Denn said.

Isabella Rossellini narrates the story as Roumani, recounting her youth in the coastal town of Benghazi.

A port city long controlled by the Ottoman Turks before an Italian conquest, its Jewish inhabitants studied Torah and Talmud daily. Life revolved around the Sabbath, and modes of dress indicated levels of observance. The relationship between Arabs and Jews was characterized as peaceful coexistence, textured by business and personal relationships and a communal appreciation of Arab culture.

“When people said to me, ‘Oh you must hate Arabs,’ it was shocking to me. Jews lived in Arab countries for millennia and felt a great affinity with the Arabs. I grew up listening to Arabic music, watching Arab films. We enjoyed the language and the poetry … we even enjoyed listening to the Quran when muazen would go up on minarets or chant on the radio,” Roumani-Denn said.

But escalating tensions between Jews and Arabs, resulting from Italian fascism, Nazi occupation and later, the creation of Israel, catalyzed violent pogroms forcing Libya’s Jewish community to flee. The Roumanis spent a year at an internment camp in Tunisia before returning to Benghazi.

“The pogroms broke the trust completely between Jews and Arabs. Pan-Arabism with Nasser was the final breaking point. It was very anti-Jewish and anti-Western,” Roumani-Denn said.

With two sons studying in the United States, Yosef Roumani, the family patriarch, decided to immigrate to America. When the family resettled in the United States, they felt isolated and out of place.

“There was a break in the continuity of culture, traditions, liturgies. The way we prayed was different; the way we sang was different. Among the middle class, who were scattered everywhere, [the United States] was not a place where we found a like immigrant community, so that makes you feel uneasy, uprooted. People would ask, ‘You don’t speak Yiddish? How could you be Jews?'”

With the departure of the last Jews of Libya, an entire Jewish tradition ceased. “Religion was an intrinsic part of our life. It was the way we lived, thought, did business, the way we interacted. It wasn’t an effort; it was a joy, and we did not have the divisions of Conservative, Orthodox, Reform. You’re a Jew. There’s no division.”

Today, there are no known Jewish families living in Libya and the close-knit religious community that worked and worshipped alongside Arabs is gone.

When the film screened at festivals, Roumani-Denn realized the impact of her family’s story resonated with larger audiences. “Making this film was a wonderful way to clarify some of the clichés about ‘Who is a Jew’ and preconceived ideas about the relationship between Arabs and Jews. It was intended to be a film to pass on the story of my family but very quickly it became obvious that this was a story beyond the family,” she said.

Now scattered throughout the world, the Roumani family continues to draw on the traditions preserved in the film. Roumani-Denn hopes it will connect her family’s future generations to the Jewish foundation of their past.

“In a human journey, one may go through various iterations [of observance],” she said, “but the community and your synagogue was always there waiting for you.”

“The Last Jews of Libya” airs Dec. 3, 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel. For more information, visit http://lastjewsoflibya.com/ or

http://www.sundancechannel.com/

Did you enjoy this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

ECOSOC Resolution Cites Israel’s Perceived Human Rights Violations’ Impact on Palestinian Women, Girls

The resolution expressed "grave concern about the continuing systematic violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel."

Remembering the Life and Work of the Woman who Championed Women’s Rights: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague.”

Thanks for Listening

May this High Holy Days season be one of meaningful prayer, engaging lessons, poignant revelation and strong connections.

Israelis Brace for High Holy Days in Shadow of Second Lockdown

The Ministry of Health says 5,238 new cases have been confirmed between Thursday and Friday, setting yet another negative record. Restriction on movement is somewhat relaxed from 500 yards from one's home to 1,000 yards.

How High Holy Day Services and Arrival of 5781 Are Going to Look Across America

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, synagogues nationwide have drastically adjusted their holiday programming to minimize congregant interactions and time spent in one area. Still, the point, say rabbis, is to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, in whatever form that looks like.

A Tale of Two High HolY Days: Why Orthodox Jews Are Going to Synagogue While Everyone Else Is on Zoom

(JTA) – At the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this year’s High Holy Days will be anything but normal. With eight services happening...

What Does Leading With Heart Look Like in Modern Life?

This Rosh Hashanah, consider how you can cultivate the four pillars of heart-centered leadership.

A Moment in Time: 5781 Can’t Come Soon Enough

Dear all, As we approach the Jewish New Year of 5781, I think we can safely say that 5780 came with incredible challenges. I can’t...

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies At 87

She died from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Culture

‘A Wilderness of Error’ Revisits Infamous Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

As recounted in journalist Joe McGinniss’ 1983 book and the subsequent miniseries “Fatal Vision,” MacDonald was convicted of the murders, but was he guilty?

‘The Get’ to Tell Story of Notorious Chasidic Rabbi

The show is based off a GQ article.

Novel’s Russian Jews Find Rough Going in Israel

The setting of “Jerusalem as a Second Language,” a new novel by Rochelle Distelheim (Aubade Publishing), harks back to a remarkable moment in history.

Personalizing Home Ritual With ‘HighHolidaysAtHome’

The team has developed guides and webinars. They're providing steps to invoke various aspects of the holidays as well as family memories. 

Apples of Hope for Rosh Hashanah

As a new year begins, we remember the hard times of recent months but also look forward to the future with a promise of new beginnings.

Latest Articles
Latest

ECOSOC Resolution Cites Israel’s Perceived Human Rights Violations’ Impact on Palestinian Women, Girls

The resolution expressed "grave concern about the continuing systematic violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel."

Remembering the Life and Work of the Woman who Championed Women’s Rights: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague.”

Thanks for Listening

May this High Holy Days season be one of meaningful prayer, engaging lessons, poignant revelation and strong connections.

Israelis Brace for High Holy Days in Shadow of Second Lockdown

The Ministry of Health says 5,238 new cases have been confirmed between Thursday and Friday, setting yet another negative record. Restriction on movement is somewhat relaxed from 500 yards from one's home to 1,000 yards.

How High Holy Day Services and Arrival of 5781 Are Going to Look Across America

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, synagogues nationwide have drastically adjusted their holiday programming to minimize congregant interactions and time spent in one area. Still, the point, say rabbis, is to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, in whatever form that looks like.

Hollywood

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

Podcasts

A Rosh HaSchitt’s Creek Sameach to You!

How long has this pandemic been? This week we're giving a big Shofar Wave to 5780 as it exits the building, reviewing some Jewy...

Pandemic Times Episode 88: Words of Light for Rosh Hashanah

New David Suissa Podcast Every Monday and Friday. Excerpts of inspiring messages from community leaders. How do we manage our lives during the coronavirus crisis? How...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x