“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