fbpx
Sunday, October 25, 2020

Family’s tale recounts Libyan Jewish dispersion

Print This Article


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.

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


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

One Debate Line that Biden Would Like to Have Back

In politics, you don’t win a debate by actually winning a debate. Rather, you win a debate by producing a moment, some type of face-to-face encounter or memorable declaration that will be repeated in news coverage and in digital media.

Jewish Organization Sharsheret Helps Women with Breast and Ovarian Cancer During Pandemic

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still important for women to maintain their annual OB-GYN appointments and...

Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow to Host ‘Superbad’ Reunion and Watch Party as Democrat Fundraiser

The cast “Superbad” will reunite virtually on Oct. 27 for a livestream of the movie, with actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher...

U.S. and Bahrain Agree to MOU Saying Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

On October 23, the United States and Bahrain signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that included a statement about anti-Zionism being anti-Semitism. The MOU stated...

Israeli Arabs Remain Divided Over Normalization Deals with Gulf States

JNS — The Joint Arab List was alone in voting against the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates in the Knesset, upsetting many...

Voting is Holy: A Reflection and a Prayer

A Reflection: Life's paradox and promise: continuity across time, minute modifications day by day, as living things reinvent themselves in a flow that shifts caterpillars into butterflies tadpoles into leaping frogs....

Yitzhak Rabin Miniseries ‘The Leader’ in the Works

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, will be the subject of a six-part miniseries called “The Leader” from L.A.-based...

Report: Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes Rose 18% in LA County

According to the report, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the county in 2019 was 93; in 2018, that number was 79. The report noted that the 93 instances is the largest number of anti-Semitic hate crimes that the county has recorded since 2009.

In a Striking Move, State Department Plans to Label 3 Large Human Rights Groups as Anti-Semitic

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In an unusual move, the State Department is planning to formally identify three large international human rights organizations as anti-Semitic, citing...

A Moment in Time: The Ten Qualities I Expect in my President

Dear all, Earlier this week, Ron and I sat down to cast our votes in the upcoming election. While we poured over the many propositions...

Culture

Jewish Organization Sharsheret Helps Women with Breast and Ovarian Cancer During Pandemic

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still important for women to maintain their annual OB-GYN appointments and...

Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow to Host ‘Superbad’ Reunion and Watch Party as Democrat Fundraiser

The cast “Superbad” will reunite virtually on Oct. 27 for a livestream of the movie, with actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher...

Yitzhak Rabin Miniseries ‘The Leader’ in the Works

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, will be the subject of a six-part miniseries called “The Leader” from L.A.-based...

The “Borat” Sequel Returns to a Divided America and Struggles to Adapt

“Borat” was, to say the least, very much a product of its time. The 2006 satirical shockumentary aimed to mock the rampant xenophobia and...

The Shepherd’s Pie Tradition

Every Friday morning, my phone would ring. “Boker Tov!” my grandmother would greet me. “You’re coming for dinner?” “Of course,” I would reply. “You’re making Shepherd’s Pie?”...

Latest Articles
Latest

One Debate Line that Biden Would Like to Have Back

In politics, you don’t win a debate by actually winning a debate. Rather, you win a debate by producing a moment, some type of face-to-face encounter or memorable declaration that will be repeated in news coverage and in digital media.

Jewish Organization Sharsheret Helps Women with Breast and Ovarian Cancer During Pandemic

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still important for women to maintain their annual OB-GYN appointments and...

Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow to Host ‘Superbad’ Reunion and Watch Party as Democrat Fundraiser

The cast “Superbad” will reunite virtually on Oct. 27 for a livestream of the movie, with actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher...

U.S. and Bahrain Agree to MOU Saying Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

On October 23, the United States and Bahrain signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that included a statement about anti-Zionism being anti-Semitism. The MOU stated...

Israeli Arabs Remain Divided Over Normalization Deals with Gulf States

JNS — The Joint Arab List was alone in voting against the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates in the Knesset, upsetting many...

Hollywood

Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow to Host ‘Superbad’ Reunion and Watch Party as Democrat Fundraiser

The cast “Superbad” will reunite virtually on Oct. 27 for a livestream of the movie, with actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher...

‘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

Pandemic Times Episode 98: Who Won the Final Debate?

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. Reflections on the presidential debate and the rhythms of the Jewish tradition. How do we manage our lives...

Bagels Subsequent Podrecord

Does Sacha Baron Cohen traffic in satire or stumbling blocks? Anticipating Borat 2, Erin and Esther puzzle over the line between deception and shining...

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

x