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Movie Review: The Last Jews of Libya at the Jerusalem International Film Festival

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It's the first full day of the Jerusalem International Film Festival and a couple of hundred Israelis and visitors spend more than an hour of a beautiful July Friday afternoon in the auditorium of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center glued to the screen by a moving documentary entitled The Last Jews of Libya.

The film is just one of more than 200 screenings that will take place over the next 10 days as one of the most anticipated cultural events of the year brings to the city world-renowned directors, actors, and screenwriters who mingle with Israeli film buffs and directors of Jewish film festivals from all over the world.

It's always excruciating to sit down at the end of June with the 280-page catalog and a calendar and try to come up with a realistic number of films that will squeeze into your life in July.

My list certainly got off to a good start with The Last Jews of Libya. Produced by Aryeh Bourkoff and his mother, Libyan-born Vivienne Roumani-Denn, the film chronicles three generations of Jews with roots in Benghazi, Libya. Based on the memoirs of Vivienne's mother, Elise Roumani, that were discovered after her death and enhanced by archival footage and interviews, we see 20th century history through the prism of a proud Jewish community that had prospered in a Moslem country for centuries.

This is not the story of poor Eastern European Jews living in shtetls in a predominantly peasant culture. The Jewish families of Benghazi were worldly, sophisticated business people who nevertheless were strong adherents to Jewish tradition and by and large resisted the assimilationist tendencies of their educated Ashkenazic brethren.

Still, the colonial powers of the 20th century combined with the long reach of the Nazis and Arab anger over the founding of the state of Israel all converged to lay waste to this once vibrant Jewish community. Today, unlike Morocco and neighboring Tunisia, there's not a single Jew left in Libya.

Many in the audience at the Festival screening are Jews of Libyan descent, who murmur appreciatively at the Arabic and Italian expressions used by some of the interviewees and gasp as the horror of internment camps and Arab pogroms are recounted.

Despite the fact that the majority of the Roumani family ended up emigrating to America, at their request, Vivienne's parents, Elise and her husband Yosef, are both buried on the Mt of Olives. One of Vivienne's Libyan-born brothers remarks in the film that this was more than a mere gesture — his parents must have wanted to emphasize that Israel is the only place where a Jew can feel totally at home.

Almost the entire Roumani family is present at the screening as Aryeh, a thirty-something Manhattan investment banker, gets up at the end to explain why he produced the film. "I have three kids and I realized I wanted to tell them where we came from," he told the attentive audience. "This was a project celebrating family unity," he continued. The film is dedicated to his grandparents, Elise and Yosef Roumani, who emigrated to America in the 1960s to join two of their sons studying at American universities.

As we file out of the theater, a tall middle-aged man in front of me says to his friend: "Very nice, but why would they only come here to be buried, not to live??"

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About judyinjerusalem

  • lingua franka

    but, does the film have any contemporary images of libya? did anybody go there to see what’s going on now, or is it all nostalgia and memoire? i want to know more!

    i recently visited a synagogue in tunisia, and it was very interesting to see a jewish nook in a muslim country. even if all the jews are really gone in libya (which sounds a bit suspect to me, no offense meant), aren’t there architectural reminders? vestiges? traces? this would be very interesting in a film about the jews who were in libya.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    As we file out of the theater, a tall middle-aged man in front of me says to his friend: “Very nice, but why would they only come here to be buried, not to live??”

    NU?

    Like you, Judy, I came here to be buried here… But like you, I intend to do some living first. I won’t be entering that final “apartment” for quite some time, G-d willing…

  • sr

    Ruvy. Like you said my friend G-d willing you will not enter that apartment for a long long time. My words folks. Cisco sends his best to you Ruvy and says adious amigo, hope to see you soon in Israel.

  • http://jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com Judy Lash balint

    There weren’t any contemporary images of Libyan Jewish life in this film. Since Kadaffi, there is literally not a vestige of Jewish presence there and Jews born in Libya are distinctly unwelcome there from what I gather…Tunisia and Morocco have quite different political leadership, of course, which explains the different status of jews there today..

  • Professor Maurice Roumani

    What the “tall middle-aged man” has said is not exactly correct. I left the US in 1972 to come and live in Israel where my children were born and raised, where I believed and I was proven right, that I could transmit my Sephardi/Libyan heritage to them much easier than anywhere else.
    My father, Yosef, after my mother passed away he also came and lived in Natanya for five more years before he passed away.
    My nephews have come here for a year and more. My sister has bought a house here and my brother has made aliyah few times and this time he has settled here permanently.

    Besides, ninety eight per cent of the Roumani families have been living in Israel since 1949. So the gentleman was generalizing about other Jews but his comment cannot be applied to the Roumani families.

  • http://jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com Judy Lash balint

    Thanks, Dr. Roumani. I appreciate your very important clarifications. The fellow I overheard on the way out clearly had the wrong impression.

    I hope the film is aired on Israeli TV one of these days…

    best, Judy in Jerusalem

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    to g8 govermente agency and the united council of humand rights and council of arab s too pelsed iam family from puerto rico [Personal contact info deleted] thank you iam guillermo garcia vasquez pelsed thansk you guillermo eladio garcia vasquez