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.