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The Last Jews of Libya
Elise and Yosef Roumani on their wedding day in Benghazi
by Judy Lash Balint
July 13, 2007

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 neverthless were strong adeherents 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??"