Jewish Tradition Lost in Libya The Last Jews of Libya documents the final decades of a centuries-old Sephardic Jewish community through the lives of one remarkable family. At the end of WWII, 36,000 Jews lived in Libya, but not a single one remains today.
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Jewish Tradition Lost in Libya

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Jewish Tradition Lost in Libya

Jewish Tradition Lost in Libya

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(Soundbite of chanting)


After World War II, 36,000 Jews lived in Libya. Now more than six decades later, few traces of Jewish culture remain.

Unidentified Man: You know, anytime you have a community that is erased, it's a tragedy not only for the community but for humanity. You know, it's a loss for everybody.

CHIDEYA: Libya native Vivienne Roumani-Denn felt that loss. She set out to trace her family's roots and learned more about the once-thriving Jewish community in North Africa. Her new documentary is "The Last Jews of Libya." It uses interviews, archival photographs and also tales from her mother's diary. Roumani-Denn told me why it was important to tell the story.

Ms. VIVIENNE ROUMANI-DENN (Director, The Last Jews of Libya): My son one day said, I hear a lot about this family, I hear a lot about the Jewish community in Libya, but how am I going to pass on this story to my children? And his suggestion was to make a film. He said this is how children learn - by film. And it was time to tell the story.

CHIDEYA: So when you went out to the field, of being - going back to Libya, did you go there and say I want to complete a documentary that's going to look like this and it's going to have this element, or did you go and just start shooting and feel your way through it?

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: At the beginning, I actually had to ask what kind of camera to get, and I started just interviewing and shooting. Pretty soon, it became clear that my mother's memoirs that we discovered after her death, and we didn't - we had no idea she was writing them - would lend a good skeleton to the film. And it became actually the story that she left behind, handwritten in Italian that we found after her death.

CHIDEYA: Now Italian, if you don't know the history, may seem like a strange language for someone from Libya to be writing in. Why - take us through the history of how Libya came under the influence of different colonial powers and external powers and where Jewish Libyans fit into that.

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: Well, Jews were in Libya from at least the 1st century. They were under the Romans and under the Ottomans. In 1911, the Italians wrestled Libya from the Ottomans, and it became an Italian colony. Eventually, it was taken over by the British. And finally, it became an independent country in 1951.

CHIDEYA: You spent quite a bit of time on the era in which the Italians came into Libya and how they were received by your extended family. What was the mood when the Italians came to Libya?

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: The Jews welcomed this Western influence, the democratic influence. Eventually, though as you know, under Mussolini, he started the racial laws against the Jews. And then he entered a pact with Hitler, and things were not quite what they appeared to be.

CHIDEYA: Did your family have any sense that as Jews, they would be hunted down and persecuted the way that they were?

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: Not at all. In fact, they felt very much part of the Arab country. In fact, one of the cliches that the film, I think, addresses is the relationship between the Arabs and the Jews. It was much more complex than one would imagine. So the answer is no, and they did not expect this kind of persecution.

And in fact, in my mother's diary, one could constantly see the ways from the political to the personal - the happy personal times in a way a child is born and then the political situation which was. And then there was this attack or the bombing that started, so it was an interesting weaving in and out of the hope, the happiness and this difficulty of the political situation.

CHIDEYA: As your family dispersed to Israel, to the United States, do you have any sense that they thought a part of their identity as African or at least North African?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: May I tell you a humorous story?

CHIDEYA: Please.

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: When my son was in Berkeley High School and he was applying for colleges, he says, can I apply as an African-American? I think I'm closest to Africa than a lot of my friends. And I said, no. You're a North African-American if anything. And then he said, how about a Spaniard? He's a Sephardic Jew, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: No, that won't work either.

We considered ourselves multicultural actually. The Arab culture is very much inside of us and outside. We play Arabic music. We speak Arabic. We cook Arabic food. We have Arabic idioms and expressions. We speak the Italian fluently, and we feel very connected to Italy, to Europe, and we feel very much Americans as well.

CHIDEYA: When you look at the fact that America is - got virtually every nationality represented in it, why do you think people will identify with this story in particular? It's a specific story about specific people during a specific part of history in some ways. Is there anything that makes it broad enough to appeal to people from different backgrounds?

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: It's been my experience throughout my years here that this story will appeal to everyone. And it also addresses the cliches about American immigrant experience. This immigrant story is about a middle-class Sephardic community that was leaving Arab countries after centuries of coexisting with the majority culture. And I think this film will address a lot of the questions that I've received throughout my years here. Oh, you come from Libya? And the next question was, how is Lebanon?

This is less true now, but people - some people are still asking me that. So there are many things - most of the stories is not known. The reason it's told through the personal - well, for many reasons - but one of them, I think, it really worked because it ended up being a personal story as opposed to a history lesson let's say.

CHIDEYA: Well, Vivienne, thank you so much.

Ms. ROUMANI-DENN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was director Vivienne Roumani-Denn. Her documentary, "The Last Jews of Libya" airs December 3rd on the Sundance Channel.

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