A new book, Jewish Libya: Memory and Identity in Text and Image, edited by the Libyan Jewish writers and scholars Jacques Roumani (†), David Meghnaghi, and Judith Roumani, is coming out soon from Syracuse University Press. It includes chapters on Libyan Jewish language, cuisine, history, social change, women, diaspora, and biographical and liturgical literatures. Update: for those who have access, the book is available online at Project Muse.
From the publisher’s description:
“In June 2017, the Jews of Libya commemorated the jubilee of their complete exodus from this North African land in 1967, which began with a mass migration to Israel in 1948–49. Jews had resided in Libya since Phoenician times, seventeen centuries before their encounter with the Arab conquest in AD 644–646. Their disappearance from Libya, like most other Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East, led to their fragmentation across the globe as well as reconstitution in two major centers, Israel and Italy.
Distinctive Libyan Jewish traditions and a broad cultural heritage have survived and prospered in different places in Israel and in Rome, Italy, where Libyan Jews are recognized for their vibrant contribution to Italian Jewry. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, memories fade among the younger generations and multiple identities begin to overshadow those inherited over the centuries. Capturing the essence of Libyan Jewish cultural heritage, this anthology aims to reawaken and preserve the memories of this community. Jewish Libya collects the work of scholars who explore the community’s history, its literature and dialect, topography and cuisine, and the difficult negotiation of trauma and memory. In shedding new light on this now-fragmented culture and society, this collection commemorates and celebrates vital elements of Libyan Jewish heritage and encourages a lively inter-generational exchange among the many Jews of Libyan origin worldwide.”
Darf Publishers has recently released the memoir of Raphael Luzon, a member of the Jewish community of Benghazi, entitled Libyan Twilight: The story of an Arab Jew. Luzon is also the co-author of an Arabic collection of interviews with members of the Libyan Jewish community, entitled سالتهم فتحدثوا: دراسة حول يهود ليبيا (I asked, and they answered: A study about Libyan Jews). From the publisher’s blurb:
“Libyan Twilight is a short memoir that discusses the forgotten Jewish community of Libya. As a child growing up in Benghazi, Raphael Luzon experienced the pogrom that followed the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The Libyan Jews were forced to abandon their homeland and seek refuge overseas as a result.
The narrative jumps between the present and past, starting in 2012 where Raphael finds himself in a jail cell in post-revolution Libya amidst political chaos. He rewinds 45 years to a time when Libya was his home, just before the Muslim community ousted the ‘Arab Jews’. They spoke in a Libyan dialect of Arabic and had been rooted in North Africa since the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC right up until 1967.
Left with no choice, the Libyan Jews were forced to flee Benghazi and find settlement elsewhere, leaving a rich culture behind in Saharan sands. Luzon tells the story with an air of dignity rather than resentment. He opens the lid on a box of memories that reflect on the repercussions he and his community experienced over the last 50 years. As a memoir of exile, Libyan Twilight bursts with nostalgia and gives voice to a forgotten tragedy.
Shackled to his Libyan heritage, Luzon relives his life in Italy, Israel and London through a series of charming anecdotes. Sentiments aside, Libyan Twilight is about a man’s quest for justice. On a self-assigned mission, Luzon strives for closure on the deaths of his family in Tripoli during the pogrom. Nobody was convicted, nor were they granted a funeral. Luzon’s honorary pursuit for redemption places revenge aside, as he sets out to achieve a trial, a conviction and a funeral for the lost Libyan Jews.”
The city of Tripoli in western Libya was home to a thriving Jewish community until about the early 1970s, when various political and social factors pushed the remaining members of the community to emigrate, completing the process of Libya losing its Jewish communities begun several decades earlier. Now, Libyan Jewish communities are still thriving, but in the diaspora, principally in Italy and Israel.
Since many members of the community still speak their Arabic dialect at home, it is still possible to do linguistic fieldwork and describe Libyan Jewish dialects. However, so far no dialects except that of Tripoli have received attention.
The most important study of Libyan Jewish Arabic is The Arabic dialect of the Jews of Tripoli (Libya) by Sumikazu Yoda (Harrassowitz, 2005). Yoda’s work is the only detailed description of a Libyan Jewish dialect that exists. Although written for a linguistic audience, it also contains the transcription and translation of a fairy tale (“The Sultan and the three sisters”) as well as a glossary, both of which are useful for the non-linguist reader who might want to get an idea of what the Jewish dialect of Tripoli was like.
Fortunately, Yoda also made his recording of that fairy tale available online, which you can listen to below. It was narrated by Mere Hajjaj Liluf (میري حجاج ليلوف), who was born in Tripoli in 1925.
For those who speak Libyan Arabic, the main differences to note are that t ت becomes ch چ, h ه disappears, and q ق is pronounced q and not g. So for example انتا is pronounced انچا and تعالى sounds like چَعْلا che3la. Or instead of hada هدا you hear ada ادا. I’d be interested to know how much is understandable!
For this blog’s first post about Libyan Jews, it is most fitting to start off with Vivienne Roumani’s 2007 documentary entitled The Last Jews of Libya. The synopsis:
“The Last Jews of Libya documents the final decades of a centuries-old Sephardic Jewish community through the lives of the remarkable Roumani family. Thirty-six thousand Jews lived in Libya at the end of World War II, but not a single one remains today. A tale of war, cultural dislocation, and one family’s ultimate perseverance, this fifty-minute film traces the story of the Roumanis of Benghazi, Libya from Turkish Ottoman rule through the age of Mussolini and Hitler to the final destruction and dispersal of Libya’s Jews in the face of Arab nationalism.
Based on the recently discovered memoirs of the family’s matriarch, Elise Roumani, as well as interviews in English, Hebrew, Italian, and Arabic with several generations of the Roumani family and a trove of rare archival film and photographs, it is an unforgettable tale.”