Page 183 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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LOWIN / PRIMO LEVI S UNORTHODOX JUDAISM
1 7 5
What is meant by Levi’s “Unorthodoxy” is in essence the subject
of this essay.
The song itself is a three-act play depicting three stages ofJew­
ish historical development. The first stanza constitutes an accusa­
tion hurled at a Christian society which for a thousand years has
used the Crucifixion as a pretext for molesting a mild people of
“tailors, scribes, and cantors.” By the second stanza, this historical
process has accumulated momentum and has crystallized into the
“Event” of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, characterized in
a synecdoche by the chimneys of Sobibor and Treblinka, and by
those who have survived solely for the honor of their people.
What characterizes the last stanza is its use of a Jewish “vocabu­
lary.” It provides the historical precedents of King David and
Massada — proper nouns laden with meaning — and calls for a
renewed Jewish State in the Land of Israel “where we will be men
among men.” The three parts of the song are punctuated by the
following refrain:
I f I ’m not for myself, who will be for me?
I f not this way, how? And if not now, when?
The careful reader will note that “Martin Fontasch” has emended
Hillel’s text. In doing so, he has given it a new—but not necessa­
rily opposite —interpretation. What he has added is the notion of
a “way,” the way not only of the Jewish partisans of Eastern
Europe, but, in the writing of Primo Levi, the way that blends two
traditions.
The idea of a “way” is emphasized by Warren Weaver’s transla­
tion. While much of the Jewish-Yiddish flavor of the novel is
unsuccessfully conveyed in the English translation — a language
normally hospitable to Jewish inflections — Italian nuances are
successfully preserved. In one instance, Weaver has demon­
strated sheer genius. He has observed that the novel is about a
“way” and has used that word in his translation of a variety of Ital­
ian words, for example,
maniera, modo, strada, via,
and, of course,
cost,
the “this way” of the song.
JEWISH PRESENCE
In explaining the mission of his group, Gedaleh insists on
doing things his way. Although the Russians want them to carry
out their sabotage as Russians, “we’re interested in being present