Page 185 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

Basic HTML Version

1 7 7
role of the intellect, and to moral dilemmas, in a world of action.
It also reveals an essential characteristic of Primo Levi’s art, a
characteristic that might help to overcome Eberstadt’s objection
to what she considers his unconvincing Jewish style.
Levi places the tale of the
yeshiva bucherim
in the mouth of one
Pavel. Pavel is an actor, a born showman, an imitator of reality, a
wearer of masks, who, in order to survive “makes a
strength and confidence” (p. 101, my emphasis). Pavel is more­
over a symbol for the members of the band of Jewish partisans.
Metaphorically, this band may be seen as a wandering troupe of
actors playing their roles, in the tradition of the Italian
of the Renaissance, improving their private lives as his­
tory goes on about them. The troupe consists of a whole range of
pairs of stock characters. It includes the boastful matamoro Pavel
and the true hero-warrior Gedaleh. There is the brooding lover
Leonid and the moonstruck lover Isidor. Among the women,
there is White Rokhele and Black Rokhele, seemingly there only
for the color contrast. There is the familiarly mothering heroine
Bella and the exotically erotic heroine Line.
All of these characters work their magic on reality, adapting the
conventionality of their roles to the real-life situation of the
moment. It is when they abandon their masks and compose their
own scripts that they become fleshed-out persons in their own
right. Mendel, the thoughtful philosopher who balances Gedaleh
and Pavel, is obviously the central character of the novel. He pre­
sents an example of the stock character who acquires true person­
ality as the story develops.
Like the tailors, scribes, and cantors of Martin Fontasch’s song,
Mendel is a mild Jewish artisan, a watchmender who is “better at
mending things than at blowing them up” (p. 85). The frames of
reference of Mendel’s arts are exclusively Jewish. His allusions
are consistently to the Jewish religious and biblical context. He is
mindful, for example, that his Yiddish name, Mendel, comes
from the Hebrew name Menahem, a word for one who brings
consolation. Does the conversation turn to hospitality? Right
away he thinks of the midrash concerning the four doors of Patri­
arch Abraham’s tent. What does he think of as he passes through
a forest? “The only wood in the history of Israel is the Earthly