Page 187 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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LOWIN / PRIMO LEVI’S UNORTHODOX JUDAISM
1 7 9
commentaries on them but also allusions to the corpus of texts
which define the Jewish legal tradition. The character of the Jew­
ish people is determ ined by their culture and their culture
includes talking about the Law. Piotr, the non-Jewish partisan,
asks to be initiated into the culture. He wants to know what is this
“Talmud” that everyone is always talking about? What is the role
of Jewish law in Jewish lives? Pavel the “
tummler
” — a role com­
mon to both
commedia dell’arte
and the Yiddish theater— offers an
explanation that, while irreverent, does not stray much from real­
ity. “Our laws are a bit complicated, . . . we observe them only
when they don’t interfere with the
partisanka.
But we enjoy talk­
ing about them. We’re good at making distinctions, between the
pure and the impure, man and woman, Jew and goy, and we also
distinguish between the laws of peace and the laws of war” (p.
186). The Jews are not only good at making distinctions; they are
characterized by the distinctions they make. Thus they transcend
the seeming “stockness” of the roles they play.
In order to explain the Talmud, Pavel clowningly resorts to a
well-worn Jewish joke about “two men who fall down a chimney,
one is dirty and one is clean.” Whether or not the joke is essen­
tially Jewish, whether or not it really defines the Talmud, is not
material. Indeed, the joke may be nothing more than a parody of
talmudic
pilpul
(casuistry). What is important is the dramatization
of the joke, turning it into a Jewish study hall scene. The episode
is given full meaning when, at its conclusion, it is sanctified by a
prayer recited by the pious White Rokhele. A believer in God, she
concludes the evening’s activities by affirming her faith. The
prayer “Into Thy hand I entrust my spirit” is not chosen at ran­
dom. It has particular meaningfulness for the partisans, who
have chosen only to trust themselves. Her piousness echoes the
Zionism of the group, and their quest for dignity. She prays for
redemption by asking, “Let the Merciful break the yoke that
oppresses us, and lead us, heads high, into our land” (p. 191).
Thus, at the hands of Levi, fiction becomes liturgy, and the thea­
trical representation of humble reality becomes sanctification.
A case for Levi as a Jewish writer has been made here. But let us
not forget that, for all his respect for tradition, for all his sanctifi­
cation of the everyday, Levi is still an “unorthodox”Jewish writer.
He refuses to the very end to be bound, either by traditional prac­
tice or by traditional thinking. Not only does he shatter the shat­
tered tablets, he also rewrites traditional interpretations.