Page 188 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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The rabbis may have come to terms, for example, with the bibli­
cal figure of Gedaliah, the Jewish leader who at the time o f the
Babylonian conquest was murdered for having accepted to serve
the occupying powers, but Levi has not. Gedaliah’s death was
commemorated by a fast day observed righ t after Rosh
Hashanah. Levi, whose own hero is named Gedaleh, struggles
both with the text and with the traditional reading of it. The read­
ing he ascribes to the text is more relevant to his own narration.
“The Biblical Gedaliah was a good-for-nothing. Nebuchadnezzar
the Chaldean had appointed him governor of Judah , of the few
Jews left in Judah after the exile: then as now, like the governors
Hitler appointed. He was a collaborator, in other words. And he
had been killed by Ishmael, a partisan, a man like us. I f we’re
right, Ishmael was right, and he did well to kill that Gedaliah”
(pp. 316-317). The analogy between the two situations is feeble.
The story of the Gedalists is not one of political uprisings. It is,
however, a commentary on a biblical text, however unorthodox
the commentary.
Where does Levi get his “Unorthodoxy” from? Is he merely a
refractory Jew? Or is he rather an Italian who refuses to bend to
authority because that’s the way Italians are? It is not by coinci­
dence that the role of Italy in this novel of Russian and Polish
Jews is disproportionately large. Even Pavel, the Yiddish actor,
has trod the boards in Milan, Venice, Rome, and Naples, playing
Jeremiah in Yiddish to an unbelievably enthusiastic Italian audi­
ence, who doesn’t understand a word of the dialogue.
What is more credible is that the “way” of the partisans should
pass finally through Milan, the refuge of many survivors of the
Holocaust, and the springboard to a new life.
Italy is Primo Levi’s homeland and heartland. What is attract­
ive about Italy, to Levi, is its own refractoriness to law. Italy is “a
fairy tale” (p. 66), “the land of the mild climate and notorious,
open illegality; . . . the land of evaded prohibitions and anarchic
forebearance, where every foreigner is welcomed like a brother”
(p. 315). Another aspect of the Italian character dear to Levi is the
Italians’ cavalier attitude to religion:
Even as Christians the Italians are odd. They go to Mass, but they