Page 189 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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LOWIN / PRIMO LEVI’S UNORTHODOX JUDAISM
1 8 1
curse. They ask favors of the Madonna and the saints, but they
don’t seem to believe much in God. They know the Ten Com­
mandments by heart, but at most they observe two or three. I
believe they help those in need because they’re good people, who
have suffered a lot, and who know that those who suffer should be
helped, (pp. 324-325)
From the Christians, Levi extrapolates an Italian-Jewish charac­
ter. “Italian Jews are as odd as Catholics. They don’t speak Yid­
dish, in fact they don’t even know what Yiddish is. They openly
speak Italian; or rather, the Jews of Rome speak Roman, the Jews
o f Venice speak Venetian, and so on. They dress like everybody
else, they have the same face as everybody else.” (p. 325)
In the book by Hughes, in Howe’s preface, in Roth’s interview,
in an article in
TheJerusalem Post,10
the theme of assimilated Jewry
recurs like a refrain in a hymn of praise. And yet, as Gedaleh him­
self has insisted, it is important to remain in the battle for survival
not only as universal human beings but also as Jews. The danger
of the openness of a society like Italy — which produces such
attractive Christians as well as Jews — is that in such an environ­
ment, Jews are likely to disappear from the stage as Jews.
Levi refrains from proposing a solution to the dilemma; nor
does he raise the problem directly. Nevertheless, he does remind
us that while the drama of European Jewry was enacted on center
stage, another play was taking form in the wings, in the Land of
Israel. Levi’s novel leads inexorably to a Zionist conclusion. For
him, however, “Unorthodox Jew” that he is, the “way” of life in
the evolving society in Israel would be wise to be both Jewish and
“Italianesque,” both based in the Jewish textual tradition and
open to openness.
The Gedalists, aware of the minimalist nature of their struggle,
are fighting for “three lines in the history books” (p. 98). Perhaps
the three lines will be Hillel’s famous dictum. Perhaps one of the
three lines will read, in Italian,
“Se non cost, come
?'’ (“If not this
way, how?”)
10 Dvorah Getzler quotes Levi as follows: “Italian Jews are an exception in
Europe. We were, we are, profoundly assimilated. And especially here in
Turin, Jews are very much a part of Italian life. The only difference, for most
Italians, is that we don’t attend Mass.” In “The Man Who Is Primo Levi.”
The
Jerusalem Post Magazine
(November 7, 1986), p. 15.