Page 49 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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tion becomes liturgy, and the theatrical 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.
The rabbis may have come to terms, for example, with the bib­
lical figure of Gedaliah, the Jewish leader who at the time of the
Babylonian conquest was murdered for having accepted to serve
the occupying powers, but Levi has not. Gedaliah’s death is com­
memorated by a fast day observed right after Rosh Hashanah. Levi,
whose own hero is named Gedaleh, struggles both with the text
and with the traditional reading of it. The reading he ascribes to
the text is more relevant to his own narration. “The Biblical Ged­
aliah was a good-for-nothing. Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean had
appointed him governor ofJudah, of the fewJews left in Judah af­
ter the exile: then as now, like the governors Hitler appointed. He
was a collaborator, in other words. And he had been killed by Ish-
mael, a Partisan, a man like us. If we’re right, Ishmael was right,
and he did well to kill that Gedaliah” (pp. 316-17). The analogy
between the two situations is feeble. The story of the Gedalists is
not one of political uprising. It is however, a commentary on a bib­
lical text, however unorthodox the commentary.
Where does Levi get his “unorthodoxy” from? Is he merely a re­
fractory Jew? Or is he rather an Italian who refuses to bend to au­
thority because that’s the way Italians are? It is not by coincidence
that the role of Italy in this novel of Russian and Polish Jews is dis­
proportionately 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 audience, who
doesn’t understand a word of the dialogue.
Primo Levi's Judaism