"Primo Levi, Jew", by Amos Luzzatto
We propose here the English translation of the speech given by Amos Luzzatto on the occasion of the roundtable Primo Levi, Jew organized by the Centro in collaboration with the Jewish community of Turin, on May 6, 2012, within the program of events “Twenty five years after the loss of Primo Levi. Six encounters to remember him by and reflect”.
Before I take on this topic, it would be good idea to lay down some brief considerations on Jewish identity. First of all, I would like to ask a question. When we use this term, identity, is this identity a constant and stable characteristic, which manifested itself the moment when the Jews became a people? Even if there was some transformation, has this been at least a “natural,” necessary, and uniform process, one that has come down to us these days without any discontinuity and one that could not have developed in any other way? Or, rather, is this identity a historical process, which, because it is historical, is composite and consciously contains different currents, movements, articulations, and, at most, some profound changes too?
There are two contrasting answers to this question of identity. The first answer traces the contemporary Jewish orthodoxy back to the historical origins of the Jewish people as the unique, exclusive, and authentic evolution of Jewish identity itself. Instead, the second answer insists on the pluralism of original Judaism and contemporary Judaism and on the pluralism of the mechanisms of its historical transformations.
According to the first answer, it may be a futile effort to look for the original Judaism of Primo Levi. He was a great writer, a noble personality, a victim and a witness of the Shoah, but a typical member of an “assimilated” generation, for whom European culture was decidedly dominant over traditional Jewish culture. He was certainly a Jew, but he was a Jew more as a result of the racist conception of Nazism and Fascism, and less, or not at all, as a result of his upbringing in Jewish values themselves.
According to the second answer, there are definitely very different paths that have pushed the person we are talking about to rediscover his ties with the history and traditions of his fathers, whether because of the events in his life, persecutions, or the hopes he had harbored. This “homecoming” was not limited to Primo Levi alone. In the nineteenth century Moses Hess went through something similar – the ironically nicknamed “Communist rabbi” who worked with Karl Marx, as did even Theodor Herzl himself.
After their emancipation, Italian Jewry quickly took on the features of a religious minority, represented mainly by a commercial and professional middle class, whose members recognized themselves in their holiday traditions and sometimes also for the Sabbath, but who assimilated with the majority in their everyday life. There was also a substantial lower class, above all in Rome, Livorno, Trieste and Venice, but they were considered more as social and economic problems. The great Jewish reality of Central and Eastern Europe was mostly unknown to them. Certainly, it was not influential, at least until the end of the First World War.
These two Jewish realities were destined to meet and begin to get to know each other in two settings in the 20th century: in the British mandate territory officially defined as Palestine – Falastin – Palestina (E.I.), where the term Erez Israel was limited to initials and was put within parentheses; and tragically, in the deportations and in the extermination camps. This latter setting is the one in which Primo Levi encountered Jews from the East, not the Jews from books or historical research, but the Jews who shared his sufferings and daily threats to survival.
Primo Levi’s greatness was also his capacity to be moved from his experiences to his search for roots, to put it in his own words. This search keeps on coming up to the surface of his works. One such search bears the name of one of his titles, The Search for Roots. However, we would be mistaken if we looked for philosophical or philological analyses in his literary heritage. In reality, his “search for his own roots” was an experience where there was a melting together of memories, experiences, and descriptions of people with their contradictions. Especially when he talked about Jews, these contradictions, nevertheless, brought out people’s unique features and described their profiles. He did this, certainly, insisting on the worth of people’s characters and behaviors as well as on their negative or, at least, questionable aspects. Everything was presented as something in which Levi saw and recognized himself, in short, a kind of family heritage that remained one’s own family, which Levi took as his own again.
He did this making new discoveries and discovering again what he already knew. “If not now, when?” is not only the title of a novel of his, but is a verse from the “Ethics of the Fathers” in the Mishna [collection of Jewish oral laws]. The famous poem that begins “You who live safe,” echoes parts of the Shema [prayer beginning listen] from the line, “Meditate that this came about” to the line, “Repeat them to your children.”
So, what did Primo Levi “rediscover” after his tragic experience? I believe I can answer. By saying “I believe,” I am not declaring categorically but expressing my feeling on my own. I believe he rediscovered the Jewish people and the undisputable fact of belonging to them. He rediscovered “later” much more than he did “before,” without ideological definitions but with loving descriptions. If I may be paradoxical, I would say that his sense of belonging got stronger and stronger the more he got to know their weaknesses and defects, neither to transform defects into qualities nor to come up with justifications or mitigating circumstances for them. This happened only because in this house, after saying all that there is to say without giving marks or rankings, you can and you must declare: yes, it is our house.