I’ve been slowly at work, for weeks now, on a project spawned by Newsweek’s decision idiotic to publicize a rather silly list of America’s 50 most influential rabbis according to a couple of corporate executive types. (Sorry, Gary, but it’s true!) I’m compiling a list of my own most influential rabbis, which I want to do in conversation with readers, but my definition of a “rabbi” is someone whose life story, moral example or work has taught me something profound or inspiring about being a Jew in the world.
Because today is the 20th anniversary of his death, possibly by suicide, in his apartment building in Turin, I’ve decided to roll out my number one entry. More to come soon. But tonight we salute Primo Levi.
1. Primo Levi
I think I wept with joy when I first read Primo Levi (The Periodic Table, on a flight from Johannesburg to London in 1989). His was, for me, a matchlessly inspiring example of being Jewish in the world rather than separately from it. A man of science and ethics, fully integrated into Italian society and its most progressive elements, he found himself in Auschwitz not as a result of a Nazi roundup of Italian Jews, but because he was a captured in the course of his work as an anti-Fascist partisan fighter. When the Germans occupied Italy in 1942, he responded as a Jew — not in any narrow, tribal sense (indeed, he didn’t identified as such) but in the expansive, moral sense; in other words, he responded as any decent person with a love of justice and freedom, by joining the partisan underground. Not any separate Jewish organization, but the partisans bound by a common, universal ideology of justice and freedom, in which any Jew should feel comfortable. As did a lot of Italian Jews of his generation: The filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, most famous for The Battle of Algiers, and also a partisan, was once quoted as saying “I am not an out-and-out revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left, like a lot of Italian Jews.” Yet, once captured as a leftist partisan, it was the Nazis who reduced Primo Levi’s identity to that of a Jew, in a “racial” sense. His writing — by far the most compelling tales of life and death in Auschwitz — chronicles the Holocaust experience with both scouring emotion and the cool eye of reason, always seeking its universal meanings and implications. His audience, always, is a global community of likeminded rather than one defined on any narrow nationalist basis — Zionism had little use for Primo Levi; his work was only translated into Hebrew after his death.
Indeed, he seems to resist the temptations of nationalism — of allowing the Nazis to succeed in defining him against his own instincts — remaining intensely universalist in his outlook, although deeply rooted in its specificity: He loved Italian Jewry and its unique history, of which he was an exemplary product. Also, while he writes what for me are the most profound and compelling first-hand accounts of — and meditations oni — life in the camps, he is at once the quintessential Holocaust writer but never simply a Holocaust writer. He returns continually to explore the magic of science and humanity in everyday life and work, the ethics and values that took him, as an Italian Jew, into the mountains with the anti-Fascist partisan resistance. The profound effect of the Holocaust on Primo Levi’s life was central to his work, but his life continued after the Holocaust. It did not end his life, literally or figuratively — he went on exploring the universal human condition, a vital presence in the wider world for whom he saw the Holocaust, and his own experience of it, as a teaching moment whose meanings were universal.