Primo Levi: A Centenary Celebration

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi was born 100 years ago in Turin, Italy. He spent his entire life there, except for the months he spent imprisoned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Buna-Monowitz, and the year it took him to make his way home. Although Levi’s actual birthday is not until next month (he lived from July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987), I’ve decided to spend much of June reading and writing about him.


Levi is a writer close to my heart. It would not be wrong to say that I am in love with him. Which is of course a preposterous thing to say. But from the time I first read Levi, in my second year at university, I was smitten with his secular humanism. I admired the way he bridged the so-called “two cultures” (not an idea, I suspect, he would have had much time for). And mostly I sensed that he was a decent, kind person—a mensch of the first order. Of course, I gleaned that sense from his autobiographical writings, and, like all memoirists, the persona Levi offers us in writing is related to but not the same as his actual person. I have long had Ian Thomson’s biography on my shelves, and this seems the perfect time to read that alongside Levi’s own works.

(Thomson is a great writer, and I’m really looking forward to his book, but I know there are at least two other biographies in English, one by Carole Angier and one by Berel Lang. I won’t have time to read them, but if anyone has read one or both, I’d like to know what you think. I’m dimly aware that Thomson and Angier come to different conclusions about Levi, particularly, I believe, about his mysterious death.)

When I speak to groups about the Holocaust, I am often asked what books I would most recommend for people who want to learn more. It’s a question to which there are so many possible, equally worthy answers. There are so many urgent Holocaust books. But I always list Survival in Auschwitz (as it is frustratingly titled in the US: a much better, and more accurate title would be If This is a Man) first. For me, it is one of the most indispensable books of the twentieth century.

Here’s what I have in mind at the moment for my centenary celebrations:

  • A post on Survival in Auschwitz, specifically how I teach it. [Note: this turned into two long posts: here and here.]
  • A post on his genre-defying The Periodic Table, which I read 25 years ago and look forward to revisiting. [Note: Didn’t do this, but my friend Nat did–he’s thoughtful as always.]
  • A post on If Not Now, When?, a novel in which Levi takes on the Eastern Jewish experience that wasn’t his own (it’s about a band of partisans making their way from Russia to Palestine, perhaps loosely based on the Bielski partisans).
  • A post on some of Levi’s non-Jewish writing: I’m thinking Other People’s Trades and some of the stories
  • A post on some of the things I learned from Thomson’s biography

That’s an ambitious schedule, and who knows how much of it I’ll get to. In the meantime, you could check out a couple of things I’ve already written on Levi. Here at the blog I wrote about how I always begin my introductory Holocaust Lit course with a close reading of a passage from the second of Levi’s memoirs, The Reawakening. And a couple of years ago I reviewed an interesting new book about Levi’s time as a partisan in the Italian Alps in 1943. (It was for this resistance work, rather than his being Jewish, that Levi was first arrested.)

I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to join me in reading Levi—no need to match my choices, especially since I’m not even sure I know what they’ll be yet. And if you feel compelled to write about your responses to those works, I’ll gladly post your thoughts on the blog.

Back Again! Philip Kerr, Daphne du Maurier, and Plenty of Self-Promotion

Been quiet around here, as I was in Canada for four weeks recuperating from life and seeing friends and family.


I also did some reading, though never as much as I’d like to (maybe when my daughter is a little older). Over the next few days, I’ll try to write short posts on some of the things I got through.

In the meantime, if you like crime fiction and don’t already know them, let me recommend to you the first three books in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series set in Nazi-era Germany. They are excellent, with convoluted hard-boiled type plots that remain on the right side of intelligibility; lots of fascinating, mostly convincing depictions of how someone might have rejected the regime without being particularly noble or righteous; and, most interestingly, ingenious use of German slang transliterated into English (the cops are called Bulls because in German they are Bulle, etc.). Kerr wrote these three as a trilogy and then put Bernie to rest, but you can’t keep a good detective down: he revived them several years later and now there are a lot of them. I’ve got the fourth waiting for me at the library. Curious to see if the newer ones hold up.

No matter what kind of books you like, you should absolutely read Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. At first I wasn’t sure about this story of doubles—an English scholar of French history bumps into a Frenchman whom he resembles in every way, physically at least, and is forced to take on his life—because stories of mistaken identities tend to stress me out. But this is a really smart and fascinating book. I was absorbed by it in a way that’s rare for me these days; I really cared about what happened. It’s an unexpectedly moral book. Instead of trying to write a proper review, I’ll send you to Rohan’s excellent take, which I couldn’t improve on.

And now some self-promotion:

Before I left for Canada I was writing quite a lot. Here are some links to recent publications:

For (the now departed and already mourned) Numéro Cinq I reviewed Carl Seelig’s reminiscences of his friendship with Robert Walser and Hans Keilson’s diary written while living in hiding under a false identity in wartime Holland. Both are excellent and well worth your time.

For Open Letters Monthly (still the journal dearest to my heart) I wrote about Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir of her life in Vermont as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Equal parts sad and sprightly, this recently reissued book is definitely worth a look.

For The Three Percent Review (a new venue for me) I discussed Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes. I was underwhelmed.

Last but not least, for the summer issue of The Quarterly Conversation I wrote a review essay on the enigmatic French-Swiss writer Roger Lewinter. My thanks to Scott Esposito for commissioning and improving it with his careful editing.

On an entirely unrelated note, I was featured in this piece in the Jerusalem Post about my thoughts as a Jew by Choice on some recent controversies in Israel regarding conversion. I haven’t read the comments, but I’m told you do so at your peril.

Next time, a proper review.

On Converting to Judaism

If you’ve come for books, you might want to give this post a miss. It’s nothing to do with them, or hardly anything, anyway. More about books soon, I promise.

What follows is a little essay I wrote for Rabbi Barry Block of Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, my congregation. He’s leading me through my formal conversion to Judaism, a process I’ve almost concluded. One of the requirements was to write an essay to the prompt “Why I Want to Convert to Judaism at this Time.” Writing it proved really useful to me, and I post it here in case it’s of interest to others. I’ve revised it only slightly.

Why I Want to Convert to Judaism at this Time

There are many remarkable things about having a child. One of them—a bit joyous, a bit painful—is seeing one’s self reflected in her, not just in face or body-type but also in behaviour or character. Our daughter is cautious, scared of change, uncertain in new situations. But once she’s comfortable or sure of her surroundings, she opens up, embraces the situation, chatters away nonstop. In these ways, at least, I see myself in her. (She’s also brave, and funny, and smart, and capable of great love. These things might come from me, but they certainly come from her mother. And I haven’t even mentioned the things that are hers alone.)

I begin this self-reflection with my soon-to-be three-year-old daughter because time has become palpable and visible through her. And for me the most pressing part of the prompt for this essay is its final phrase. Why now? For I’ve been saying I want to convert to Judaism for quite a long time, more than three years in fact, since before T was born.

Judaism has been a significant part of my life for a long time. As my therapist says (see, I even have a therapist!), I’m a philo-semite.  My first girlfriend was Israeli. My study of Holocaust Literature, which continues to be an important part of my professional life, began already in college. But it wasn’t until I met M in graduate school that Judaism and Jewishness really became central to my life. At the beginning of our relationship Judaism was a vague presence, something meaningful to M of course, and something I was supportive of and even, in a mild way, interested in, but not, I thought, something to do with me. I accompanied her to High Holyday services, because I loved her and wanted to be a good boyfriend. But as I met her family, and as our relationship grew more serious, as I celebrated my first Passover and Hanukkah, as I accompanied her to her home synagogue, Judaism became more and more part of my life too. When we moved to Pennsylvania we had more Jewish friends than ever before. But it wasn’t until we moved to what might seem the Unpromised Land of Arkansas that I really began to think of Judaism as an identity that I wanted for myself. It helped that Judaism became central to my wife’s professional life. It also helped that Judaism offered excellent protection from Bible Belt Christianity. But mostly it was because Judaism became our way of making a new home for ourselves in a strange place. The Jewish community of Arkansas, particularly but not only at Temple B’nai Israel, welcomed us with open arms. That was a wonderful feeling.

In the beginning—as is still true at this time—my attachment to Judaism was intellectual. Art Spiegelman’s claim that for him Judaism is the skeptical intellectual tradition of Freud and Kafka has always resonated for me. How could I not thrill to the idea of the “people of the book”? What better description could I offer of myself than a person of the book (and books)? What is d’var Torah other than the kind of close exegesis that is at the very heart of my professional work and personal avocation? How could my secular humanist upbringing not agree with the principles of tikkun olam? Being able to share these experiences and values with M only made me love Judaism more.

Remember the Seinfeld episode about the guy who converts for the jokes? That’s me, too—because the jokes testify to Judaism’s love of and respect for words. So you could say that I came for the jokes (a.k.a. the Kafka) and stayed for community. I began to think of myself as Jewish. Many people, even Jews, thought I was Jewish. I lived as best I could as a Jew. And yet I had not converted. Every once in a while I would receive a reminder, almost never ill intentioned, that I wasn’t Jewish. And I would feel hurt. So convert already: that’s the obvious response, isn’t it?

I had started down the path to conversion once before, after several years of unofficial, as it were, that is, self-taught experiential learning. Then T was born, and there was an exhausted year in which no one in our house slept very much, and then M hit a crisis in her career and I came up for tenure, and then there was a time of transition at the congregation: there was always something going on, something that quite reasonably meant that I could postpone finalizing and actualizing my decision. Yet these reasonable reasons don’t tell the whole story. It’s only at the level of something other than reasonableness, something closer to unreasonableness, something much more unconscious than conscious that the truth of the situation is to be found. For if I’d really, really wanted to, I could have prioritized my life differently, I could have put the conversion process at the top of my to-do list, I could by now (actually, really, officially) be Jewish. So why didn’t I?

Over the past five years I’ve learned quite a lot about myself. (Recall the therapist I referenced earlier.) Not enough to break away from the unthinking patterns of behaviour that are sometimes harmful to myself and those around me, but enough to recognize, even if after the fact, that those patterns are there. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard for me to ask for things. The reasons why aren’t important for my purposes here. What matters in this context is that I typically feel resentful when people don’t recognize the thing I want but have not asked for. This state of affairs is unfair to others, obviously, and hard on me, too. (It’s wonderful that T has no trouble expressing what she wants.)

So perhaps the most important reason it’s taken me so long to convert is because it’s been hard for me to ask. Asking, even more than converting, is scary. What if I’m refused? It’s funny that I can feel this way when the evidence of acceptance, by this congregation and by the religion and culture more generally, is all around me. This is a deep-seated, powerful inhibition it’s taken me a long time to acknowledge. Equally powerful is my worry that something will change—about me, about the world—when I convert. I worry that I’ll lose that quality, so valuable to me, of being neither in nor out, of being on the margin, in having a foot in two places: a Canadian who lives in America, a Gentile who lives as a Jew. I see now, however, that this fear is the old cautiousness at work again—fear that taking on the new will mean losing the old. It’s an economy of psychic scarcity that I am becoming mature enough to put aside in favour of an economy of psychic plenty. Intellectually, I’ve known for a long time that Judaism is the perfect place for someone like me, predicated as it is on a repeated recognition of—though not undue reverence for—the old, the past, the towering three-thousand year-old tradition. But now I know this emotionally and psychologically, too, and, taking the lessons offered by my Jewish daughter, I’m ready to express my desire and embrace the new, to take a deep breath, open my mouth, and ask for what I want–to belong.

[Postscript: When I met with Rabbi to talk this over, he said something perceptive and reassuring: this business of being betwixt and between ,neither here nor there: that’s the way Jews have been described, sometimes by themselves, often by others for centuries. Sometimes that description has been antisemitic: the allegations against Dreyfus, for example, were that a Jew couldn’t really, wholeheartedly be a Frenchman, so how was he to be trusted? Maybe, Rabbi suggested, we are now in a position, at least in this place at this time, to think about this neither-nor generously, as possibility rather than as absence.]