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On the Bookshelf

On writing in Hebrew, Primo Levi, and endless love

Josh Lambert
July 13, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Writing in Hebrew in the United States was never a particularly sensible way to reach a large audience. In his Yankee Talmud, published in Hebrew in New York in 1907, the satirist Gershon Rosenzweig noted wryly that “He who writes a Hebrew book in America . . . is a madman.” The sense that American Hebrew writers had of themselves as a tiny minority even within the American Jewish minority might help to explain why they devoted so much energy to their marginalized and dispossessed compatriots, particularly Native Americans and African-Americans. Stephen Katz recovers this fascinating body of literature in Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature (Texas, July).

Why write in Hebrew in the first place? Yaniv Hagbi explores how the answers to this question present themselves in one major writer’s oeuvre in Language, Absence, Play: Judaism and Superstructuralism in the Poetics of S. Y. Agnon (Syracuse, June). Seeking out parallels and tensions between Jewish theological beliefs about language and those espoused by cultural theorists in the late 20th century, Hagbi, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, analyzes the works of a true master of the language and the sole Hebrew writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. All of which raises the question of what will be gained (wider audience?) and lost (precision?) in the translation of Hagbi’s study, originally published in Hebrew in 2007, into English.

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While the difficulty of translating Agnon has reduced his chances for wide renown in the U.S., Primo Levi’s legacy seems secure. A trio of serious Levi biographies, by Myriam Anissimov, Ian Thomson, and Carole Angier, were published earlier this decade. The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi was released in 2007, placing the author of Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table in the same hypercanonical literary league as Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, and Rushdie. An international center for the study of Italian Jewry carries Levi’s name, suggesting he bests Immanuel of Rome and Amedeo Modigliani for the title of Most Prominent Italian Jew of All Time. This summer, two more volumes celebrate what would have been the chemist’s 90th birthday, on July 31st. In Primo Levi’s Universe: A Writer’s Journey (Palgrave Macmillan, July), Sam Magavern, an occasional poet and SUNY Buffalo law professor, admires Levi as a “Renaissance man”—a scientist who penned remarkable books in several literary genres—and weaves in readings of Levi’s writing along with reflections on his life.

Magavern’s book, with a preface by Nextbook Press’s own Jonathan Rosen, offers an intriguing contrast to another release from the same publisher. For while Magavern lauds Levi’s embrace of humanist values, Jonathan Druker’s Primo Levi and Humanism after Auschwitz: Posthumanist Reflections (Palgrave Macmillan, June) argues that “the acute blindness of [Levi’s] humanism reveals nearly as much about the origins of meanings of Auschwitz as do his penetrating insights.” For Drucker, in other words, even Levi’s intelligence and thoughtfulness cannot obscure the troubling fact that Germans’ embrace of Enlightenment thought failed to prevent, and to some degree led to, the Nazi genocide. Wasn’t humanism itself, Druker proposes, indelibly tainted by the Holocaust?

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Along with the studies devoted entirely to Levi, his works and life continue to figure prominently in thoughtful reflections on the Holocaust, aesthetics, and testimony. For example, in Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence (Brandeis, June), which explores the ways in which philosophical inquiries complement other approaches to the study and memorializing of the Holocaust, Berel Lang cites Levi while explaining why he feels some literary works constitute “moral misrepresentation.” “Would it make no difference to our reading of him,” Lang asks, “if we learned that Primo Levi had spent the war years in an alpine village, and only upon returning to Turin imagined a year in Auschwitz?” This is a rhetorical question worth contemplating, at least briefly.

Levi’s a sensible example for Lang, because his accounts of the concentration camps, while undoubtedly literary, remain unimpeachable as testimony. Yet the question of how to handle witness accounts—which are as reliable or unreliable as the witnesses themselves, and as dynamic as all memories—applies not only to those who recorded their experiences in acclaimed memoirs. Edited by Jürgen Matthäus, Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and Its Transformations (Oxford, August) focuses on one much less famous survivor, Helen “Zippi” Spitzer Tichauer, and presents the results of a handful of professional Holocaust scholars’ approaching her experiences through their own methodological and theoretical perspectives. As the number of living survivors dwindles, the challenges of interpreting testimony reliably and ethically, in the absence of the original witnesses, grow ever more consequential.

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Whether Levi’s death in 1987 was suicide, as many have claimed, or simply a depressed man’s accident, remains unresolved, because the author left no note. André Gorz—conflicted son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, intimate of Sartre, founder of Le Nouvel Observateur, and leading light of the French New Left—had no intention of fostering such ambiguity. Letter to D: A Love Story (Polity, June) is Gorz’s open love letter to his terminally ill wife of 58 years, published in French a year before the couple committed suicide together, knowing they could not bear to part even in death.

Charles Spivak, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1882, also could not stand idly by while his wife’s health deteriorated, but, as a doctor, he responded in an entirely different manner to her illness. Spivak relocated his wife to Colorado, and rose to national prominence as a leader of the American fight against tuberculosis, seeking a cure for the disease estimated to be responsible for 10% of all deaths in America at the turn of the 20th century. Jeanne Abrams tells Spivak’s story in Dr. Charles David Spivak: A Jewish Immigrant and the American Tuberculosis Movement (Colorado, July).

Given the challenges facing Jewish immigrants of his generation—recounted, among many other places, in M. E. Ravage’s 1917 memoir An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant, newly available in a reprint edited by the literary scholar and critic Steven Kellman (Rutgers, June)—Spivak’s medical accomplishments deserve our recognition.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.