The Arty Semite

Amos Luzzatto’s Fictional View of Jews in Hectic Postwar Rome

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy Montereggio paese dei librai Book Fair

Lovers of Jewish culture know about Italy’s Luzzatto family, including the 19th century theologian Samuel David Luzzatto, known as Shadal, and (by marriage) the prolific author and teacher Dante Lattes.

Shadal’s great-great-grandson, Amos Luzzatto, has followed in the family tradition. Born in Rome in 1928, he spent the war years with his family in Jerusalem, only returning to Italy in 1946, whereupon Amos launched a long career as a surgeon, also serving on the Unione delle Comunità Ebriache Italiane (Union of Italian Jewish Communities), representing the city of Venice. Luzzatto has published an annotated translation of the Book of Job with Feltrinelli Editore and, with Casa Edititrice Giuntina, “A Jewish Reading of the Song of Songs.”

In 2008 he published a memoir, “Summing Up and Tales: Memoirs of a Left-Wing Jew” with Gruppo Editoriale Mursia. Luzzatto’s latest book is a further expression of his inner emotions, a charmingly intelligent and well-written novel, Hermann: a German Jew in Postwar Rome (“Hermann. Un ebreo tedesco nella Roma del dopoguerra” out in October, 2010 from Marsilio Editore. Its protagonist, Hermann Feuchtwanger, is a Jewish teacher born in Ulm, Germany, the hometown of Albert Einstein, that “unattainable Jewish genius” whom Hermann much admires, while at the same time understanding “absolutely nothing” of Einstein’s work.

After fleeing his homeland during the war years for Manhattan, where he pursued rabbinical studies, Hermann decides at the war’s end to move to Italy. He lands at a Jewish pension in Rome which houses war survivors. Life in the cheap accommodation is dynamic, with squabbles aplenty. The landlady’s crabby nephew battles a gauche new chambermaid, Ester, who charges into bedrooms without knocking and acts like a “schwarze vilde chaya,” or dark wild animal, as he puts it. Identity questions soon arise among the residents, who discuss whether Europe’s surviving Jews should “become normalized, behaving like everyone else,” as one interlocutor suggests, to which Hermann responds: “If we behave like everyone else, we will no longer be Jews.”

Luzzatto knows about what he writes; he prefaced a 2005 edition of the novelist Jacob Wassermann’s 1921 “My Life As German And Jew,” about European Jewry’s uneasy balance of identities. Yet Luzzatto’s “Hermann” is a more genial narrative than Wassermann’s heartbroken account. At times, Luzzatto’s characters rush around the boarding house as if in a comedy by the 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni. A warm, delightful novel which deserves translation, like Luzzatto’s other hitherto-neglected works.

Watch Amos Luzzatto speaking in 2010 at the Jewish Book Fair (La Festa del Libro Ebraico) in Ferrara, on being Jewish in Italy.

And, in Bologna in 2008, Luzzatto speaks about his childhood memories of being excluded from school after Italy’s anti-Semitic laws went into effect 70 years earlier.

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