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Thursday, February 02, 2017

If Not Now, When? (1982) by Primo Levi


Book Review
If Not Now, When? (1982)
by Primo Levi

   Each time I read another book about the Holocaust I feel compelled to reference my Jewish upbringing in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980's and 90's.   The lesson I learned from 10 years of religious education mostly focused on the Holocaust and it's after-effects was that certainly God does not exist and that if he does exist, his love isn't worth much if he can allow the Holocaust to go down.  Fortunately, reform Judaism doesn't ask much of adherents-someone born to a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether they like it or not, that's how it works.  I had a Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that occurs for boys and girls(now) at the age of 13.   After that, some scattered youth group participation in high school and college.

  Judaism, even before the extinction level event of the Holocaust, is very much focused on survival and as a by product, reproduction is the sine qua non of adult Jewish life.  Either you are literally participating only because you have children, or you are hoping for help in finding a partner with which you can reproduce.  Compared to conservative and orthodox Judaism, the actual religious content of reform Judaism is loose, and takes the form of a discussion of ethics and laws.   Reform Judaism was actually started by highly assimilated German Jews in the 19th century, and many of it's rituals ape the rituals of the 19th century Protestant congregations of Germany.

  The historical irony of the Holocaust is that it's epicenter, Germany was also the locus of assimilated Jewry's most notable success.   Primo Levi, who maintains his status as the pre-eminent narrator of the Holocaust, was not a German Jew- he was Italian, and Italian Jewry was just as successful- much more so- if one considers the impact of the Holocaust among their respective populations.  Although he had direct contact with the Holocaust, he did not get both barrels to the face in the manner of the Jewish communities of Poland, Ukraine and German occupied Russia, and it is no surprise to find him in that territory in If Not Now, When, his fictionalized narrative of Jewish partisan resistance to Germany in the waning days of World War II.

  If Not Now, When is part of a larger, post World War II trend in Jewish narrative that seeks to provide examples of resistance to the Holocaust during World War II.  The concern is that by claiming victim status, the Jewish people weaken themselves in their own eyes and the eyes of others.   It's an argument I'm very familiar with, from my religious education, where we would watch films like The Raid on Entebbe (about a Jewish commando operation in Uganda.) and talk about stereotypes.

   It occurred to me that If Not Now, When works equally well as a post-apocalyptic tale of survival, just substitute the German allied soldiers for Zombies and you would be good to go.  I'd also observe that the story of If Not Now, When is as compelling as any genre action film, worth reading just for the thrill of it.

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