#18 / Editorial

This week we have chosen, in addition to the publication of a new interview of Shulim Vogelmann by Giorgio Berruto, to republish two texts about Italy. Also, we have handed over the pen to Simone Disegni, who conducted our previous interview with Tobia Zevi, for our weekly editorial.


The political significance of Primo Levi’s work; Shulim Vogelmann’s cultural focus as head of the Giuntina publishing house; Tobia Zevi’s militant commitment – in Rome and elsewhere. These are the three insights into the Italian Jewish world that K. has offered in the first months of its existence. Nothing more than a beginning, of course: an invitation to further reading, research and journeys. But it is already worth asking whether there is not a characteristic trait that emerges from this collection, for the underlying theme remains the same: the relationship between the identity of the Jewish minority and the host society. The background is indeed something very specific to Italy: the desire of men who – like Primo Levi, Tobia Zevi or Shulim Vogelmann – intend to engage in a constant dialogue with Italy as a whole from a vision, certainly secular, but firmly imbued with the Jewish heritage. Their respective journeys draw three parables, among the many others that could be told, which are part of that solid tradition of Italian Jews who, proudly, though often in a tormented manner, set out to find their place in the social, political and cultural space. Each time, the ambition to structure a vision that incorporates the values of a millennial experience in order to influence Italian society – and why not advance it – is manifest.

This is what Diana Pinto – in another long interview published by K. in recent weeks – defined as the positive identity of Italian Jews, committed not only to the preservation of the memory of the past but also to a series of issues of public interest. The conception is splendid, which refers to that long path toward inclusion and a role at the heart of national life. This path began with the emancipation of the ghettos in 1848, it continued with the Risorgimento and the consolidation of the foundations of the society and economy of a united Italy. It continues today, despite the betrayal of the racial laws and the deportation, which inflicted a wound that has not yet healed.

However, one must ask oneself to what extent the picture thus painted describes the contemporary reality of Italian Jewry in its entirety. Does it reflect its soul? On closer examination, the picture is undoubtedly accurate, but it concerns only a part of Italian Jewry: those who are well-integrated (some, from an Orthodox point of view, would say too well integrated…) and passionately involved in the concrete reality of their city and their country, eager to contribute to it by drawing on the heritage of values and culture which the Jewish tradition has bequeathed to them – and this most often from a secular perspective.

But this is only one part of Italian Judaism. There is at least one other numerically and culturally significant part of Italian Judaism which it would be imprudent to ignore. It is much more focused and active on the issues that concern it directly, or are presumed to concern it, than on the broader issues of the “country-system”: the uncompromising defense of Israel, and more generally a certain pride in Jewish identity. This Judaism is especially strongly represented in the two fiefdoms of Rome and Milan. It tends to be more observant and includes a good part of the dynamic and close-knit communities that arrived in Italy half a century ago, after being forced to leave the Arab countries: Libya, Iran and Lebanon in particular.

Of course, there are crossovers, dialogues, friendships, even alliances in some major battles. But it would be pointless to deny that these two dominant souls of Italian Judaism look at each other, today, mostly with contempt. They instinctively distrust each other: one side is accused of being too open and ready to compromise, while the other is reproached for being too inward-looking. It does not seem to me to be an exaggeration to say that the future prosperity of Italian Jewry will depend largely on the ability of these two worlds to overcome their mutual distrust and to try to influence each other by playing the best tricks they have in hand. Perhaps, in order to overcome prejudices and misunderstandings, it would be necessary to begin to understand each other from the (re)-discovery of this common Jewish library of which Diana Pinto still speaks. That would be a good first step.

Simone Disegni

Shulim Vogelmann is the director of the Giuntina publishing house, founded by his father Daniel. All of his books are related in one way or another to Jewish tradition, culture, history and literature. Giuntina represents today the unique case in Italy of a small publisher specialized in Judaism that is fully involved in the cultural debate and ideas.

On March 13, 1961, Primo Levi was invited, with several other prominent political and intellectual figures from across Italy, to speak at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, in one of a series of conferences held that year on “Nazism and the Racial Laws in Italy.” It was one of the first times he spoke publicly. Commemorating this event, the Jewish Museum of Bologna has dedicated a virtual exhibition to Levi’s speech,.

A century after the death of Ernesto Nathan, Rome’s historic mayor (1907-1913), another Jewish politician had entered earlier this year the battle to lead the Italian capital: Tobia Zevi, who…

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