The Jewish Husband, by Lia Levi is a novel that encompasses the years of fascism in Italy. The book details the pitfalls of passion and repression, love and loss, assimilation, and infliction of pain and suffering.
The format of the book is unique in the aspect that it is written as a series of letters to an unnamed individual, living in Italy. Each letter reveals a little more about Dino’s life. The reader eventually finds out who the letters are written to in the last fifth of the novel. The letters are being written in 1967, by Dino Carpi, an aging Jewish man, who lives in Tel Aviv and teaches high school. The letters describe how Dino met Sonia Gentile (yes, the surname is correct), and how he feel in love with her, basically, at first sight.
Dino was born in his parent’s hotel, the Albergo della Magnolia, and raised there in a private apartment on the top floor of the hotel. It was his home and his parent’s home, even though it was a hotel. His paternal grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew, and was able to assimilate in Italy without difficulty, according to Dino. The family name was changed from Katz to Carpi in order to sound more Italian. His mother was a “Roman Jewess”, descended from a long line of Italian shopkeepers.
Fast forward to New Year’s eve 1930, when Dino met Sonia in his parent’s hotel ballroom, as she lay on the floor, writhing in pain, after falling. “She was beautiful. In her luminescent grey and silver evening gown she looked like a mermaid caught in a net, struggling for survival.” From there Dino and Sonia’s romance begins.
Dino and Sonia begin courting, and he doesn’t initially tell her he is Jewish, as he doesn’t find it relevant. He considers himself and his family “Yom Kippur Jews”. When they speak of marriage, and she finds out he is Jewish, she is extremely upset, and states that her father won’t accept her marrying a Jew. Her family are devout Catholics.
Sonia’s father, Giuseppe Gentile, is a passionate fascist, and he is a highly respected and affluent banker. Appearances and social status are extremely important to most of the Gentile family. Dino had to make concessions and agree to certain conditions in order to marry Sonia. He basically had to give up his identity, deny his Jewishness, in order to conform to the Gentile family standards. They eventually marry in a Catholic church ceremony.
The years go by, and the restrictions on the Jews in Italy become tighter, oppressing them in business, and all daily life events and interactions, etc., during the age of 1938 fascist Italy’s race laws. Giuseppe Gentile’s ardent passion in fascism becomes a major issue in Dino and Sonia’s marriage.
I will leave the story line at that. If I go into much more, the plot will be spoiled.
In a time when Jewish Italians are not deemed to be of Italian descent or acknowledged to even be Italian citizens in any respect, Dino’s choices to blend in are what cause him despair. He makes decisions that will ultimately have dire consequences for him and for his family. Assimilation and fitting in to one’s surroundings is a primary theme in The Jewish Husband. The novel is an interesting perspective and study on assimilation, from the viewpoint of the Italian Jews, trying to assimilate within what they see is their own country, their homeland.
The novel moves slowly at times, but the prose is intense within many of the pages, more so during the last half of the book. Do not let any slowness deter you from reading this novel. There are some predictable moments, yet, for some readers, there might be one or two surprises within the story line. Levi writes with forthrightness and vivid imagery, as she tries to inflect how daily life played out during a tumultuous time period. She is sensitive to the issues of romance under adverse conditions, playing the fascist mindset against the Jews, and interjecting the conflicts of a Jewish-Catholic marriage under those circumstances.
There isn’t much written about fascism in Italy, and Lia Levi puts a distinct face on the subject. She gives the reader much to ponder regarding the oppression of the Jews, within the confines of the Italian ghettos and within Italian society as a whole. She writes with clarity and cognizance regarding the daily restrictions placed upon the Jews in Italy during the fascist regime. I am glad to have read the novel, not only for its historical and educational aspect, but also for the story line that blends religion and religious intermarriage. I found the boundaries that religion often forces on couples to be interesting to read and also compelling as far as insight goes. The Jewish Husband is educational in that respect, and also its historical aspect is well researched.
Lia Levi documents the era in time with factual prose, and with prose that will lead the reader to a deeper understanding of blending two religions and marriage.
I recommend The Jewish Husband to every one.