Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Jewish Lives: Rita Levi-Montalcini

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Jewish Lives: Rita Levi-Montalcini

Article excerpt

"HOW COULD YOU GO BACK TO A COUNTRY THAT persecuted you, that took away your citizenship, your profession, where you had to live underground to survive?" She was watering her plants, dozens of coral and crimson plants, in the living-room of the apartment she shares with her sister Paola. She put the watering-can on a table beside the black corduroy couch on which I was sitting. But she didn't answer. She only smiled a little as she went to the book-shelves in the hall, and returned with an armful of books that she placed next to the watering-can. It took me a long time to find the answer to my question, a time I spent reading quantities of books and papers, interviewing her colleagues, friends and relatives, going back and forth between the United States and Italy. The answer has to do with the singular nature of Italian culture and Jewish assimilation to this culture, as well as to the variable relationships between women and men in both Italy and the United States.

Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in 1909, and has just turned 90. Her carriage is erect, she is enviably slim, her hands don't tremble, she doesn't wear glasses. The wrinkles on her face she attributes to inordinate sunning at a much younger age. Her thick, gray hair is styled smartly and simply, and so are her clothes. Her eyes are greenish-gray, a light color unexpectedly frequent in dark-haired Italians. In 1986, she and her American colleague, Stan Cohen, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology for the discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor (NGF).

I am looking at two pictures, juxtaposed, that appeared in "F," the Saturday magazine supplement of the Corriere della Sera, dated February 9, 1991, in a feature on famous Italian women, "As They Were ... and As They Are." One picture shows the Rita of five years ago, her right hand supporting her face, her mouth slightly widened by the hint of a smile. The other picture is a copy of a black-and-white photograph of a small, seated child, her delicately-embroidered white dress contrasting with the dark hair curling around a face also supported by the right hand. There is no hint of a smile on her full mouth, her eyes are not joyful. Are they hurt, sad?

Here is the Rita of eighty years ago, who avoided physical contact with adults, especially her father. She would turn her face away when he bent to kiss her. Nor was he taken in by her excuse that his mustache prickled. In his turn, he played only with Paola, creating a division between the twins in which Rita told Paola everything, and Paola told Rita nothing. The wounds that Rita and her father inflicted on each other still festered at his death.

According to her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, her ancestors were Sephardic on both sides and traced their Italian roots back to the Roman Empire. [1] Considering that Italian Jews lost their rights as citizens in 1938, it is difficult to remember that at that time Jews had been living in Italy for well over two millennia. Near the end of the nineteenth century the grandparents moved from the substantial towns of Asti and Casale Monferrato in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, to Turin, the capitol, which had became a more hospitable city for Jews. Adele Montalcini met Adamo Levi in 1901; they married soon after, and had four children: Gino, Nina, Rita, and Paola.

Levi is an ancient name. With his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Jacob had twelve sons, each son biblically viewed as the founder of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, Levi being the third son. In the Revelation at Sinai the tribe of Levi, the Levites, received no land but were given a sacrosanct function: they were made responsible for assisting the priests in the Temple rituals. The patronymic "Levi," borne by many illustrious men and women, is frequently encountered in Jewish-Italian history. "Montalcini" is probably the area in Italy where Rita's maternal ancestors settled and whose name they adopted;Jews frequently took the names of Italian localities. …

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