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Sep 2004 Journal

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Can Levys levitate as well?

The award of the Orange Prize for Fiction to Sandra Levy for her novel Small Island raises a tantalising possibility. Could it be that the novelist, who is of purely Afro-Caribbean stock, adopted the pseudonym Levy as a tribute to the extraordinarily talented tribe of that name, just as the Chilean poet Neftali Reyes called himself Pablo Neruda in homage to the Czech writer Jan Neruda?

By the tribe of Levy, incidentally, I don't mean the priestly caste of Ancient Israel - equivalent to Hindu Brahmin - but their celebrity descendants from Nobel Prize winners (the pharmacologist Rita Levi-Moncalcini, the physiologist Otto Loewy) downwards.

Some Loewys Germanised their name to Loewe, and, after emigration, Anglicised it, as was the case with Frederick Lowe, composer of My Fair Lady. (À propos of smash hit musicals, the title of Hello Dolly showcases Thornton Wilder's fictitious matchmaker Dolly Levy.)

But it is the Levys ending in 'i' who are really the pick of the bunch. Since Italian Jewry was a small community, some of them even belonged to the same family. Primo (This is a Man) Levi, Carlo (Christ Stopped at Eboli) Levi and Natalia (Voices in the Evening) Ginzburg were first or second cousins. No less deserving of mention is a duo of double-barrelled Levi-Strausses.

Claude, a French-born anthropologist, wrote The Cooked and the Raw; the other, a Bavarian immigrant in gold-rush California, invented hard-wearing trousers now known globally as Levis.

Finally, there is the Levi who changed his name (and nationality). Italian-born Ivo Levi left Italy with his Mussolini-hating parents as a toddler, grew up in France, became a singer, a lover of Edith Piaf and then a screen idol, all under the pseudonym of Yves Montand.
Richard Grunberger

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