Pioneering ‘Periodic Table’ is this year’s One Bay book

The Jewish Community Library hopes to spark a conversation about science and memoir through its selection of Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” for its One Bay One Book program this year.

“It was a really pioneering book, and when it came out people didn’t know what to make of it,” said library director Howard Freedman. A prominent chemist, Levi wrote often about his experience surviving the Holocaust, most notably in his 1947 memoir “If This is a Man.” “The Periodic Table,” a creative memoir published in 1975, is comprised of 21 themed chapters, each focusing on an element in the periodic table.

Primo Levi

In the book, Levi writes about working as a chemist during Italy’s fascist regime, his career as a partisan, his 11 months in Auschwitz, as well as his professional experiences after the war. The Royal Institution of Great Britain in 2006 named it the best science book ever written.

This is the fourth year the community library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, has encouraged Bay Area Jewish groups in synagogues, JCCs, schools and private homes to read and discuss a Jewish-themed book through One Bay One Book.

Previous selections, including “The Betrayers” by David Bezmozgis and “A Guide for the Perplexed” by Dara Horn, were newly published books. But Freedman said the aim of the program is not only to highlight new publications but also to foster conversation within the Jewish community. “The Periodic Table” deals with the Italian Jewish experience before and during World War II, which may not be familiar to many American Jews.

Freedman also hopes that it will create a dialogue about science. “I think that what we have frequently in this society is a false dichotomy that sets the arts and sciences apart,” he said. “One of the things the book does is really encourage us to revise that view.”

The library, located in San Francisco, will host events over the next few months that address themes featured in Levi’s book. Additional events organized by the JCC of San Francisco, San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Lehrhaus Judaica and other community partners will complement the yearlong focus on Levi and his writing.

The JCC will host a tribute to Levi on Monday, Nov. 2 with a panel discussion including editor Ann Goldstein and writers Anne Germanacos, Richard Rodriguez, Adam Kirsch, as well as former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass.

Goldstein is the editor of “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” published in three volumes this year by Liveright Publishing Company, sparking renewed interest in Levi’s work.

Germanacos, author of the short story collection “In the Time of the Girls,” runs the S.F.-based Germanacos Foundation and is sponsoring the JCC tribute. She said “The Periodic Table” is her favorite Levi work, calling it “brilliantly unclassifiable.”

“It brings who he was as a chemist together with himself as a writer. It’s a history, and it’s an inquiry into his life and the Holocaust,” she said. “I think it’s so interesting the form that the book takes. I’m interested in form and this one to me is a touchstone.”

Germanacos plans to schedule a writing workshop where people choose a form such as a calendar or a symphony that, like the periodic table, is broken into sections, and experiment with writing memoir vignettes based on the different sections.

The Jewish Community Library will hold a series of book club meetings this fall to discuss “The Periodic Table” and other books about Jews in fascist Italy. A film series at the library starting in December will screen “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Primo,” a filmed version of a one-man show based on “If This is a Man.”

Freedman said his primary goal with One Bay One Book is to encourage people to engage with challenging works of literature.

“I ride the bus every day, and a decade ago lots of people had books on their laps. Five years ago there were Kindles, and now it’s dominated by people on their phones doing Facebook,” he said. “There’s a great cost to that, and I want to encourage opportunities for people to do serious reading and have fulfilling conversations. I’m deeply convinced that talking about books makes the experience of reading richer and more rewarding.”

“A Tribute to Primo Levi,” 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F., $27.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.