February 4, 2013

"Zusya on the Roof"

By Nicole Krauss
~4900 words

An aging Jewish scholar, convalescing from bowel surgery, kidnaps his new grandson hours before the circumcision is to take place.

For two weeks after Brodman's surgery, his body waging "a medieval war against double pneumonia" and his life in the balance, the protagonist lives in a hallucinatory state in which he imagines himself hunted by Jews and given safe harbor by Germans:
Enormous things happened to him during those feverish weeks, unspeakable revelations. Unbuttoned from time, transient and transcendental, Brodman saw the true shape of his life, how it had torqued always in the direction of duty. Not only his life but the life of his people—the three thousand years of treacherous remembering, highly regarded suffering, and waiting.
Upon awakening, he recalls the story of Rabbi Zusya, who, standing in judgment before God, worries that he did not lead an exemplary life. But God asks him simply, why weren't you you? Brodman's own answer to that question—"Because I was a Jew, and there was no room left to be anything else, not even Zusya"—informs the rest of narrative, leading him to chafe at the faith in which he has always felt "crushed by duty." His rebellion comes to a boil the day of the circumcision, when he whisks his grandson away in his Moses basket and ascends with him to the rooftop of the apartment building.

At the center of this story lies the remarkable character of Brodman, the once-prolific Jewish historian whose fertile understanding has "dried up" and given way to "unspeakable revelations." The touching relationship between the protagonist and his unnamed grandson becomes the emotional anchor of the narrative:
He held his breath, staring at the whorls of the child's perfect ear, luminescent, as if painted by Fra Filippo Lippi. Afraid of dropping him, Brodman tried to shift the bundle in his arms, but the baby stared and opened his sticky, lashless eyes. Brodman felt something being tugged painfully from his decrepit body. He held the boy against his chest and would not let go.
But the relationship is not simply sentimental; it is also deeply symbolic. In his hallucinations, Brodman "half believed that his own mental work had performed the labor. […] he had pushed the idea of the child through the tight passage of incredulity and borne him into existence." He wonders if his grandson will be named after him. Fittingly, that question is never answered, for it is Brodman, in a sense, who has been named after the child: restored to life just as his grandson comes into the world. He even bears a physical scar to show for his rebirth: an "ugly red welt, four inches across" in place of his navel (which was removed in the tumorectomy). In return, he now seeks to spare his grandson the removal of flesh that is the sign God's covenant. To allow Zusya to be Zusya.

"Zusya on the Roof" is an extraordinary story. While I wonder a bit about the extent of the backstory regarding Brodman's parents, especially when it slips into their perspective ("in her mind she went on navigating rooms, staircases, corners, and corridors" etc.), such quibbles do not alter my final assessment: highly original plot, rich and compelling characters, incandescent language.


Reader poll: I found "Zusya on the Roof" to be ___.


  1. Although I must admit I was originally put off by the theme of Jewish identity, since it is really well-trodden ground, I agree with your critique, because this story does take an unusual and original turn away from typical reveling in/revelations concerning Judaism and Jewish culture. It is, in fact, quite critical of that identity and culture, and although the ending is left open for readers to fill in (does the baby ultimately get circumcized, or does Brodman win this battle? is there a middle ground of some sort?), it offers a different look at unchallenged religious beliefs and cultural practices. Definitely a strong story.

    1. Yes, it's interesting to compare it in that regard to Millhauser's "A Voice in the Night," which I found much more conventional (and thus unsatisfactory).

  2. To each his own of course, but I found this unbearably ponderous.