Nicole Krauss: “Zusya On the Roof” from TNY 2/4/13

josefdreams: "Wavy Tefillin"

josefdreams: “Wavy Tefillin”

Heels dug into the tar paper, twenty-three floors above the street, cradling his newborn grandson—how did he wind up here? It was not a simple thing, as his father would say. Simplicity was not his patrimony.

Wow – a story that really, impressively, reaches. But I don’t think it quite grasped. Of course, it could be I’m the one a little short in the grasp department – but check for yourself, it’s available online.

Brodman is an elderly Jewish professor – and writer of ” a meagre output of books, themselves commentaries on commentaries on other books” – who’s just recovered from a couple of hallucinatory near-death weeks following surgery. As close brushes with death are wont to do, he’s been re-examining his life, particularly in terms of a Jewish tale about the Rabbi Zusya:

Yes, Brodman had been Brodman and was still Brodman, and yet he had failed to be Brodman, just as Rabbi Zusya had failed to be the man he should have been. He had learned the tale as a boy: How after the rebbe from Hanipol had died he stood awaiting God’s judgment, ashamed that he had not been Moses or Abraham. But when God appeared at last, He asked only, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” The story ended there, but Brodman had dreamed the rest: how God concealed Himself again and Zusya, all alone, whispered, “Because I was a Jew, and there was no room left to be anything else, not even Zusya.”

Most of the story is an examination of what author Nicole Krauss calls ” the burden of emotional inheritance” implicit in Judaism in her Page-Turner interview (it’s a great interview, by the way, worth reading on its own): “The integrity of an entire people came to rest on the power of their memory. Zakor, Hebrew for the duty to remember, is at the core of Jewish practice and, I’d argue, the strain of that obligation is central to Jewish psychology.” The Torah, the Biblical books of history – these contain not only the heroes of Jewish history, but the fools, the mistakes that were made, and the prices paid. The Jews do not hide their mistakes, they sanctify them. But that, too, has a price, and part of that price every male pays in the form of a fraction of a gram of flesh.

The bris is the central plot device of the story. While Brodman was dead, as he thinks of it, his first grandson was born. Brodman’s daughters have somehow freed themselves from the Jewish burden of duty, one being insane and one being gay (the grandson is the product of the 41-year-old lesbian and her sperm-donor-friend). It’s an interesting pairing of ways to escape the bonds of Judaism. Krauss could have given Brodman a son who’d taken a more secular path, but she chose this route, to leave the old Brodman and the newborn as the only male heirs. Orthodox Judaism is, after all, prone to sexism; even today, enlightened rabbis struggle with the blessing of shelo asani isha. Is it any wonder the women in this story have, in one way or another, rejected some of the burden Orthodox Judaism would place on them?

It’s this notion of the Jewish burden, particularly on the male, that fills the story, giving Brodman the idea that he should rescue his grandson, both of them recovered enough to attend the Bris, by taking him up on the roof. It’s a powerful concept:

Abraham bound Isaac once so that Isaac would go on binding himself forever. Each night before bed, Brodman checked his bindings, the way a man double-checks the doors and windows of his house. When he left the apartment, he locked the door quietly behind him, and on his back he carried his mother, with her blue ankles, and his stooped father, and their parents, too, dead in a trench at the edge of a pine forest.

I was intrigued by Millhauser’s examination of the life-encompassing quality of Judaism in “A Voice in the Night” and the views of different ways of being Jewish, the very idea of what it means to be Jewish, that Nathan Englander explored in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” and dozens of others. I’m not sure this story works for me in the same way, however.

When Brodman says, “Who might he have been, had it been given to him to choose? But his chance had passed. He had allowed himself to be crushed by duty” I don’t get a sense of what he’s missed out on, and I think that’s because it’s not in the story. We don’t hear about the paths he wanted to take, but shunned. About an interest in, oh, jazz or astronomy, that went unpursued due to the rigors of academic study of Judaica, or about a lovely Gentile girl who remained on the other side of a Great Divide, or about anything other than this realization, in his 80s, that his life has been misspent. But… why? He’s not impressed with the output of his scholarship, but we don’t know if that’s an accurate representation or merely part of his malaise. There’s nothing in this story that tells me that, prior to his near-death, he had any wish to be anything other than who he was.

Not that I’m asking for the clichéd “what might have been,” not at all. But some inkling that something else, anything else, might have been, would’ve helped me fully feel the burden Brodman carries. Without that, I’m left with a more intellectual appreciation for the weight of history, and that’s where the story fails: it doesn’t lead me to a deeper understanding of the human impact.

But this isn’t an omission on Krauss’s part; it’s built into the story:

No, he was not angry! he bellowed in the therapist’s office. “I simply object to the burden!”
“Of what?” she asked, pen poised, waiting to copy it down in his file.

Brodman himself doesn’t know what he might’ve been; he simply knows that he had no choice. And so I suppose that’s the point: an impotent rage against a nebulous sense of having been forced, having never seen, let alone been offered, any choice: a burden he now sees enacted as his grandson is to go before the mohelet (the female mohel).

Maybe that’s the more powerful story after all. It’s one thing to mourn what you could have been. It’s another to not know what you could have been. Especially when, at the end of your life, you feel that what you were wasn’t all that. But I can’t help but wonder: would Brodman have felt this way had he had a son?

One response to “Nicole Krauss: “Zusya On the Roof” from TNY 2/4/13

  1. Pingback: Nicole Krauss–”Zusya on the Roof” (New Yorker, February 4, 2013) « I Just Read About That…

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