Literature Lesson: “Zelig” by Benjamin Rosenblatt

I’m reading the collection titled The Best American Short Strories of the Century and sharing my thoughts about the stories it contains.

In Benjamin Rosenblatt’s 1916 story, an old Ukrainian Jew Zelig emigrates to the US to join his son and grandchild. He’s deeply unhappy, lonely, and desperate to go home. The American freedom to worship that other immigrant Jews treasure means nothing to him because he’s too dumb to care about religion. When the Russian Empire witnesses horrific Jewish pogroms of 1905, Zelig can’t find it in himself to care. He wants to go back to the only home he’s ever known and he lives like a miser to save enough money for a return ticket.

The author traps the readers into thinking that the story is about immigrants or Jews or the difficulty of assimilation. But then at the end he sweeps all of that off the table like a house of cards. Zelig realizes that his grandson might die because of his miserliness and in that moment gives up his dream of going back home and decides, instead, to humor the kid and send him to college.

The power of the story lies in this neat trick where the author first lets you place yourself at a great distance from Zelig – I’m not an unassimilated immigrant (because why would I read this story if I were?), I’m not a dumb, semi-human old man who can barely formulate a thought, I’m not a greedy bastard, I’m not indifferent to the murders of Jews during the pogroms, I care about constitutional freedoms – and then all of a sudden he destroys the distance and makes it all about something we all know and understand, which is the depth of a father’s feeling for a child. Every reader has a father or is a father and will feel something when Zelig dissolves in a burst of parental love. The contempt – or the pity, the annoyance, the boredom, the anger – we have felt for Zelig gives way to a flood of recognition.

Rosenblatt stops there and doesn’t try to offer some larger lessons in the story. Zelig doesn’t assimilate to become a better grandpa – or if he does, we are spared hearing about something that soppy. Knowing when to stop is a sign of literary mastery which many authors do not possess. Rosenblatt does, and this is what makes “Zelig” a very good story.

Here is a link to the story.

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