I am so happy because you were appeased by the first division that I posted to you. You must know that I have performed the corrections you demanded. (4.6)
Alex's letters to Jonathan show us that Jonathan has been helping Alex edit his writing, which are the present-day chapters we're reading about their quest to find Augustine. It's all very meta, reading a book that's about writing a book. (Now, where'd we put that totem?)
Many of the names you exploit are not truthful names for Ukraine. […] Did you invent them? There were many mishaps like this, I will inform you. Are you being a humorous writer here, or an uniformed one?
Score one for Alex. What's the line between writing a humorous book and inventing—or, ahem, exploiting—a culture? Is Jonathan really uninformed, or is he just unethical?
We must review last month's entries. We must go backward in order to go forward. (6.13)
Here, we're learning about the Book of Recurrent Dreams, a place where everyone in the shtetl writes down their dreams. Their dreams say something about themselves and about the village. The idea is that, if they write them down and read them, they'll stop having the same dream over and over again. (We're not sure we'd want to write down all our dreams—especially where anyone else might read them. Just sayin'.)
At night, [Yankel] would reread the letters that [his wife] had never written him. (7.34)
Yankel has his own version of How I Met Your Mother, and it involves forging letters from his dead wife to create a happy marriage so that Brod thinks she had a loving mother. Surprise twist ending (for Brod, at least): the wife actually divorced him. The act of writing and reading the letters makes this fake life feel real to Yankel. Just like Trachimbrod, she comes alive through the act of writing.
I know that you asked me not to alter the mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story, but I think I will alter them. (9.6)
Does Alex's language make you giggle? And do you feel a little guilty about giggling through a book about genocide? This quote lets us know that it's okay: humor is the only way to tell a sad story.
The deceased philosopher Pinchas T, who, in his only notable paper, "To the Dust: From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return," argued it would be possible, in theory, for life and art to be reversed. (13.1)
We'd love to read this paper. Well, on second thought, it would probably be a lot like this book, which seems to be questioning whether art imitates life or the other way around. (Or does life just imitate TV?)
Perhaps I can continue to aid you as you write more. But not be distressed. I will not require that my name is on the cover. You may pretend that it is only yours. (14.15)
This is a super meta quote because guess what? Alex's name is not on the cover of this novel. (Also, for someone who claims to know little about writing, Alex is really good at knowing how this business works.)
With writing, we have second chances. […] It is true, I am certain, that you will write very many more books than I will, but it is me, not you, who was born to be the writer. (17.8)
Writing is a way for both Alex and Jonathan to create a past, present, and future that they prefer to reality. The difference is that Alex has to make a living somehow, while Jonathan is a middle-class American who has the luxury of creative work.
I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem. (22.7)
Alex wants to write life bigger and better; Jonathan wants to write realistically. Perhaps Jonathan believes that life is awesome enough and doesn't need embellishment. Or maybe he's just deluded; after all, he's the one writing about a village named after a baby who was born from the river. Pretty realistic there, dude.
"What good is all of that love doing on paper?" (29.3)
Grandfather says this to Herschel, who is a poet. You could raise the same question with Jonathan. His story-within-a-story is a love story of a different kind. Does fiction actually accomplish anything, or should we all be reading textbooks to learn about the Holocaust? (Was that a leading question?)
The what […] is not so important, but that we should remember. It is the act of remembering, the process of remembrance, the recognition of our past… Memories are small prayers to God, if we believed in that sort of thing. (6.3)
The people of the shtetl have an almost religious view of memory and remembering, almost as though they wouldn't exist if they didn't remember that they existed. We have a fancy term for this: bearing witness. It's not always necessary to do something; sometimes, you just have to listen.
It was the first occasion that I had ever heard Grandfather speak of his parents, and I wanted to know very much more of them. What did they do during the war? Who did they save? (15.13)
Er, try asking "who did they kill?" and you'd probably get a more accurate answer. Alex's Grandfather keeps his memories close to the chest because sharing the past makes it real again, and his past is not something he wants to relive.
"Have you ever witnessed anyone in this photograph?" I inquired, and I felt cruel, I felt like an awful person, but I was certain that I was performing the right thing. (15.46)
Not-Augustine's memories are so awful that she doesn't want to relive them. Alex has to ask Not-Augustine ten times whether or not she recognizes the people in the photograph. You'd think he'd take a hint, but it turns out to be a good thing that he keeps asking—for us, at least. We're not so sure about her.
I could imagine in my brain how the days connected the girl in the photograph to the woman who was in the room with us. Each day was like another photograph. Her life was a book of photographs. (18.5)
… probably with carefully applied vintage filters, right? Just imagine Not-Augustine's Instagram feed. Her memories are like photographs, memories of the past that were once moments in the present. We're pretty sure that not even X-Pro II can light up these snapshots.
"We are not going anywhere. We must help her to remember. Many people try so rigidly to forget after the war that they can no longer remember." (18.9)
Grandfather really wants Augustine to remember what happened during the war, but irony alert: Grandfather has tried harder than anyone to suppress his memories of the war. It's all cool until someone wants you to talk about how you basically murdered your best friend.
"I felt safety and peace." (18.27)
Jonathan says he feels "safety and peace" after describing a memory of his grandmother. Sharing your memories can bring relief—but not always. For Alex's Grandfather, it brings shame and despair.
You cannot know how it felt to have to hear these things and then repeat them, because when I repeated them, I felt like I was making them new again. (23.9)
This drives home the "talking about memories makes them real" theory we've been talking about. And this is Alex talking, who didn't even live through the war. Simply translating Not-Augustine's story to Jonathan is traumatic for him. Is there a word for feeling trauma-by-proxy? The Germans probably have one.
"People can remember without the ring. And when those people forget, or die, then no one will know about the ring." (23.16)
The ring is evidence that the people of Trachimbrod existed, but it has no meaning at all if no one is alive to remember why the ring existed. It's like, without that story of how The Wanted signed your shirt, it's just another ratty t-shirt that your grandkids are going to throw away someday. You have to tell that story to make it meaningful—over and over and over and over and …
Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing… memory. […] Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. […] When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like? (24.21,24.22)
Memory is positioned as a sixth sense here—not in a Haley Joel Osment way, but in a way that memory helps us experience and give meaning to the world, just like our other senses do.
Trachimbrod itself was overcome with a strange inertness. […] Activity was replaced with thought. Memory. […] Memory begat memory begat memory. (32.4)
As the war gets closer and closer to Trachimbrod, the villagers start just… sitting around waiting to die. Maybe they know it's inevitable, and they turn to their memories (and, most importantly, record them) so that they will one day be remembered themselves.
Thank you, I feel indebted to utter, for not mentioning the non-truth about how I am tall. I thought it might appear superior if I was tall. (4.8)
Since this is a book about writing, it's hard to tell what's "true" and what isn't true, especially since, to the reader's perspective, it's all fiction. But Alex admits that he has described himself falsely—specifically, described himself as taller than he is. Do you forgive him for telling this lie? (Think carefully about your OK Cupid profile before answering.)
Brod's life was a slow realization that the world was not for her, and that for whatever reason, she would never be happy and honest at the same time. (11.64)
Brod believes that honesty and happiness are mutually exclusive. Why do you think this is? Is it because she sees the world differently and has to lie to herself in order to be happy (say, about the existence of God)? Do you agree with her?
If I could utter a proposal, please allow Brod to be happy. Please. Is this such an impossible thing? Perhaps she could exist, and be proximal with your grandfather, Safran. Or, here is a majestic idea: perhaps Brod could be Augustine. (17.4)
Alex has a career in fiction-writing; we'd totally read that book. Happy endings all around! Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn't take his advice. He's telling the story that's there, not the story he wants to tell… we think. It all gets a little confusing.
I manufacture these not-truths because it makes me feel like a premium person. (17.7)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You mean people are just as much who they are perceived to be as who they actually are? Does that mean Facebook is a lie??
Once you hear something, you can never return to the time before you heard it. (18.22)
What has been seen cannot be unseen, and what has been heard cannot be unheard. A good pair of noise-canceling headphones might help, though.
"I used to think that humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is. You know what I mean? […] But now I think it's the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world." (18.27)
Jonathan's view on humor changes as the novel progresses, and he starts seeing humor as a way of lying, or skirting the truth. Is this why the book becomes way less funny toward the end?
How can you do this to your grandfather, writing about his life in such a manner? Could you write in this manner if he was alive? And if not, what does that signify? […] We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us? […] Why do you write about Trachimbrod and your grandfather in the manner that you do, and why do you command me to be untruthful? (22.4)
Alex takes issue with Jonathan's brutally honest portrayal of his own grandfather. It's almost like Alex thinks it's being dishonest to write about certain things truthfully—like maybe there's a difference between "truth" and "honesty." Figure that one out.
Do not present not-truths to me. Not to me. (25.3)
By this point in their relationship Alex feels that he and Jonathan are BFF enough that they shouldn't be lying to each other. But is Jonathan lying to him? Or is he just finding a creative way of telling the truth?
We invented a story about an accident with sleeping pills. That is what we told to Little Igor so that he would never have to know. (29.19)
It's a little ironic that truther Alex makes up a lie to tell to his little brother. We understand why (the suicide of grandparent is difficult to process, you know?), and maybe this event will help Alex to understand that there are moments when honesty isn't the best policy.
Do you remember what he did next, Jonathan? […] He returned the photograph to the box, you will remember, and he told us the story. Exactly like that. He placed the photograph in the box, and he told it to us. He did not avoid our eyes, and he did not once put his hands under the table. (29.86)
This begins a whopping five-page paragraph in which Grandfather finally reveals the truth—it's so true, apparently, that it doesn't use any punctuation or paragraphing, as though truth can't conform to any pesky rules of grammar or style. (Try telling that one to your English teacher.)
"One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family." (1.4)
She used to wipe your bum; one day you'll wipe her bum. (Or something like that.) This is coming from Alex's mother, who toils away for her family because she wants a better life for them. Of course, Alex's father is cruel and abusive, so simply being "family" isn't the end-all be-all reason to treat someone with care and respect.
Grandfather's name is also Alexander. Supplementally is Father's. We are all the primogenitory children in our families, which brings us tremendous honor. (1.11)
We see this repetition of family names often throughout the book. While Alex's family is a little less creative than Jonathan's (as you'll see later), there's a certain feeling of respect for elders that comes with inheriting a family name—but we bet, from a different angle, it could also make you feel trapped. If you're the sixth Alexander in a line of Alexanders, your path in life has been pretty well mapped out.
What was the image that pulled me in? […] So simple. In the water, I saw my father's face, and that face saw the face of its father, and so on, and so on, reflecting backward to the beginning of time, to the face of God, in whose image we were created. (6.16)
How far back can you trace your ancestry? Is it possible to trace it back to your father's father's father, and then back even further, all the way to the beginning of humanity? Biblical literalists would say yes—we all go back to Adam. But scientists also say yes: every human living on earth shares the common ancestor of Mitochondrial Eve.
Yankel had lost two babies. […] He had also lost a wife, not to death but to another man. (7.3)
As anyone who watches daytime television can confirm, families can be the source of tragedy. Yankel's children both died, one of illness and the other of the flour mill curse (see The Dial in our Symbols section), and then his wife left. But Yankel is lucky: when he finds Brod, he gets to build a new family all over again, even if it is just a father/daughter duo.
When I look in the reflection, what I view is not Father, but the negative of Father. (9.10)
Are you going to grow up to be just like your parents, or are you going to be as different from them as possible? (Those are definitely your only two choices.) Alex belongs to the latter group, and, since being the opposite of Father means not wanting to be an abusive jerk, we think that's a good decision.
"Tell my more about your grandmother. […] Who you spoke of in the car. Your grandmother from Kolki." (18.26)
This is a classic getting-to-know-you conversation starter: Who's your favorite band? Where did you grow up? What's your grandmother like? You know, the classics. This is one of the first personal questions Alex asks Jonathan when they are at Not-Augustine's house. Maybe he's thinking about his own grandmother—or maybe he comes from a culture that focuses more on family than ours does.
"I would watch the world through her dresses. I could see everything, but no one could see me. Like a fort, a hiding place under the covers." (18.27)
Jonathan's story about his grandmother is pretty touching. No wonder he wants to protect her by being careful of what details he mentions in his stories; when he was a child, his grandmother protected him.
I would remove [Father] from my life if I was not such a coward. (22.3)
Families can be kind of like prisons. They're hard to get out of, and you can't just kick someone out easily. Alex is stuck with his father; at least, that's what it feels like until he gets up the guts to kick him out of the house.
"I am his grandson," I said from the back, which made me feel like such a proud person, because I think it was the first occasion I had ever said it in the loud, and I could perceive that it also made Grandfather a proud person. (23.3)
Alex feels good getting to identify with a member of his family, since he sure doesn't want to identify with his jerk of a father. But Grandfather feels good too: he may have raised that jerk of a father, but he did something right with his own grandson.
(You do not have to be shamed in my closeness. Family are the people who must never make you feel ashamed.) (You are wrong. Family are the people who must make you feel ashamed when you are deserving of shame.) (29.29-29.30)
It's difficult to tell who is talking in this section, but the first seems to be Alex and the second seems to be Grandfather. Grandfather wants to feel shame as a result of what he did, and he's counting on Alex, a person he loves wholeheartedly, to be honest with him. Is Alex the right person to do this? Maybe families have do a little bit of both: support and shame.
Grandfather returned to his chair and said, "This is the final one. I will never do it again." (1.13)
Grandfather comes out of retirement for one last case (how many movies have you seen like that?) and it ends up leading him, not Jonathan, toward unlocking a secret of his past. It's almost like he was fated to take this one last trip.
The soul was not ready to transcend, but was sent back, given a chance to right a previous generation's wrong. This, of course, doesn't make any sense. But what does? (3.9)
Stories (fiction or biography or anything in between) try to make sense out of chaos by giving chaos a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, in the case of baby Brod, they make sense out of a miracle baby who doesn't seem to have a mother or an umbilical cord by suggesting that she was delivered by fate itself. Seems legit.
The Well-Regarded Rabbi placed the crib on the floor, removed a single sopping slip of paper, and hollered, IT APPEARS THAT THE BABY HAS CHOSEN YANKEL AS HER FATHER! (3.29)
If you've got fate in your corner, you can justify anything: it's fate that the baby doesn't move to pick a piece of paper, forcing the Rabbi to do it himself—meaning, of course, that the baby actually did choose her dad. Obviously.
YANKEL HAS WON AGAIN, he said. YANKEL HAS NAMED US TRACHIMBROD. (8.9)
Once again, a lottery (at least not one Shirley Jackson-style) decides the fate of the Shtetl. How would Brod's life have been different if the town had not been kind of named after her (or at least named after the river she was named after)? Would she have had a different role in the town?
Then why do you continue to do it? [Brod] asked. And why, she wondered, remembering the description of her rape, do we pursue it? (13.47)
Even though Brod has seen the future and it's grim, she goes forward with being the Float Queen. Perhaps she knows that if she tried to change the future, the results would be worse—or nonexistent. At least, that's how it always seems to go in time travel stories.
The Kolker was eating a cheese sandwich on a makeshift stool of stacked flour sacks, lost in thought about something Brod had said about something, oblivious to the chaos around him, when the blade hopped off an iron rod (left carelessly on the ground by a mill worker who was later struck by lightning) and embedded itself, perfectly vertical, in the middle of his skull. (16.65)
Talk about fate: the Kolker took the flour mill job in spite of "the curse," but the curse doesn't actually wipe him out. The person whose fault this whole thing was later dies, a secondhand victim of the curse. And this event will later shape many more, like the creation of the Dial. Honestly, if we lived in Trachimbrod, we might just sit around eating cheese sandwiches and waiting for things to happen to us, too.
A fissure of thunder resounded in the distance, and before there was time to close any of the new windows, or even their new curtains, a wind of haunting speed and strength breathed through the house, blowing over the floral centerpieces and tossing the place settings into the air. (19.6)
Safran and Zosha's wedding is both an ill omen (well, that wind seems to signify that it is) and a blessing, because the guest list of the wedding serves as one of the final records of the village's population. Yikes. How's that for a honeymoon memory?
Wasn't everything that had happened, from his first kiss to this, his first marital infidelity, the inevitable result of circumstances over which he had no control? How guilty could he be, really, when he never had any real choice? (20.1)
Deep thoughts, Shmoopers. Is Safran a philanderer because of fate or is he just a man of loose morals (and looser trousers)? And would it change your answer if we told you about the possible genetic basis of infidelity?
"His arm […] caused Augustine to fall in love with him and save him, and it saved him once again, years later, when it prevented him from boarding the New Ancestry to Ellis Island, which would be turned back […] and whose passengers would all eventually perish in the Treblinka death camp." (20.5)
Safran's arm seems to save him from a couple of terrible fates. Honestly, his life would have been very different if he wasn't malnourished—not that we're approving of malnourishment as a general child-rearing strategy, of course.
9:613—The dream of the end of the world (33.22)
Brod's dream of the end of the world is a prediction about what would happen after the Nazis attacked Trachimbrod—maybe not the end of the world, but definitely the end of Trachimbrod. But does that make it fate? Could fate have been stopped?
Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements. (1.2)
Big talkers aren't always big doers. Alex may talk up sex as a sign of masculinity, but we later find out he's a nearly-30-year-old virgin.
[Sofiowka] would sit naked in the fountain of the prostrate mermaid, caressing her scaly tuches, […] caressing his own better half as if there were nothing in the world wrong with beating one's boner, wherever, whenever. (3.6)
Do you think anyone tried to stop Sofiowka from being a public masturbator? We have to wonder why they just let him run wild.
SOFIOWKA ACCUSED OF RAPE, PLEADS POSSESSED BY PENIS PERUSATION, BECAME "OUT OF HAND" (7.3)
Yikes, this is both darkly comic (because Sofiowka's penis is almost always in his hand) and grim foreshadowing of Sofiowka's raping of Brod thirteen years later.
"My penis is very big." (10.27)
We're not sure if Alex actually says this Jonathan, or if he just puts it into his account of the story because of his insecurity with his masculinity. Either way, dude, we don't really need to hear about it.
I have never been carnal with a girl. (17.7)
WHOA WHOA WHOA say what? You mean, all this talking about sex and you've never actually done it? Shocking. We're shocked. (And we're also kind of touched that he trusts Jonathan enough not to judge his virginity.)
When the blush of a schoolgirl's cheeks was mistaken for the crimson of a holy man's fingers, it was the schoolgirl who was called hussy, tramp, slut. (24.31)
Women always seem to be the ones who are looked down upon for so-called "loose" sexual behavior. Safran never once seems to be criticized for sleeping with over a hundred women. What's with the sexual double standard?
"Did [the waitress] say anything else? You can see her tits when she leans over." (This was yours, you will remember. I did not invent this, and so cannot be blamed.) (26.1)
Alex might talk a lot about sex, but we're pretty sure he'd never use the word "tits." That's word is a way of distancing himself from the peeping-tom behavior, letting the reader know that he (Alex) definitely did not make this objectifying remark. Maybe it's Jonathan who's the real perv.
They made love for the last time, unaware that the next seven months would pass without any words between them. (27.121)
Even though Safran loves the Gypsy girl, he doesn't seem to understand how to express his love to her in a way other than sex. (Try "I love you," dude!) Because he'll have sex with almost anything on two legs, it doesn't really mean all that much to her.
After thoroughly satisfying the sister of the ride against a wall of empty wine racks […] and being himself so thoroughly unsatisfied, Safran pulled up his trousers […] and greeted the wedding guests. (30.1)
Safran seems to be having sex (like with the sister of his bride-to-be) more out of habit than out of pleasure. None of his sexcapades give him any feelings remotely resembling joy or happiness.
And then something extraordinary happened. The house shook with such a violence as to make the day's earlier disturbances seem like the burps of a baby. KABOOM! […] My grandfather was filled with a coital energy of such force that when it unleashed itself—KA=BOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! […] (31.3)
It's difficult to tell if all the KABOOMS in this scene (there are seven, and about seventy big-O's in some of them) are bombs falling near Trachimbrod, surges of orgasm, or both—but our money's on both.
It was inevitable: Yankel fell in love with his never-wife. (7.34)
It seems silly that Yankel would fall in love with the lies he tells Brod about his wife… but admit it. We've all fallen in love with a fictional character.
"Do you think [your grandfather] loved [Augustine]?" […] "It seems so improbably that he could have loved her. But isn't there something strange about the picture, the closeness between them, even though they're not looking at each other? They way that they aren't looking at each other. The distance." (10.9)
Jonathan has trouble believing that his grandfather could have loved anyone but his grandmother. Isn't that the way most of us view old people? As never having youth or lives before we came along? (Just imagine your grandparents having sex. Um, actually don't.)
[Brod] had to satisfy herself with the idea of love—loving the loving of things whose existence she didn't care at all about. Love itself became the object of her love. (11.66)
It seems natural that Brod, who questions the existence of God, would also question the existence of love. If she can't see it and touch it, she doesn't know it's real. (And Brod being a magical baby, she probably still isn't quite sure even if she can touch it.)
If there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker, that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweler's felt so that we should never hear it. (11.84)
Brod and Yankel create a new world from the stories that they tell themselves. Are they lying to each other to create love? And if they are, is what they're doing any different than what a novelist like, say, Jonathan Safran Foer, would do to evoke feelings of love in a book like, say, Everything is Illuminated?
Love, in your writing, is the immovability of truth. (14.13)
This one's a real head-scratcher, but we think it means something like this: love means being able to confront the truth about a situation (or a person) and not trying to invent stories to make it seem better or different. Do you agree? Is "love" just another way of saying "absolute acceptance"?
I am so wanting to know what happens to Brod and the Kolker. Will she love him? Say yes. I hope that you say yes. It will prove a thing to me. (14.15)
Yeah, we're wondering too. What will love between Brod and the Kolker prove to Alex? Will it prove that love can actually exist? That the past isn't just one unremitting series of horrors? Or that terrible events (like rape) can eventually lead to happiness (like loving the man who kills your rapist)? Hm. We're not sure we'd want that last one proved.
This is love, [Brod] thought, isn't it? When you notice someone's absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence? (16.12)
Brod is a true romantic. (Not.) Next time you want to tell someone you love them, make sure you put it this way: "I hate when you're gone even more than I love when you're here." They'll love it, we promise.
But love is a room, [Brod] said. That's what it is. (16.128)
When the Kolker's head injury gives him violent mood swings and he goes to sleep in a different bedroom, Brod doesn't know how she could love him anymore. Love, to her, is a very confined space—which, we guess, is why she has to cut a little hole in the wall.
[Safran] never loved any of his lovers. He never confused anything he felt for love. (20.12)
Safran separates sex (and lust) from love at all times. We have to wonder if he's actively doing this because he doesn't want to fall in love, or if he truly doesn't feel anything for any of the women he is with. Is he afraid, or just a jerk?
He knew that I love you also means I love you more than anyone loves you, or has loved you, or will love you, and also, I love you in a way that no one loves you, or has loved you, or will love you, and also, I love you in a way that I love no one else, and never have loved anyone else, and never will love anyone else. He knew that it is, by love's definition, impossible to love two people. (21.10)
In other words: don't tell someone you love them unless you really really mean that it is powerful and unique. This is why Safran doesn't "love" any of his lovers. He knows that true love is more powerful than anything he is capable of feeling for them. (We think he might just need to grow up a little, but then we're cynics.)
The goers of the Upright Synagogue had been screaming for more than two hundred years, since the Venerable Rabbi enlightened that we are always drowning, and our prayers are nothing less than pleas for rescue from deep under the spiritual waters. (3.11)
Shtetl religion is divided between those of the Upright Synagogue and the Slouching Synagogue. Those of the Upright Synagogue make religion their lives, living for the word of God… the others just carry the word of God with them in their hearts. And get to sit in comfier chairs.
IF WE ASPIRE TO BE CLOSER TO GOD, the Venerable Rabbi had enlightened, SHOULD WE NOT ACT LIKE IT? AND SHOULD WE NOT MAKE OURSELVES CLOSER? (3.12)
No, the Rabbi isn't talking about a Nine Inch Nails song. This is the foundation of the Upright Synagogue's belief system: they actually hang from pulleys close to the ceiling of the synagogue to be literally closer to the heavens.
The Upright congregants looked down on the Slouchers, who seemed willing to sacrifice any Jewish law for the sake of what they feebly termed the great and necessary reconciliation of religion with life. (3.14)
The Upright congregants literally look down on the Slouchers because they're actually higher up, dangling from the ceiling of the synagogue. Nice symbol of their superiority, right? These two groups mark a division between old-school religion and modern religion, and show how times they are a changin' in the shtetl.
There were parts that I did not understand, but I conjecture that this is because they were very Jewish, and only a Jewish person could understand something so Jewish. (4.10)
If God does exist, He would have a great deal to be sad about. And if He doesn't exist, then that too would make Him quite sad, I image. So to answer your question, God must be sad. (11.53)
Brod and Yankel have religious conversations that don't seem to be going on in the rest of the shtetl. The other villagers don't question the very existence of God (or His mood); they just wonder how to go about their lives and still pay proper respect to the big guy in the sky.
"The General went down the line and told each man to spit on the Torah or they would kill his family." (23.9)
Many of the atrocities in Trachimbrod, just like all of World War II, happened because of religious differences. People had a choice to either stand up for what they believe in and die—or betray their culture and often die anyway. Not much of a choice when you put it like that.
It so happened that in the eleventh year of a long-past century, the Chosen People (us) were sent forth from Egypt under the guidance of our then wise leader, Moses. There was no time for bread to rise in the haste of escape, and the Lord our God […] would not want an imperfect bread. […] But the Chosen People were very hungry, and we took our chances with some good yeast. […] It is because of this sin of our ancestors that one member of our shtetl has been killed in the flour mill every year since its founding in 1713. (24.18)
Yikes. This little legend treads the fine line between religion and mythology. The craziest thing about it is that it's true—at least, the death part. This "curse" is a fundamental part of this community's particular religious beliefs.
The end of the world has come often, and continues to often come. (24.105)
The Messiah (or whatever you want to call it) is supposed to return when the world ends. But if the world ends over and over (like it did during the Holocaust) and the Messiah didn't come… did the Lord ever exist at all?
"Who is the Rabbi the General asked and the Rabbi elevated his hands." (29.86)
The Rabbi is devoted to his faith, so he is one of the few people who raises his hand honestly during the Nazi interrogation. He loses his life in exchange for his honesty. Thanks for playing, though!
(It was the same in every shtetl. It happened hundreds of times. It happened in Kovel only a few hours before, and would happen in Kolki in only a few hours.) (32.22)
In this brief sentence, Foer explains the repeated atrocities that were carried out in the name of religious differences. He may not be able to write about all of them, but he can write about this one.
[I] was at home enjoying the greatest of all documentary movies, The Making of "Thriller" (1.9)
We're sure this is a wonderful film, but Alex's hyperbole shows us just how obsessed he is with American culture… and how little he actually understands about it. (Although tbh that is a pretty rad documentary.)
When I was a boy, Grandfather would tutor that Odessa is the most beautiful city in the world, because the vodka is cheap, and so are the women. (1.11)
Well, this says a lot about Ukrainian culture… or at least Alex's family's perception of what is important in Ukrainian culture: cheap sex and booze.
Please do not let your experience in Ukraine injure the way you perceive Ukraine. (4.3)
Even though Alex longs to go to America, he still loves his country and wants to protect its reputation, even when the people there do bad things, like still Jonathan's box of mementos. Think Sacha Baron Cohen read Everything is Illuminated?
"Sammy Davis, Junior was not a Jew!" [Grandpa] hollered. "He was the Negro of the Rat Pack!" (10.5)
There's a bit of a cultural divide between the Ukrainian Alex and Grandpa, and the Jewish Jonathan. Grandpa seems to have pre-conceived notions of what Jewish people look like, and Jonathan (and Sammy Davis, Jr.) challenge them.
"Ukrainians were known for being terrible to the Jews." (10.9)
Alex isn't too happy to hear Jonathan say that Ukrainians were terrible to the Jews, yet we later find out, from Grandfather, that it's true. Perhaps this story is a way to show that these two different cultures can actually get along.
"I'm a vegetarian." "I do not understand." "I don't eat meat." […] "What is wrong with you?" (10.17)
Not only is Jonathan Jewish, which is foreign enough for Alex and his family, he's a vegetarian. He might as well be an alien, to hear them react to that.
"Oh," [the waitress] said. "I have never seen a Jew before. Can I see his horns?" (15.5)
The idea that Jews have horns is a your average stock anti-Semitic belief, which Alex refers to in order to show how unlike the waitress he is—even though he believed that Jews looked different just a few chapters ago. By getting to know Jonathan, he is starting to be more accepting of his culture—and he can see for himself that Jonathan's head is nice and smooth.
The recitation of the seven blessings was officiated by the Innocuous Rabbi, and at the proper moment my grandfather lifted the veil of his new wife—who gave a quick, enticing wink when the Rabbi was turned to face the ark—and then smashed the crystal, which was not really crystal but glass, under his foot. (16.280)
Here we see a traditional Jewish wedding, with one small change: since the family is poor, they can't afford to smash crystal, just a glass. Traditions have to adapt depending upon means.
There is a sense in which the bride's family had been preparing their house for her wedding since long before Zosha was born, but it wasn't until my grandfather reluctantly proposed […] that the renovations achieved their hysterical place. (19.1)
For rich families with daughters, the wedding is a big deal that's being planned almost from the daughter's birth. There must not be much else to do in a rural village like Trachimbrod—or a post-industrial civilization like 21st century America.
"You are returned […] back with the Jew," [the waitress] said. "Shut your mouth," Grandfather said, and he did not say it in an earsplitting voice, but quietly, as if it were a fact that she should shut her mouth. (26.1)
Grandfather starts to understand Jonathan better as the book goes on—but we think this is less because of Jonathan and more because of his own guilt over how he treated his Jewish friend, Herschel. Still, any shelter in a storm of anti-Semitism, right?
Father toils for a travel agency, denominated Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people, like the hero, who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine. (1.5)
The name "Heritage Touring" is important, because that clues us in to the whole purpose of this quest: for Jonathan to find his heritage. Well, he definitely finds something—as does Alex.
"He is looking for the town his grandfather came from." (1.14)
Chapter 1 sets us up for a classic quest story. Alex even calls Jonathan "the hero" multiple times. And he's on a quest for a certain town that may or may not exist. But real life doesn't always work out the way it does in stories, and Jonathan never does find his town. Wait—this is a story. We're confused.
I must eat a slice of humble pie for not finding Augustine, but you clutch how rigid it was. (4.4)
Translation: I'm sorry we didn't find Augustine, but it was really really hard. Explanation: We learn in Chapter 4 that the quest of Augustine failed, but we've still got a lot of book to get through. If they didn't find Augustine, what did they find on their journey?
I had never been to Lutsk, or any of the multitudinous petite villages that still endure after the war. I desired to see new things. I desired to experience volumes. (5.1)
Alex is stoked for the journey, even though it isn't your typical trip to, say, Disney World. He wants to see a different culture and learn about people, and oh boy, he doesn't know what he's in for.
The drive was also difficult because the car is so much shit that it would not travel any faster than as fast as I could run, which is sixty kilometers per the hour. (5.7)
If you've seen Little Miss Sunshine, then you know that a road trip isn't a road trip unless you have a crappy vehicle.
"I want to see Trachimbrod," the hero said. "To see what it's like, how my grandfather grew up, where I would be now if it weren't for the war." (10.8)
Some people just log on to ancestry.com to find out about their family tree. Jonathan turns it into a quest to find his grandfather's hometown and see it firsthand.
If you possess any magazines or articles that you enjoy, I would be very happy if you could post them to me. […] I intend articles about America, you know. (14.15)
Alex wants to go to America, but he knows it might never happen. So he has to explore America vicariously through whatever media Jonathan sends to him… kind of like how we explore Trachimbrod through this book. And we're definitely not going to be able to go there.
We drove the car behind Augustine, who walked. (23.2)
The journey to Trachimbrod takes forever even when they're only a kilometer away. We might as well be trying to return the one ring to Mordor or something.
"This is all that you would see. It is always like this, always dark." (23.8)
Trachimbrod is just a field, and it doesn't seem to matter if it's light or dark because there's nothing there. But for Not-Augustine, there's a double meaning. Her memories of Trachimbrod, and its discussion, are dark ones. From this point, the journey becomes more about exploring the memories of Trachimbrod than exploring the shtetl itself.
Jonathan dislodged the ribbon, which was wrapped many times around IN CASE, and opened it. (26.6)
Opening the IN CASE box is just as much an exploration of Trachimbrod as going there was. In fact, since there is nothing left where Trachimbrod used to stand, the IN CASE box is more of an explanation of this lost village.