Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Religion

By Jonathan Safran Foer


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.


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)

Being Jewish isn't just a religion; there's an entire culture that goes back many centuries. (Early Woody Allen movies are a good place to start.)

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.