Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Tradition and Customs

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Tradition and Customs

[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 N**** 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?