Study Guide

The History of Love Religion

By Nicole Krauss

Religion

She named my brother Emanuel Chaim after the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who buried milk cans filled with testimony in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Jewish cellist Emanuel Feuermann, who was one of the great musical prodigies of the twentieth century, and also the Jewish writer of genius Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel, and her uncle Chaim, who was a joker, a real clown, made everyone laugh like crazy, and who died by the Nazis. But my brother refused to answer to it. When people asked him his name, he made something up. (2.1)

If Bird is so religious, why would he want to distance himself from this lineage of great Jewish men with whom he shares his name?

4. MY BROTHER BELIEVES IN GOD (2.3)

By immediately announcing Bird's religious beliefs, Alma passively declares her own atheism.

When I was him from the window, I regret having taught him to sound out the Hebrew letters when he was only five. It makes me sad, knowing it can't last. (2.6)

Why should Alma assume Bird's religiousness is only a temporary phase?

"I'M AMERICAN!" I shouted. My mother blinked. [...] From the corner of the room where he was looking at the pictures in a magazine, Bird muttered, "No, you're not. You're Jewish." (5.4)

Is she, though? Is Bird referring to Jewishness as a religious or a cultural affiliation?

Once my father told me: When a Jew prays, he is asking God a question that has no end. (10.40)

Leo's faithlessness is indicative of his reluctance to take on any more unanswerable questions.

The more sadness he sees, the more his heart begins to turn against God. [...] When he asks God why He's made him so useless, the angel's voice cracks trying to hold back angry tears. Eventually he stops talking to God altogether. (1.94)

This description of one of Isaac Moritz's stories can be seen as one of the novel's indirect allusions to the Holocaust. Having seen inconceivable human suffering, Leo (and others) lost faith in God.

And because the angel is drunk and lonely and angry with God, and because, without his even knowing it, he feels the urge, familiar among humans, to confide in someone, he tells the man the truth: that he's an angel. The man doesn't believe him, but the angel insists. The man asks him to prove it, and so the angel lifts his shirt despite the cold and shoes the man the perfect circle on his chest, which is the mark of an angel. But that means nothing to the man, who doesn't know from the mark of angels, so he says, Show me something God can do, and the angel, naïve like all angels, points to the man. And because the man thinks he's lying, he punches the angel in the stomach, sending him tottering backwards off the pier and plunging into the dark river. Where he drowns, because one thing about angels is that they can't swim. (1.94)

Since the "perfect circle on the angel's chest" is such an arbitrary symbol, we can wonder whether similar brands might be found on us all. It's through rejecting the Divine within us all that we are truly lost and alone.

Imagine the burden of keeping silent when your child asks you if God exists. (6.26)

In this excerpt from one of Gursky's obituaries, it goes without saying that one must keep silent because clearly God doesn't exist.

The rabbi told me that if I wanted I could write a note to God and add it to the cracks. I didn't believe in God, so I wrote to my father instead. (5.8)

There's a lot going on here. One thing is that Alma effectively replaces God with her absent biological father. Another important piece is that her use of the past tense ("I didn't believe in God") leaves open the possibility that she did not believe in God at the time, but now (while writing this book) she does.

I told Misha everything. About how my father had died, and my mother's loneliness, and Bird's unshakable belief in God. (5.12)

This interesting choice of word—"unshakable"—suggests that Alma has indeed attempted to shake it out of him.

I did not know where Grand Street was but I'm almost 12 and I knew I would find it. (16.33)

Bird is the only character with any certainty—especially about looking for things. This stems directly from his great faith.