Alma Singer is thinking about her dad. He didn't like to write letters. Also, according to her mother, he liked to challenge authority and couldn't sit still.
Alma remembers thinking when she was younger that being an "engineer" meant her dad drove a train, until her father eventually corrected her.
When Alma was eleven, her Hebrew school arranged for her to have a pen pal. Her pen pal was from Russia and her name was Tatiana. Her English wasn't so great. The last time Alma heard from Tatiana, she told Alma a boy from her class was moving to New York.
Alma tells her mother about her new Russian friend, Misha, who lives nearby in Brighton Beach (a section of Brooklyn where lots of Russians live).
Her mother is surprised to hear that this boy is "just Russian," and illustrates to Alma all the different ways to describe Alma's ethnic heritage, depending on where she starts.
For example, "one-quarter Russian, one-quarter Hungarian, one-quarter Polish, and one-quarter German," or "half Polish, one-quarter Hungarian, and one-quarter English," or "half English and half Israeli." These are all laid out quite awesomely in a diagram on the page (5.4).
Alma screams out, "I'M AMERICAN!" and Bird mutters, "No, you're not. You're Jewish" (5.5).
Alma tells the story of her Bat Mitzvah, for which they flew to Jerusalem so her father's parents could attend. They go to the Wailing Wall and a rabbi tells Alma she can leave a prayer for God in the cracks of the wall. But Alma doesn't believe in God, so she writes a note to her father instead.
Alma tells us some more about Misha, with whom she started exchanging letters when she was twelve years old (two years before our story begins).
Two years later, the two friends are hanging out in person. She tells him about The History of Love and her fake love letter to Jacob Marcus.
A few weeks after she sends that letter (it's now the end of July), she gets a reply.
Jacob Marcus describes his life, which sounds tremendously lonely and not a little bit strange. But he sounds very dignified. He really likes the translation so far.
Some kids prank call Alma's house, asking for the Messiah. Alma tells them to leave her brother alone.
She reads Jacob Marcus's letter one hundred times, looking for clues about his life, trying to sort out why The History of Love is so important to him.
She comes up with a list of clues based on random things he mentions in his letter. But they don't help. She decides the only thing that can help her is the book itself.
Alma steals a copy of what her mother has translated so far and reads it under the covers by flashlight. There's a chapter called "The Birth of Feeling" about the moment in human history when feelings—like surprise, resentment, and desire—were invented.
Reading the book makes her think about her father, which in turn makes her wonder what made him give her mother the book only two weeks after they met (and knowing full well she couldn't read Spanish).
She has the brilliant idea of looking at the inside cover of her mother's copy, and sees that her father had inscribed it, "For Charlotte, my Alma." (Remember, all the girls in the book are named Alma.) She decides Litvinoff must have been in love with a woman named Alma and adds her name to the list of clues.
She runs downstairs to ask her mother if she knows what Alma's last name was.
Even though there are lots of Almas in the book, there is one time that he mentions a surname, and it's weird because it's the only name in the book that isn't in Spanish. The surname is Mereminski.
The next day, Alma starts looking for Alma Mereminski.