Chapter 2: The Beginning of the World Often Comes
Trachimbrod in 1791 is the shtetl to which Jonathan has traced his paternal roots, although the town does not yet have a name. (Later it also becomes known as Sofiowka.) One day, a horse-drawn wagon plunges into the Brod river, which runs through the town. The W twins, Hannah and Chana, are first on the scene. They wade into the river, fascinated by the strange wealth of objects rising from the wreckage. They are soon joined by Yankel D, the disgraced usurer, and the rest of the shtetl's 300 inhabitants.
The shtetl is divided into two sections: the Jewish Quarter and the Human Three-Quarters. Both are inhabited by Jews. Sacred or religious activities are confined to the Jewish Quarter, while secular activities are confined to the Human Three-Quarters. These sections are divided by the Jewish/Human fault line, which is constantly changing along with the ratio of Jewishness to Humanness in the shtetl.
There is much conjecture about who was driving the wagon. Sofiowka N takes the lead. He cannot settle on one description of what happened, although he is adamant that he witnessed the accident. He says that the driver was a man named Trachim, from the city of Rovno. Sofiowka is mad and unreliable, but the townspeople believe him.
Once it is agreed that Trachim must be dead beneath the water, those present argue over what to do. The shtetl's inhabitants argue constantly about issues big and small; even if they know nothing about an issue, they will still argue. In fact, the less they know, the more obstinate they are. Suddenly, a newborn girl rises from the water. The baby was born just before--or during--the accident. She floats amid the junk.
Chapter 3: The Lottery, 1791
No body is recovered. The townspeople continue to assume that the wagon belonged to Trachim, and he becomes a legend. Thus begins the tradition of "Trachimday," a festival complete with reenactments and costumes. As for the baby, the Well-Regarded Rabbi brings her to the Upright Synagogue. He places her in the ark, which is her temporary home until she is adopted.
At the Upright Synagogue, those who pray do so by SHOUTING. This tradition is 200 years old, and it was started by the Rabbi at the time. He decided that people should shout to express their spiritual desperation. In an attempt to be closer to God, the men dangled from ropes attached to the ceiling. Each held on to the rope with one hand, and to his prayer book in the other. One Yom Kippur, a fly got into the synagogue and began to tickle the men as they dangled and prayed. The Rabbi considered this a test of their faith. In order to scratch their itches, they would have to let go with one hand. He urged the men to let their bodies fall to the floor sooner than their prayer books. Half the congregation let go of the rope and became the Uprighters, who continued to pray at the Upright Synagogue. The Uprighters either limped, or refused to walk at all, to remind themselves of their decision. They considered it a sign of their dedication to the Holy Word. The Uprighters continued the tradition of hanging onto the ropes.
The other half of the congregation let go of the prayer book and did not fall. They became the Slouchers. In remembrance of their actions, they sewed fringes to their sleeves. This was to remind them of the ropes to which they clung. They claimed that their actions showed how the spirit of the Holy Word prevailed even when the prayer books fell. The Slouchers changed their traditions and reclined on pillows instead of hanging from ropes. They also changed from a Hebrew prayer book to a Yiddish one. They no longer had a rabbi but used group-led services. They ate, drank, and gossiped both during and after services. The Uprighters look down on the Slouchers, whom they consider impious and overly secular, but the Slouchers do not care. The two groups leave each other alone except when they struggle to push the Upright Synagogue, which is on wheels, further toward either the Jewish Quarter or the Human Three-Quarters.
There had long been a rule that women were not allowed in the synagogue. In 1763, the congregation tried a compromise. The women were allowed to pray in a cellar beneath the men. The room had a glass ceiling so that the women could see up into the men's section. But the men were more distracted than ever, and the women were banned again. To watch the service, they had to stand outside and take turns peering through a hole the size of an egg.
Back to the baby: for six days she lies in the ark, and all the townspeople line up outside the synagogue to see her. The women can view her only through the hole, which frustrates them. They begin to hate her. After the Rabbi publishes an ad in the shtetl newsletter offering the baby, countless applications are left on the synagogue door. Because no man stands out as the perfect father, the Rabbi devises a lottery. He puts all the applications in the baby's crib, and the first one she grabs will be her adopted father. The baby lies for two days without grabbing a single one. Finally, she makes a mess so pungent that the men cannot pray and the Rabbi is forced to open the ark. Since the baby made the mess on Yankel's application, he is chosen as her father.
The way the story of Trachimbrod begins is significant: "Trachim B's double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River." Like all good Yiddish stories, it begins with a conditional. The wagon may or may not have belonged to Trachim, and he may or may not have been killed in the accident. This ambiguity introduces one of the novel's central themes. Because fantasy and reality are so intermixed in the history of Trachimbrod, nothing is ever sure. Even the legend of Trachim, around which all Trachimbrod lore revolves, is not necessarily true. Given the original teller of the tale, it is more likely false, but a good story is better than no story at all.
We already begin to get a sense of Jonathan's narrative voice. It is full of magicality and whimsy. The imagery describing the wagon accident is vivid and visceral, and it switches back and forth between various points of view. There is the horse pinned to the riverbed by the wagon. There is the flotsam in the water, a confusion of organic and inorganic things. There is the buzz of the townspeople. We experience these things all at once, but the effect is not bewildering, as we might imagine that the people experience it. Instead, we receive glimpses of clarity about the apparent nature of Trachimbrod and about how its residents approach new things.
Right away, vagueness becomes a defining characteristic of Trachimbrod. Not only is it on the Polish-Ukrainian border, but the shtetl itself is divided into the Jewish Quarter and the Human Three-Quarters. In fact, it does not even have a name. All this is very telling about the way the shtetl operates. The people of Trachimbrod are not concerned with the outside world, and therefore they do not need to be defined in its terms. They need no nationality and no name. They know who they are.
The end of Chapter 2 introduces another of the novel's major themes, the marriage of death and destruction to life. The end of the world for Trachim is the beginning for the newborn baby girl. She is born amidst death and refuse, but she is untouched by it. She represents hope.
The closing of Chapter 2 also involves a mystical, multifaceted description of events. The twins hide under their father's prayer shawl like ghosts, the horse dies, and the ant in Yankel's ring hides its face in shame. All of these events are small relative to the whole accident, but somehow they give it great import. We may never know the truth about Trachim and the accident, but we can know about some of the incident's intimate details.
Chapter 3 relates the fate of the baby and the history of the Upright Synagogue. The history of the Upright Synagogue introduces the theme of cultural identity. Even though the townspeople are all Jews, they make divisions among themselves. Although life in Trachimbrod is relatively simple, it is never without conflict. In fact, the people thrive on conflict and argument. One of the major conflicts is between the sacred and secular. This issue divides the population into Uprighter/Sloucher just as it divides the land into Jewish/Human. This is futher evidence that the people of Trachimbrod are content to exist liminally; they often are not one thing or the other, but balancing between the two. Even so, the Uprighters and Slouchers know who they are.
Much of the energy of Chapter 3 is generated by the absurd. The men are so pious that they dangle from ropes and shout while they pray. They think that this will make them seem more devoted to God, but they just look ridiculous. This tradition is part of the townspeople's small-town mentality. Once they have a tradition, they keep it, not gaining outside opinions to help them realize how silly they are. Implicitly the author asks us to consider whether our own cherished traditions are just as silly.
The scatological humor in Chapter 3 is not gratuitous. In fact, it furthers the theme of chance. The baby's choice of Yankel as her father is as unintentional as the manner in which the baby chooses him. She has no more control over her own fate than she does her bodily functions. In turn, Yankel and all the rest of the townspeople suffer greatly from chance in their own lives (although the author directs every event for our benefit).
In the last sentence of Chapter 3, Jonathan puts the story in the context of his own life: "We were to be in good hands." He means both his very-great-grandmother and himself. This multigenerational connection reminds us that Jonathan is telling not just any story, but one that affects him deeply, and without which he would not exist. By creating his family's history, he creates his own. Unlike Yankel and the baby, who have so little control, Jonathan has a measure of control as a writer.