Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-8

Chapter 6: The Book of Recurrent Dreams, 1791

The Slouchers are holding their weekly Sabbath services at one of their homes. The service is unorthodox. They pray at a different congregation member's house each week. They keep their sacred items in common household places: their makeshift ark is the oven, and the pulpit is a chicken coop. They recline on pillows while praying, and everyone talks during the service.

Instead of having a regular prayer book, they write The Book of Recurrent Dreams, updated the first of every month. The book is a log of the Slouchers' recurring dreams. All are chanted aloud. Each entry in the Book of Recurrent Dreams is marked like a Bible passage (e.g., 4:513). The dreams are deeply personal and tend to be laden with sensory imagery and charged with sexuality and violence. One particularly strong dream is 4:516, the dream of "disembodied birds," which recalls the dreamer's actual memory. She recalls that when she was mourning her son, a bird crashed through the window and died. The impression of the bird on the floor and in the window is more lasting, haunting, and real than the bird was. In dream 4:525, "The dream that we are our fathers," the dreamer looks into the Brod and sees endless images of his ancestors in his own reflection, going back to the face of God.

The Sloucher service is interrupted by two Uprighters, who pound at the door. They shout to announce that Yankel has been chosen as the baby's father. The Slouchers celebrate but do not notice that Yankel is not celebrating. Rather, he is suddenly more afraid of death than before. Jonathan, as narrator, notes that while Yankel received a baby, Jonathan received an adoptive great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Chapter 7: Falling in Love, 1791-1796

Yankel takes the baby home that night and is fascinated by her. She becomes the only thing that matters to him, and he sits for hours watching her. When her body becomes imprinted with the newsprint from the newspapers he put in her makeshift crib, he reads the stories off of her body.

Yankel lost two children earlier. One died of a fever, and the other died in an accident at the infamous industrial flour mill, which kills one shtetl resident a year. Yankel also lost his wife when she left him for the bureaucrat who helped mediate Yankel's trial. He came home one day to find his wife gone, and a note on the doormat saying simply: "I had to do it for myself." In response, Yankel is tormented and constantly repeats to himself: "I am not sad." Although he forgives his wife, he cannot not bear to destroy the note, so he tries to lose it. But no matter how hard he tries, he cannot. The people of Trachimbrod never mention his wife's desertion.

Yankel's name had been Safran before his crime. At the time, he was very well respected in the shtetl. He founded, ran, and was the sole member of two organizations: the Committee for the Good and Fine Arts, and the School for Loftier Learning.

Yankel-then-Safran's crime is now revealed. He was convicted of unfit practices, for which he lost his usurer's license. The townspeople lost their respect for him, and he left the shtetl, wandering through neighboring villages and taking on different jobs. No matter how hard he tried, he could not be happy. After three years he returned to the shtetl and was accepted back into the community, but he lived as a loner, "like a Sloucher fringe, sewn to the sleeve of Trachimbrod." He was forced to wear the abacus bead around his neck as a mark of his shame. He changed his name to Yankel, which was the name of the bureaucrat who ran off with his wife, and asked that no one call him Safran again.

The baby is Yankel's chance to reinvent himself as a father, "a chance to be again innocent, simply and impossibly happy." He names her Brod, after the river where she was found. He gives her a necklace with a tiny abacus bead to match his, so that she will feel like she belongs with him. Yankel tells Brod that her mother died painlessly in childbirth. He makes up elaborate stories about his romance with her mother so as not to cause her pain. He even writes fake love letters from this fantasy mother to him in order to convince Brod. Inevitably, Yankel falls in love with this fantasy woman. He rereads the fake love letters and fantasizes about her so much that he can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality. But he still has not gotten rid of the note his real wife left him. Brod finds it in her pocket one day when she is a few years old. She does not mention it to Yankel but leaves it on his bedside table.

Chapter 8: Another Lottery, 1791

A magistrate from the major nearby city of Lvov has demanded that the shtetl be named. It must be easy to pronounce and not offensive. The Rabbi proclaims a vote among a select portion of the, and they all cast ballots for names that serve their personal interests. Sofiowka offers to guard the polling box all day. The official announcement the next day proclaims that the town is now known officially as Sofiowka. We now learn the exact location of the shtetl: "twenty-three kilometers southeast of Lvov, four north of Kolki, and straddling the Polish-Ukrainian border." The name cannot be changed, but nobody calls it Sofiowka. The Rabbi calls for a second vote, and this time the W twins guard the polling box. Each person votes for his favored name, and the vote is a tie--each name receives one vote. The Rabbi picks a random slip from the box to break the tie, and Yankel is again a winner. The shtetl is now called Trachimbrod.


The Slouchers have created a collective fantasy in place of "dry" religion, because they feel that dreams hold deep meaning. They locate the sacred and holy not in the synagogue or in traditional ceremony, but in the imagination. This is how we learn that Jonathan comes from a line of dreamers. Considering that his ancestors practically worship their dreams and dream-narratives, it is no surpsise that Jonathan himself is so taken with fantasy.

The most important dream chanted from the Book of Recurrent Dreams is "the dream that we are our fathers." The dreamer sees that the faces of his ancestors lead back to the face of God, in whose image they are all created. This is a beautiful metaphor for what Jonathan is trying to accomplish on his journey. If God represents ultimate power and knowledge, then by seeking information about his ancestors, Jonathan is seeking God. The more he learns about his most distant ancestors, the closer he is to finding God. At the same time, being created in God's image, Jonathan is searching for illumination about his own identity.

Like everyone else's, important aspects of Yankel's life are directed by chance. Through Brod, Yankel embraces his misfortune and tries to forget his shame and redeem himself. His method, however, does not let him overcome his past. By giving Brod a tiny abacus bead like his own, he perpetuates his shame instead of erasing it. Brod is thus marked as a product not only of chance, but also of all the chances and decisions faced by her ancestors. We are all like Brod in this respect; we can never fully separate ourselves from our family's identity, no matter how we might transcend it.

Yankel is a dreamer like the other Slouchers. In telling Brod stories about her mother, Yankel can love and feel loved, which helps free him. At the same time, fantasy also haunts and enslaves Yankel. He cannot escape from his wife's words, "I had to do it for myself." These written words are powerful in that he cannot understand them but can always refer back to them. Yankel is trapped in this failure to comprehend the letter because of his generous soul. We see his generosity in his willingness to take in Brod and give her every advantage he can, beyond the chance she represents for him to redeem and reinvent himself. The same generosity makes him unable to fathom his wife's selfishness, even though it is explicit in her note. There is no sign that she is sorry or tormented herself, but Yankel forgives her.

Yankel fails to cure his sadness with words. He tries to convince himself that he is fine by repeating, "I am not sad." This mantra does not work. Words have a great effect on Yankel, but he cannot harness their power as Jonathan can, and the written words trump Yankel's unwritten words as a written testimony trumps an unwritten fantasy. Yankel is also tormented by the simplicity of his wife's letter. She left it on the doormat like a casual note.

The idea of naming is very important in Chapter 8. We know that Trachimbrod does not concern itself with outside business, and the people are happy to have multiple identities, although they do observe boundaries as well. Finally, when the outside intrudes--the magistrate demands a name for the shtetl-- the townspeople acknowledge a need to define the shtetl by naming it.

Naming can be arbitrary or momentous. The naming of the town is intended to be momentous, to be decided by semi-democratic vote. But it is influenced first by self-interested choices and then by chance. The townspeople are foolish for letting Sofiowka be in charge of the ballots, and he decides to name the shtetl after himself. It is also by chance that Yankel wins another lottery. In Jonathan's time, Sofiowka and Trachimbrod are official names that he can find printed in journals and official documents. But when we know their origin, we see that they are just the products of circumstance and dumb luck.