Opening shot: close up on amber. Gradually, as the camera moves, we see that there's something in the amber. It's a cricket, or a grasshopper. This bit of amber, from a necklace Augustine wore (in the film version of the story) and presumably gave to Safran, was the first thing--or so it is implied--that Jonathan collected. He took it from the bedside table by his grandfather's deathbed.
The thing about a bug in amber--and it's an ant in the book, not a cricket or grasshopper or whatever insect that is from the order Orthoptera--is that it is like time standing still, a remnant of the past.
(And, if Hollywood (or Michael Crichton, anyway) can be believed, we can get dinosaurs out of them.)
I assumed until I saw a couple people online calling is a cricket that the insect in amber in the movie was a grasshopper. Considering Grandfather's attention, a few times, to the moon, I appreciated the grasshopper's link to the wax and wane of the moon via Japanese tradition. whats-your-sign.com says, that as a Chinese symbol, the grasshopper "offers attributes of longevity, happiness, good health, good luck, wealth, abundance, fertility and virtue. In fact, grasshoppers were thought to be fertility symbols..." The grasshopper here is, of course, long dead. The second grasshopper in the film is not even real--it's on a billboard outside Odessa.
The third is alive and well (though Jonathan putting it in a ziploc bag will probably kill it) when Jonathan retrieves it outside Lista's house. Getting back to the Chinese tradition, "it was believed that grasshoppers embodied the personalities of family members who were deceased." This seems appropriate as it works in Everything Is Illuminated; the grasshopper in amber is Jonathan's link to his grandfather, with whom he was proximal.
(And, I have not even mentioned the way Alex uses words that are just slightly wrong, like proximal for close... And, as I typed that, Alex asked the title question above. Nice timing.)
That bit of amber is not just frozen in time for the grasshopper but also, maybe Jonathan. We do not learn, really, why he collects things, why he is the antisocial vegetarian that he is. As it is implied that the amber was the first thing he collected, maybe his growth has been stunted ever since. His emotional growth.
Grasshoppers... or better yet, crickets--they also make a lot of noise. They let you know when they are around. If this story does anything, it offers a voice to Trachimbrod... the fictional Trachimbrod. The ones who were killed. This, then, metaphorically offers voice to all those who were killed in the Holocaust, all those lined up and gunned down simply for being Jews.
Truchenbrod and Lozisht are two towns adjacent to each, a joint community, other near the border of Ukraine and Poland. While part of Poland, Truchenbrod was known as Zofjowka (in the film, it is said that Trachimbrod was also known as Sofiowka), Lozisht as Ignatowka. Truchenbrod was founded in 1835... I've seen descriptions of the origins of the town from Foer's book, and it sounds much more interesting than Jews settling onto land given them by a Russian noble family--something involving the wagon of a man named Trachim getting him stuck in a river--the Brod--and I think there's a baby he finds there, something about a baby.
(The wagon in the river, and the baby floating to the surface and surviving (I just looked up some details) are echoed in the novel by the drowning of the Trachimbroders and Grandfather floating to the surface and surviving. The film changes the Trachimbroders' deaths to being lined up and shot, not as easy to echo later.)
Anyway, the real community was not destroyed by Nazis. Instead, while there were around 2300 in Zofjowka and 900 in Igantowka when World War II began, Jewish refugees from occupied Poland settled there and those numbers rose to 3500 and 1200, respectively. (This history stuff is from Beit Tal, by the way.) So, the reality is almost the opposite of the story, here. Instead of being a place of slaughter and death, Truchenbrod was a place of refuge.
That is not the point, of course.
This story is not about Truchenbrod any more than it is about Trachimbrod. The strange history of Trachimbrod that Jonathan (mostly) invents in the novel would probably be a distraction in the film and was (perhaps) appropriately cut (much as the Dresden backstory was cut from the film version of Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).
As the scene outside Lista's arrives now, I realize the insect must be a cricket, not a grasshopper. There are distinct cricket noises in the soundtrack.
Universe of Symbolism tells us, the cricket's "rhythmic tune" is "symbolic of vibration, of going higher and higher in vibrational states of awareness and presence." The film quite deliberately changes its tone as it goes; a culture-clash comedy of sorts as it begins, it becomes something quite serious. It's vibration changes. Universe of Symbolism continues: "With the escalating vibrations and attunement to the Cosmos, the Cricket begins to announce to the universe and all who can hear it's [sic] heart felt desire... what is in essence 'cosmic ordering'." That is what the film ends up being about, if not the novel--about a new sense of order that comes from knowing. The past is the past; Alex is not wrong about that. But, knowledge of the past affects the present, affects the future. It reshapes the world and the people in it. That Alex can so readily embrace being a Jew that he wears a yarmulka to Grandfather's funeral speaks to this. That Jonathan seems ready to share his collected dirt with his grandfather does, as well. The voice of the past shapes the present.