Strange Times to Be a Jew

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins. 432 pages. $26.95.

There’s no better way to describe Michael Chabon – who’s most famous for his monumental, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – than as a literary superhero. He may not have X-ray vision or the ability to bend iron bars with his hands, but his gifts as a wordsmith are no less extraordinary or exuberant. In a new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon flexes his hypertrophied storytelling muscles once again, and puts on a dazzling show.

In this ambitious novel, Chabon creates an entire alternate universe, in which the U.S. government designated a territory in Alaska as temporary refuge for European Jews during WWII. (Such a proposal was actually considered, if quickly quashed, by FDR.) Fast-forward half a century, and the population of Sitka, Alaska, numbers 3.2 million – most of them Jews and all of them Yiddish speakers, including the Filipino maids and, of course, the tough-talking homicide detectives.

The novel’s hero, Meyer Landsman, is one of the latter – in fact, he’s “the most decorated shammes in the District” – and he’s in a bad way. He’s recently divorced, his sister has died, and in two months, when the district reverts to the possession of the U.S., Landsman and all other Alaskan Jews will be out of a job and a homeland. If that’s not tsuris enough, a fellow tenant of the decrepit hotel that Landsman calls home turns up with a bullet hole in the back of his head, execution-style. In short, as Chabon’s characters frequently say, “These are strange times to be a Jew.”

The tale that unfurls as Landsman pursues the killer resembles an egg at a Passover seder: i.e., hardboiled. In place of the saltwater, there’s Chabon’s ever-present, always winking irony. All the conventions of the classic Dashiell Hammett/film noir scenario appear (including, briefly, an American named Spade), but Chabon gives each of these a Jewish twist: in place of a femme fatale, there’s Landsman’s ex-wife and current commanding officer, a tough cookie in a bright orange parka named Bina Gelbfish; instead of the Mafia pulling strings behind the scenes, we have a renegade and ruthless sect of Hasidim, the Verbovers, who run a feared, and yet frum, “criminal empire.” Landsman’s partner, Berko Shemets – a.k.a. Johnny “the Jew” Bear – is an affable half-Jewish/half-Tlingit yarmulke-wearer who prefers to curse in American. Meanwhile the murder victim turns out to have been not only a heroin junkie (who would tie off his arm with a tefillin strap before shooting up), but also a chess prodigy, possibly a homosexual, and, depending on who you ask, the Messiah.

Given the spin the novel puts on the genre of detective stories, it’s no surprise that one of the characters has “a Yiddish translation of [Raymond] Chandler” on his nightstand. If such a translation existed, and if it were very, very loose, it might result in a book quite like this one, where the characters refer to guns as “sholems,” cigarettes as “papiroses,” and cell phones as “shoyfers.” That a P.I. would be called “shammes” (literally “beadle” or “sexton” in Yiddish) in this argot is a no-brainer, given the etymological theory that that’s exactly where the American slang term “shamus,” for detective, comes from.

Chabon’s linguistic flourishes don’t end there; he manages to make his English-language book read, at times, like an overly literal translation from a Yiddish original, to winning comic effect. It seems oddly old-fashioned, at first, when Landsman groans, “Woe is me” – but what he’s really saying, of course, is a translation of the familiar Yiddish expression, “Vey iz mir.” Likewise, if you find it strange that characters say “goat shit” when they mean “less than nothing,” it may help to recall that “goat shit” is, literally, bupkes. Whether you know Yiddish or just a spattering of American Yinglish, you’ll certainly recognize a few of the phrases that appear here only in English – gey kaken afn yam, for one slightly scatological example.

Poking around for clues, Landsman escorts the reader on an extensive tour of Sitka, from the dingy Einstein Chess Club packed with aged patzers, to the cavernous string-filled headquarters of Itzik Zimbalist, the “boundary maven” who maintains the district’s many eruvs. Part of the chase’s thrill is the scenery, both rural and urban, as Chabon outfits Sitka with everything from a local delicacy (“the Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh“), to a popular cartoon dog, to a grid of city streets named for Yiddish culture heroes including Sh. Ansky, Sholem Asch, and Yankev Glatshteyn.

Fun as these details are, the mystery, which invokes a chess problem cadged from Vladimir Nabokov, holds its own, making this surely the most page-turning thriller about Yiddish nationalism ever published. Eventually – and predictably – the trail of inferences leads Landsman to insights into his own personal life, as well as an international conspiracy led by corrupt politicians. Funnily enough, the culpable party turns out to be one that has recently been causing quite a bit of global unrest in our own historical universe. (To say more would be to let the kats out of Chabon’s finely-wrought zak.)

For those readers who aren’t familiar with Chabon’s previous books and life, it’s worth mentioning that while his story is a work of intense fabulation, he stocks it with heart-rending incidents from his own experience. Landsman and his ex-wife split up in anguish after aborting a genetically abnormal fetus; Chabon’s wife, Ayelet Waldman, has written bravely about her own decision to abort a fetus in a similar situation. Landsman’s sister, Naomi, dies when her plane crashes into Mount Dunkelblum; Chabon’s friend, the young writer Amanda Davis, was killed in a 2003 plane crash while on a book tour. Less tragic, and harder to explain, is the fact that this is the second of Chabon’s books – last was a charming novella starring Sherlock Holmes, titled The Final Solution – involving a sinister dairy farm. (Who knows? Maybe Chabon’s lately been on the receiving end of some spoiled yogurt.)

The entire project actually began life as an essay from the late 1990s about a phrasebook called Say It in Yiddish, which seemed to Chabon to be a guidebook to a land that has never existed, where one needs to know how to say “What is the flight number?” and “I will call a policeman” in mameloshn. (The piece occasioned much chatter among Yiddishists, from the folks on the Mendele listserv to Jeffrey Shandler, who treats the controversy in his excellent scholarly study, Adventures in Yiddishland.) Working backwards, Chabon has written into existence a country for which Say It in Yiddish would be a useful guide. The idea of alternative Jewish history, in general, is a captivating one, especially as the prospect of lasting peace in the real-life State of Israel recedes ever further from reality. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed about the possibility that the calamitous 20th century might have turned out differently for the Jews?

In less capable hands, such exercises might lapse into pure, farfetched silliness, but Chabon has done the necessary legwork to translate his original fascinating “What if?” of a Jewish territory in Alaska into a coherent and compelling fiction. Taking its place on the very limited shelf of literary-quality Jewish counterfactuals, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union marries the daring of Theodor Herzl’s uncanny Altneuland with the writerly aplomb and emotional depth of Philip Roth’s recent bestseller, The Plot Against America. Most of all, in yet another virtuosic act of generous imagination, the new book displays Chabon’s extraordinary – perhaps superhuman – talent for producing fiction that at once amazes, entertains, and enlightens.

[Originally published in The National Yiddish Book Center’s Jewish Reader.]