The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,
by Michael Chabon
Reviewed by Rima Walker
Michael Chabon, a writer with incredible powers of imagination and use of language, offers us a what-if history, just as Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindberg became the American President. In Union, Chabon puts together a holy (or unholy) alliance, Jews and Tlingits, in freezing cold Sitka, Alaska, the homeland of the Jews after Israel was defeated in 1948.
Our protagonist is Meyer Landsman, a shamus or detective similar to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe: hardboiled, possibly alcoholic, totally dedicated to his profession, still in love with his ex-wife, Bina, skeptical, and overall a really great, if melancholy, noir character who drives the story from one surprising situation to the next.
Meyer has two problems: he wants to discover the killer of his neighbor, a drug addict chess prodigy, but is told to lay off; and he knows the Reversion is coming when the Jews must leave Alaska 60 years after the establishment of their settlement. These ideas are intricately connected, although we don’t learn how until nearly the end of the book when it all comes together with an absurd but fascinating premise. In that 60 years, a complete Jewish life has been created, populated by pious Jews, rabbis, chess players, religious members of a Jewish Mafia like the one led by Meyer Lansky, and Tlingits who have become Jews through marriage or assimilation like Meyer’s sidekick Berko Shemetz, known among his native people as Johnny “the Jew” Bear. Although warned off, he and his sidekick investigate the crime and discover a great plot to enable the Messiah to come save the Jews and give them back their homeland. “Enough wandering,” as one Jew puts it. Meyer also discovers the killers of his sister and the story of the murdered young drug addict who had been the Tzaddick Ha-Dor, one born in each generation who could become Messiah, an honor the young man scorned.
This is a straightforward murder mystery; it is also about displaced people shifted from one place to another in the world, trying to find a homeland to call their own forever. It reveals the human condition of exiled people, their assimilation or lack of it, their means of survival, their fears for the future. For the Alaskan Jews, the “black hats”, the Chassidic Mafia, have devised a plan that will allow the Messiah to come to the rescue, and it is on these people and their schemes that Chabon’s story turns.
But this story is not just dark and sad (although it has its many moments). Chabon tells it with humor and through the most amazing metaphors and similes the like of which I haven’t come across since Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay seven years ago. In one instance, a musician “did play like there was a dybbuk inside him.” In another, the beer someone gave Meyer “has yet to leave his body, but Landsman is getting indications that it has its bags packed and is ready to go.” In yet another, “the beaded curtain clatters behind her with the sound of loose teeth in a bucket.” The snow falling is “like pieces of broken daylight. The Sitka sky is dull silver and tarnishing fast.” Sitka is an impossible world where Tlingits become Jews, dogs are named Hershel, Jews call themselves Yids and are defined by Yiddish expressions: shtarkers, ganifs, rebbe; yet it is a world that draws you in until you believe it entirely. Throughout the book we hear that it is “a strange time to be a Jew”, but Chabon creates a strange world in which to be one. ~