The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was excellent Passover reading, for reasons I’ll explain. The book is set in a counterfactual present where secular Yiddish culture wasn’t crushed by the Holocaust. Instead, it migrated to a gritty frontier district in Alaska with yiddish-speaking cops, crooks, lowlifes, idling chess-players, dissolute klezmorim, pork-loving secularists and insular hassidim. According to a review at the Yiddish Book Center website, “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.

In the book’s fictional world, Sitka Alaska becomes the refuge of millions of Jews after the Holocaust when the Zionist settlement in Israel was crushed. The refuge was temporary, the 60-year agreement is about to expire, and most Jews are facing deportation once more. The irreverent homicide detective hero is estranged from his ex-wife and nurses his alienation in a worlds-fair shot glass of slivovitz. The villains of the piece are a secretive chassidic sect who operate an organized crime ring and conspire to bring about redemption with a violent Messianic plot. The book explores classic Jewish themes of exile and redemption from thoroughly secular antimessianic perspective, making for tasty Passover reading.

The book was heavily advertised as the adventure of a literary author in the wilds of genre fiction. I was concerned that I’d find it over-written (for example, I hated Everything is Illuminated). But Chabon did a fine job of translating Chandler. His figurative language is apt. A few examples culled by a NYMag review Landsman’s ex-wife “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken.” A pretentious, overly formal journalist speaks Yiddish “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.” An awkward father-son hug “looked like the side chair was embracing the couch.” The neoyiddish slang is entertaining – a cellphone is a shoyfer and handgun is a sholem.

I had only two quibbles. The book has a characteristic of many mystery-thrillers – the plot climax is convoluted and cartoonlike; I stop caring, skim, and then read back to parse what is supposed to have happened. I care about the resolution of the characters and themes, but the plot to destroy the world, whatever. I’m glad to see that the book is getting a film treatment by the Coen brothers, and you can read the wannabe movie scenes in the vehicle chases and underground escapes.

The other quibble is a bit of political correctness. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the book yet and care….
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There are two key characters who die; one is a closeted gay man, and the other a macha bush pilot described as “lesbian in everything but sexual preference.” I thought we were 30-40 years past the date when people with sexuality off the center of the bell curve needed to meet a tragic end. It was entertaining that the woulda-been messiah was a gay ex-chassid junkie who tied off with tefillin, but I wished that he had found a nice boyfriend somewhere along the line.

I strongly recommend the book. Chabon has written a fun translation of Chandler into “Jewish”, does a great job with language, setting and atmosphere, a decent job with character and theme, and adapts the traditional plot in an entertaining manner. If you haven’t read it yet, enjoy.

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