What if Israel, as a modern state, failed in its attempt to form in the 1940s? What would happen to the Jews who had hoped to repatriate there? Michael Chabon, the acclaimed author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, asks this question in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Intertwined here with the story of the Jewish people who survived World War II is murder mystery, a government conspiracy, and personal tales of loss, despair, and, possibly, hope.
Our hero, Meyer Landsman, at first has the appearance of being just another doesn’t-play-by-the-rules detective. He’s got a failed marriage and a over-fondness for alcohol. He has a failed marriage in his past. What does it matter that he’s Jewish and living in Sitka?
It matters quite a lot, actually. Sitka is where the majority of the Jews who attempted settlement in the Middle East got relocated after the failure of the state of Israel. The agreement was that they got the land for sixty years, after which they would have to apply for citizenship, find relatives who would take them in, or otherwise leave Sitka, and the United States. They are living on borrowed time, which is due to be up in a couple of months for Landsman and the rest of the Jewish community.
It’s easy to imagine that the native Inuits weren’t happy with the situation. They weren’t, in fact, and the two populations came to blows soon after the agreement was reached. Relations still aren’t great, and those who are part-native and part-Jewish find themselves scorned by both sides. Landsman’s cousin and partner, Berko, struggles with finding his place in this community as a resident and as a detective. His reactions and behaviors were intensely interesting to me; those themes of being both, and so being considered neither, are universal. The way one deals with them are not.
The friction between the two groups is also interesting in another couple of ways. The first way is that it echos the European takeover of Alaska. Russians, Canadians and Americans have all claimed part or all of Alaska at different times, and I thought it clever of Chabon to give us a glimpse of what a modern-day colonization action in the Americas would look like.
The second way this is interesting is perhaps a bit more subtle. Chabon takes the theme of Jews moving to a new location that is already occupied and being forced to fight for their new home after being chased out of the old and puts it in a framework that is out of the ordinary for the modern reader. Take away the religious and cultural clashes between the Arab world and the Israelis, and a lot of the bare issues are easier to tackle.
The plot of the book also is remarkable. Sure, it’s a murder mystery, but it has a politico-religious theme. Chabon’s Alaskan Jews want a Messiah, and they want to live in Israel. The people, as a whole, have a longing to belong, and their religion dictates to them the when and the where, how that is possible. Their leaders take it to the extreme, with the help of the American government, who wants to see them repatriated without having to officially sanction a holy war against the Palestinians.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is simply brilliant. Chabon is a talented writer. I especially enjoyed some of his understated puns; at one point near the end, he describes Landsman’s reaction to a couple of policemen as being “baffled by the fairings of their southern and gentile glamour.” Now, does he mean “gentile” as in polite, or “gentile” as in, well, “Gentile”? I loved it. It’s the little touches such as this that makes this a new favorite for me.