Reading Michael Chabon’s new “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” you can almost visualize the film noir to which this gripping novel pays homage–the down-and-out boozer of a detective, cracking wise as he pursues the truth; the mysterious murder victim, found dead in a seedy hotel. Cue the slow, sexy music for the sudden appearance of the attractive woman who will play an integral, if unexpected, role in putting it all together.
Only this novel noir doesn’t take place on Sunset Blvd. The setting is fictional Sitka, Alaska, where Chabon takes what would otherwise have been a conventional murder mystery and, for lack of a better word, Jewifies it all. That’s right. The drunk detective is Meyer Landsman, tefillin straps are a bit of key evidence in the murder scene, and the characters grab plates of cheese blintzes or stuffed cabbage at the neighborhood dive.
The District of Sitka, it turns out, is a swath of Alaska given to Jewish refugees as a semi-independent territory following the Holocaust. In the novel’s alternate world, Israel was wiped off the map by the invading Arab armies as soon as it was created in 1948, and with nowhere to go, Jewish survivors from Eastern Europe and Israel created–or recreated–a Yiddish world in the cold Alaskan territory.
Chabon’s imaginative rendering of this world is a blast. He’s created a complete fictional society, with its own slang–guns are, ironically, sholems, cops are latkes–and its own exports (Shoyfer cellphones). Even the metaphors he uses as the omniscent narrator ring Yiddish; the night has the “translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat.” Sitka has hosted a World’s Fair and produced a world-class chess champ. And this society has its own social divisions, not unlike the ones in the real Jewish world today: black hats, Hasidim, modern Orthodox, secular. Only onto this scene, Chabon has imposed the murder-mystery conventions, with each of these groups populated by their share of lowlifes, gangsters, hustlers, and all-around no-goodniks.
If that’s all Chabon’s novel amounted to, it may have been merely a fun and creative diversion, but the story is told against a dark backdrop: The territory of Sitka was given to the Jews for 60 years, after which its future and that of its inhabitants was left ambiguous. The story unfolds two months before the end of that 60-year grant, with no resolution yet on what will happen to the Jews of Sitka. Most are making plans to leave–for Canada, Madagascar, Israel, anywhere that will take them–while others are hoping for legal permission to stay and become U.S. residents.
So, while this society has more than its share of petty thieves and greedy shysters, its most significant and far-reaching corruption and criminal enterprises seem to be focused in some way or another on the high-minded goal of creating a permanent future for the Jews, whether it’s an extension of Sitka’s status quo, absorption into American society, or a move to Palestine or elsewhere.
It’s an old story, told in a fully new way: The Wandering Jews, wandering once again, facing imminent expulsion from America, no less. In the world of this novel, 1948 is spoken of in the same breath as 586 BCE and 70 CE, the two major historical exiles of the Jewish people from the land of Israel (by the Babylonians and Romans, respectively). It’s amazing to me that in 2007, more than a generation after Philip Roth and so many other Jewish novelists fictionalized American-Jewish upward mobility, we’re back to the Wandering Jew. Even in the literature of a Pulitzer Prize winner like Michael Chabon–whose unforgettable “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” was set against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the great Americanization of American Jews that followed it–lurks the anxieties of exile and Jewish homelessness and the potentially genocidal situations those can lead to.
It’s well worth the trip to Sitka with Chabon. Though it lacks the emotional depth that made “Kavalier and Clay” so affecting–opting for the lighter noirish tone in which characters don’t get much past the two-dimensional–“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” made me wish I really could visit that great Alaskan Jewish homeland, and share a glass of Slivovitz with my brothers and sisters there.