BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ is Michael Chabon’s Counterfactual Look at ‘Frozen Chosen’ Temporary Refuge in Alaska’s Panhandle; An Alternate History ‘Mysteries of Sitka’

Note from the reviewer: I’m rerunning this review because I read that Joel and Ethan Coen are working on an upcoming movie based on the book. I can hardly wait — David M. Kinchen
Aug. 8, 2007

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitizer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” a 2001 novel about two boys who created their own Superman, has conjured up a vivid world that never was in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (HarperCollins, 414 pages, $26.95).

I prefer the phrase “alternate history” to “counterfactual,” but Chabon follows in the literary footsteps of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” with a noir mystery tale set in an improbable refuge for European Jews displaced by Hitler, the former capital of Russian Alaska, Sitka.

Sited on Baranof Island in the Alaska panhandle, Sitka today has about 9,000 residents. In Chabon’s novel, metro Sitka has 3.2 million people, most of them Yiddish-speaking refugees from Europe beginning in 1940 and a second group stemming from collapse of the nascent Israel in 1948.

Actually, there was a short-lived proposal to provide refugee camps for European Jews in Alaska territory in the early 1940s. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes proposed the idea to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a bill was introduced in Congress where it died, according to Chabon (pronounced “Shea Bon”, by the way).

In the novel, the measure passed and the Federal District of Sitka was established, home to people like Sitka Police Det. Meyer Landsman, living in a flophouse of a hotel on Max Nordau Street, estranged from his wife Bina Gelbfish, who is also his superior officer on the force.

It doesn’t much matter, because the 60- year time limit on the Federal District – established after the collapse of Israel in 1948 — is about to expire, with Reversion to the state of Alaska a certainty. Nobody knows what will happen to the millions of Jews living in Sitka when Reversion takes place, but Landsman’s immediate attention is fixed on the murder of a fellow resident of the Hotel Zamenhof, going by the name of “Emmanuel Lasker.” As any chess player knows, this has got to be an alias, and Landsman has played chess since he was a young boy.

The plot is twisty, with strictly orthodox Jews – “black hats” in Chabon’s novel — an American reporter named Dennis Brennan, Landsman’s partner Berko Shemets, whose father is a Jew and whose late mother was a Tlingit, a Native Alaskan, Russian shtarkers (gangsters), and dozens of other beautifully drawn characters that are typical of Chabon’s writing.

Considering the 3.2 million population of this imaginary Sitka, the murder rate of about 75 a year is within reason, but this is the first time in his nine months at the hotel that a murder has been so close to Detective Landsman.

I wondered about the name of the hotel, Zamenhof, and the street where it’s located, Max Nordau, so I looked up these two names. Nordau (1849-1923) was a Hungarian born Zionist, co-founder with Theodor Herzl of the World Zionist Organization. L.L. Zamenhof, a Litvak (a Lithuanian Jew), born 1859, died 1917, invented the universal language Esperanto. There’s a clue in Chabon’s detective story on page 3, where the elevator in Landsman’s hotel is labeled “Elevatoro,” Esperanto for “elevator.” Trivia fans like me groove on the details of alternate history novels.

Better you should read the book than have a critic spoil it for you; Chabon’s Sitka is so beautifully drawn that you’ll swear his writing idol Raymond Chandler couldn’t have done a better job with Los Angeles. I also detect some James Ellroy and James M. Cain influences in Chabon, but the Washington, DC native, born in 1963 and living in Berkeley, Calif. with his Israeli-born novelist wife Ayelet Waldman and their children, is a writer with his own distinctive voice.

Googling Chabon, I discovered that this Jewish-American author has been accused of anti-Semitism for his portrayal of Jews in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” He’s quoted by an interviewer saying that his mother knows he’s arrived as a Jewish-American novelist when he faces such accusations, which were also leveled at Philip Roth.

The book is sprinkled with Yiddish words, including Shoyfer for cell phone and shomets for handgun and Noz (cops) for a cop bar. In a recent interview with Jon Weiner, Chabon admits that, although he grew up hearing Yiddish from his grandparents’ generation, he doesn’t speak Yiddish. He can read it “with a lot of trouble,” but he’s a thoroughly assimilated American Jew in perhaps the only country where a person can make that statement.

If you’re a fan of detective fiction, glom onto “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and schlep on over to a marvelous world that could have been but never was except in the fertile mind of Michael Chabon.

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