The Yid­dish Police­man’s Union

By – October 26, 2011

Talk about your alter­nate uni­verse! Michael Chabon has come up with a wild sur­prise. In his new, alter­nate-his­to­ry nov­el, Chabon pos­tu­lates a world in which Israel did not suc­ceed in becom­ing an inde­pen­dent state in 1948. Euro­pean Jews, des­per­ate­ly seek­ing refuge, were reset­tled instead into a strip of the Alas­ka coast. Jews being Jews, their soci­ety grew with all the com­plex­i­ties Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties devel­op wher­ev­er they take root; ten­sions between the Jews and the native Indi­ans, ten­sions between the black hat Jews and their mod­ern co-reli­gion­ists, crime, recre­ation, roman­tic entan­gle­ments and all. This post-war Alaskan Jew­ish world is rich­ly imag­ined and painstak­ing­ly detailed with life unfold­ing for its inhab­i­tants as life tends to do, in a messy, excit­ing, vibrant manner.

Then Chabon, using this unique set­ting, fur­ther sets all expec­ta­tion on its head. He has cre­at­ed a nov­el that com­plete­ly tran­scends genre, bor­row­ing from, sat­i­riz­ing and thor­ough­ly milk­ing them all. He plays with the con­cept of genre, stretch­ing it, riff­ing on it and clear­ly hav­ing fun cre­at­ing some­thing new. What we have here seems at first to be a grit­ty detec­tive sto­ry and just as one set­tles in to enjoy it, it becomes a romance, no — a his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, no — a Jerusalem-syn­drome thriller, no — a soci­ol­o­gy text, wait — it’s a com­e­dy! The only genre left out is sci-fi! Each style is bounced off the oth­er with a def­i­nite tongue-in-cheek approach syn­er­giz­ing into a read­able page­turn­er along the way. 

The cast of char­ac­ter is a mot­ley yet endear­ing crew. In addi­tion to our detec­tive hero, there’s his part­ner, half Tlin­git Indi­an, half Jew with a dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ty lega­cy from each side. There’s the hard-boiled soft­ie who’s our detec­tive hero’s cur­rent boss and ex-wife. There’s a rebbe crime-boss, of course, and an oth­er­world­ly Mes­si­ah can­di­date who has met an untime­ly end. Where could one pos­si­bly find such a con­glom­er­a­tion of off­beat char­ac­ters? Well, in Jew­ish Alas­ka, of course, where else? 

We have come to expect mas­ter­ly writ­ing from Chabon, and this nov­el doesn’t dis­ap­point. Most of his char­ac­ters speak Yid­dish to one anoth­er, so he seam­less­ly fla­vors his Eng­lish with an unmis­tak­able Yid­dishe taam. And some of the writ­ing can cause you to pos­i­tive­ly catch your breath. From a para­graph on wait­ing with despair in a hos­pi­tal room: The clock on the hos­pi­tal wall hummed to itself, got antsy, kept snap­ping off pieces of the night with its minute hand.” From a para­graph about the ever­green yearn­ing of Jews for their ancient home­land: They are stand­ing in a desert wind under the date palms, …in flow­ing robes that keep out the bib­li­cal sun, speak­ing Hebrew and they are all friends and broth­ers togeth­er, and moun­tains skip like rams, and hills like lit­tle lambs.” Michael Chabon has cre­at­ed some­thing orig­i­nal. That’s some­thing that doesn’t hap­pen very often. Don’t miss it.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

From Harper­Collins

1. Why does Mey­er Lands­man feel a spe­cial kin­ship with the mur­der vic­tim in Rm. 208 of the Hotel Zamen­hof, and how is that affin­i­ty respon­si­ble for his career’s decline? 

2. To what extent is Bina Gelb­fish sym­pa­thet­ic to Mey­er’s pro­fes­sion­al sit­u­a­tion? How does their cur­rent involve­ment as police depart­ment col­leagues reflect the com­pli­cat­ed nature of their his­to­ry with one another? 

3. Why does the prospect of Rever­sion com­pro­mise Mey­er and Berko’s abil­i­ty to solve their out­stand­ing cas­es, and what does that pos­si­bil­i­ty mean to both of them? 

4. How would you char­ac­ter­ize the nature of the inter­ac­tion of native peo­ples and Jew­ish immi­grants in Sit­ka, Alas­ka, and its environs? 

5. How sur­pris­ing is the coin­ci­dence of the deaths of Nao­mi Lands­man and Mendel Shpil­man, giv­en the small-world sense of Jew­ish geog­ra­phy” in Sit­ka and the Alaskan panhandle? 

6. Why does Willy Dick agree to help Mey­er and Berko in their efforts to uncov­er the truth behind the Per­il Strait, and what does his doing so reveal about his allegiances? 

7. How does the author explore vari­a­tions on the theme of fathers and sons in the rela­tion­ships between Mey­er and his father, Mey­er and Djan­go, Berko and Hertz, and Mendel and Rebbe Shpil­man in this novel? 

8. How does the author’s use of copi­ous his­tor­i­cal facts through­out the nov­el impact your read­ing of The Yid­dish Police­men’s Union as a work of fic­tion? To what extent does the Jew­ish set­tle­ment in Sit­ka, Alas­ka, seem like an actu­al community? 

9. Why do Mey­er, Berko, and Bina agree to sup­press their knowl­edge of a vast con­spir­a­cy, and what does that deci­sion reveal about their own sense of the bal­ance between jus­tice and self-preservation? 

10. Of the many eccen­tric and unfor­get­table char­ac­ters in The Yid­dish Police­men’s Union, which were the most mem­o­rable to you, and why?