The Yiddish Policeman's Union

HarperCollins  2007


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, 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.

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? 

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