Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Reading between the lines.
May 8 2007 12:30 PM

God's Frozen People

Michael Chabon carves out a Jewish state in Alaska.

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As such details demonstrate, Chabon has lavished an unfathomable amount of love on his creation, leaving no quirk of Jewish life unexploited for its comedic or absurdist potential. At the risk of deflating what Chabon pulls off, here's just a sample of the many ways he upends Jewish culture. In place of the halutzim, the pioneers who settled Israel, Chabon gives us the Polar Bears, Sitka's first emigrants: "[T]hey were utopians, which meant that they saw imperfection everywhere they looked." The Northern Lights bring visions not of the Virgin Mary, but of the face of a Hasid. The exurbs are dotted with superstores named KosherMart and Big Macher. Streets and squares are named after Max Nordau, Janusz Korczak, and Isaac Leib Peretz. A part of town populated by a reclusive Hasidic sect resembles a "Disney shtetl," a painstaking reproduction of the Ukrainian village where the founder was born, with narrow streets and thatched roofs. Sitka's political history includes Jewish-Tlingit conflict over land ("Jews want livable space") and the notorious Shavuos Massacre at Goldblatt's Dairy Restaurant.

In Chabon's hands, this is all sublimely ridiculous. But it is a humor that can be fully appreciated by a very small audience. How many readers, after all, will get the joke of the Sitka Jews' obsession with Filipino food, including an extended and repeated riff on the "Filipino-style Chinese doughnut"? In the finest Jewish tradition, Chabon has produced a paradox: a mass entertainment largely inaccessible to the masses. What's more, there is a deep sadness at the book's center, but it is a sadness that also may be not fully apparent to non-Jews. You don't have to be Jewish, of course, to appreciate the most obvious tragic element, an involved subplot taking off from the Hasidic belief that the messiah is born anew into every generation: In the novel, this man becomes a junkie who ties off with tefillin, a former black hat who has become estranged from his family and lives anonymously in a flophouse. But the real tragedy of Sitka's Jews is the historical disaster that created their isolation. Talk about a Diaspora—now this is exile, and its effects redound on the lives of all the novel's characters in ways that are psychologically true but also uncannily resonant with the Jewish religious and mystical traditions.


We're spared the details of the war in which Israel was lost, but Chabon offers this nightmarish vision of the country "today": "a wretched place ruled by men united only in their resolve to keep out all but a worn fistful of small-change Jews. For half a century, Arab strongmen and Muslim partisans, Persians and Egyptians, socialists and nationalists and monarchists, pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists, traditionalists and the Party of Ali, have all sunk their teeth into Eretz Yisroel and worried it down to bone and gristle. Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles." A cynic might note that the last line—minus the heads—is not all that inaccurate; and while a literal political reading of the novel is as impossible as it is misguided, there are moments when Chabon takes obvious digs. But one need not be unreservedly pro-Israel politically to ache at the idea of a world with no Jewish homeland—a uniquely Jewish ache. Landsman, Bina, and especially the potential Messiah are truly lost souls, living in a dystopia that can hardly be imagined by American Jews today: a world that is thoroughly "unredeemed," as the Jewish messianic tradition puts it.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, of course, is hardly alone in offering different levels of interpretation to different readerships. Joyce's Ulysses, to take one somewhat grandiose example, probably means more to a reader from Dublin than to one who has never heard of the River Liffey. But there's something almost perverse in the way in which this experiment in genre fiction risks being as isolationist as the world it describes. So far, the glowing reviews of the book—many of them written, it's worth noting, by Jewish writers—have easily outnumbered the pans. Here's hoping the welcome continues, and this haunting hybrid escapes the fate of ending up a curiosity of history. A book as tough-talking, scrappy, and open-hearted as this one deserves to find a home in America.