Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I've been trying to write this post in my head for a few days, without much success. This is a big book, and it's hard to be succinct.

I heard Michael Chabon talk about this book at the Wisconsin Book Festival last October, so I knew a bit of what to expect. He also spoke that night about his motivation for writing the book. The germ of his idea came from a book called Say It in Yiddish, a Dover publication, and part of a series of "Say It" books for travelers. Struck by how unlikely anyone was to actually visit a place where one needed to converse with one's auto mechanic in Yiddish (and the tragic reasons for the decline in the Yiddish language), the idea came to him that he could create such a place in a book.

Chabon has been kicking this idea around for a while. Back in 1997, he wrote an article in Harper's magazine about what he perceived as the implausibility of the Say it in Yiddish book, and was taken to task by others for his ignorance of all the places where Yiddish was spoken at the time the book was written (the 1950's), and for devaluing the Yiddish language; this article provides a good description of the controversy. His talk at the Wisconsin Book Festival addressed both his motivations for writing the book, and his embarrassment over the furor caused by his Harper's article.

So here it is: imagine if, as was briefly proposed, Franklin Roosevelt, and Interior Secretary Howard Ickes had opened Alaska to unlimited Jewish immigration during and immediately after World War II. Millions of Jews emigrated to Sitka and the surrounding territories, establishing a vibrant Yiddish-speaking culture there (and saving many hundreds of thousands of Jews from certain death). Now, sixty years after the creation of this independent Jewish settlement, Alaska is about to revert to U.S. control. What will happen to the population? And, more important to this book, who is the dead guy in room 208 of the fleabag Zamenhof hotel, and why does Detective Meyer Landsmann care? As unlikely as it might seem, Chabon has written a 1940's noir-style detective novel, set in Yiddish-speaking Sitka Alaska. Who, besides Michael Chabon, could have thought this up?

Bookslut's blog has a good plot summary here, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time relaying the book's action. Suffice to say it's complex, unpredictable, and ultimately incredible. Lots and lots of stuff happens in this book as Landsmann and his half-Indian partner Berko Shemets try to solve the murder of the occupant of room 208 (against the direct orders of Landmann's superior officer Bina Gelbfish, who happens to be his ex-wife) , while also staying one step ahead of the ultra-orthodox organized crime ring that is thwarting their investigation, and coincidentally solving the mystery of the death of Landsmann's sister Naomi, a bush pilot killed in a freak flying accident. I spent a lot of time as I was reading this book being awed by Chabon's cleverness, humor and ability to keep all those balls in the air at once.

This book is very funny, but a lot of the humor depends on understanding the Yiddish slang that fills the book. I know I missed some, but here's one I got: Landsmann calls his gun a "sholem." This word sholem is related to the word "shalom" (peace, in English); in the movies, at least, the cops call a gun a "piece"….get it? Sorry, I couldn't resist. The book is filled with stuff like this. I do have to say that people who are completely unfamiliar with Jewish culture and ritual will be baffled by this book and will miss some of the layers of meaning. I couldn't find any kind of readers' guide available on the Web, but the book hasn't been out for very long, so maybe one is in the works. Even just a slang dictionary would be really useful, but I guess Chabon would have to write it, because he made up the slang himself.

(Book 20, 2007)


Becky Holmes said...

Franq, interesting. Clearly this is a topic you feel passionately about! But I haven't read Mysteries of Pittsburgh, so I'll withhold judgment for now. Good luck with your crusade!

Alto2 said...

I just found some discussion questions on The URL is

Becky Holmes said...

Alto2, thanks for bringing up the National Yiddish Book Center. I have (and keep meaning to read) Aaron Lansky's book about his mission to rescue Yiddish books. I'm glad they are starting a discussion of Chabon's book.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of Michael Chabon when it comes to his interviews on NPR and the summaries of his books, but his writing is just not for me. The Adventures of Cavalier & Clay was like a balloon with all the air let out of it.

Thanks for your review, Becky. Jewish culture and ritual is not a strong suit of mine, but it sounds like this novel would not be a good place for me to start, in spite of its great hook.

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