Thursday, June 28, 2007

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Jewish history is complicated and full of opportunists, sell-outs, optimists, altruists, realists, and dreamers. Depressing reversals of fortune and betrayals are fundamental to any part of it. It's hard to grasp any big picture of Jewish history or identity. So much is distorted, intentionally or through accidents to the people who might have told their story.

In the modern Jerusalem I've experienced, the views of history vary enormously. Black-hats (a.k.a. Hassids or Haredi) live, work, study, and possess their own view of history. Every person sightseeing or weeping at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple has his own view, I'd say. The Arabs selling tea and Oriental sweets and Falafal and Arab-logo Coke, the Christian tourists -- everybody has a point of view. Any Jew in Jerusalem surely senses the fragile nature of the Israeli success. Seeing Jewish history alive like this is scary.

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has made up a bizarrrely alternate Jewish history. He embeds a huge palate of characters and events in a consistent invented world where Jewish life continues despite its terrible recent past. Using just a few allusions and references, he creates an alternate end to World War II and to the foundation of the State of Israel. The Zionist dream in Chabon's alternate world means something entirely different than it meant before the war, or what it may mean now, retrospectively. The book is so self-contained that I think the reader has no time to ask if the alternate history is at all plausible. That's just not an issue, I'd say.

Comparison with Philip Roth's The Plot against America, another alternate Jewish history, seems inevitable. But Chabon's whole approach differs utterly. Roth gave us ordinary characters faced with an extreme challenge, and his point is to highlight their survival. Chabon gives us extraordinary characters, primarily policemen, murder victims, and criminals. He creates a Chassidic sect that controls organized crime in the temporary Jewish settlement in the wilds of Alaska (Did I mention that the alternate Jewish reality is in Sitka? Well, it is.) He creates a whole society of transplanted Jews who have named their streets and buildings after 19th century Yiddish heros and authors, and have adapted to life in the modern world -- especially guns and cell phones -- without really abolishing the Shtetl.

Above all, unlike Roth, Chabon never really tells us if his imagined Jewish community survives the ordeal he puts them through. Looking forward, his main character at the end of the book considers: "Any kind of wonder seems likely. That the Jews will pick up and set sail for the promised land to feast on giant grapes and toss their beards in the desert wind. That the temple will be rebuilt, speedily and in our day. War will cease, ease and plenty and righteousness will be universal, and humankind will be treated to the regular specacle of lions and lambs cohabiting. Every man will be a rabbi, every woman a holy book, and every suit will come with two pairs of pants." (p. 407) This is hope? Nah.

Characters in The Yiddish Policemen's Union speak Yiddish and curse in American, though there's rarely a word of actual Yiddish in the text. A few remember a version of Hebrew that was emerging in 1948 when disaster befell the nascent state of Israel. Their speech contains all the good humor and pithy idioms of 1920s American Yiddish, remembered with nostalgia, and written with unbeliveable skill. It's worth reading just for the dialog.

This oddball Jewish settlement has made it past the year 2000, and their lease on Alsaka is about to expire. They face an existential challenge: where will they go and what will they do, as their land reverts to the native Americans.

The plot is a police procedural: someone unknown is getting away with murder, and a cover-up is impairing the honest, committed and personally conflicted police officers (two men, one woman, lots of baggage). Love, loyalty, alcoholism, a chess master's puzzle, parents, unborn infants, a possible messiah with a gift for blessing and a curse on his own existence, international political plots, and a miasma of complicated personal stories mingle. Perhaps the most impressive and unlikely portrait is of the wife of the Chassidic rabbi and her role at the rabbi's court, which is located on an Alaskan island. Or perhaps the most impressive character is the half-Indian half-Jewish policeman named Berko. Perhaps it's the failed messiah.

Can we really picture this all happening against a background of midnight sun (like in this photo I stole from some chamber of commerce website, unlike my own original photos of Jerusalem!) Can we see these yids, as they consistently call themselves, in an imaginary Alaska November with snow, sleet, rain and cold? Well, we have to.

Did I mention that I loved every word of this book, and that I'm lost in admiration for its combination of totally improbable choices of topic, style, language, and subject matter? The way it toys with the big issues of Jewish history but doesn't make them burdensome. Or almost doesn't?

My friend Olga brought me the book, and was pleased that she had chosen so perfectly. I'm grateful to her for this choice.

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