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A Jewish home in Alaska and a detective mystery,
This review is from: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Hardcover)
Imagine for a moment the world today if, instead of victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the nation of Israel had suffered defeat. Those Jews who had established residence in Palestine were expelled from their homeland. They turned to the United States for assistance and were awarded a portion of land in the territory of Alaska in the Federal District of Sitka. Now, one-half century has passed and a policy has been enacted by the U.S. that will evict all Jews without recognized legal status from Sitka. Sovereignty over that land where Yiddish is the official language and power is exercised by Hasidic Jews will terminate on January 1, 2008.
This historical underpinning for THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION is but one of countless ironies that saturate the novel. Jews in Alaska find themselves being treated in a fashion similar to Palestinians in the contemporary Middle East. This is the universe that Michael Chabon has created, the existence of which raises countless provocative questions for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Lest readers believe that an Alaskan Jewish homeland is the groundwork for a political novel, THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION is actually a detective saga in the 1940s style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chabon's sleuth is Meyer Landsman, a down-on-his-luck Sitka homicide cop called upon to investigate the murder of a drug addict who resided in the same rundown hotel as Landsman. The investigation takes the detective into a strange world of Lubavitch Orthodox gangs and crime-boss rabbis.
The dead man who used the leather straps of his tefillin (Jewish prayer artifacts) to tie off his arms prior to injecting heroin into his veins was also the son of a powerful rabbi in Sitka. Like any detective caught in an investigation where powerful people have a vested interest in the outcome, Landsman and his partner, Berko Shemets, must be full-time investigators and part-time diplomats. Throughout the investigation Chabon reminds us of his constant refrain, "It's a strange time to be a Jew."
Reading THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION one cannot help but notice the irony and complexity of Chabon's writing. The Jews of Sitka are in many respects the Palestinians of the 21st century. They owe their existence to the largess of others and know not what the future portends. By focusing his novel on a Jewish character toiling as a police detective, Chabon is seeking to establish for readers that the true nation of Israel is a nation like all other nations, where people toil in all professions seeking nothing more than to be left alone in their daily endeavors. It cannot go unnoticed that the protagonist of this novel is named Landsman, the Yiddish word for a fellow countryman. Sitka, Alaska, the erstwhile home of the Jewish nation, is where we all come from.
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION is one of those rare books that many will think is remarkable, while some will find it intolerable. It will offer different interpretations for different readers, and you may have to read it more than once. There is no doubt, however, that this book will be widely discussed in the coming months and even years. In the future, Michael Chabon may be mentioned in the same sentence with Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud for this work of enormous ambition and insight.
--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman