Northern Exposure

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, 432 pages)


In his 2005 book, Born to Kvetch, Michael Wex gets to the heart of what makes a true Yiddish speaker. Take the question "How are you?," and a standard reply, "Real good." Wex points out that, while it is syntactically possible to construct the phrase "real good" (gants gut), "as a response to a Yiddish question it marks you as someone who knows some Yiddish words but doesn't really understand the language." Without the sensibility born of perpetual exile, one cannot fully communicate in this language. More than just vocabulary, Yiddish is the linguistic trademark of a diaspora people ever teetering between joy and sorrow, living in the space between.

Imagine, then, that a writer with perfect Yiddish pitch wraps the language's curly syllables in a layer of '40's police noir style, and drops the whole thing on Alaska's Sitka Island, where a federally mandated Jewish district has been established. Welcome to The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon's fictional rendering of a post-World War II Jewish safe haven within American territory but under its own control. In Union's political reality, the State of Israel fails to materialize and, instead, what was a real-life (forgotten) suggestion by FDR becomes home for the displaced, who settle on Sitka Island and become known to the remaining diaspora as the "frozen chosen." After a few decades of relative prosperity, Sitka's Jews must face "Reversion" of their district back to the control of Alaskan natives. Some scramble for permission to remain, some plan for a new home in America or beyond, others, still, do nothing.

Were Chabon not a masterful storyteller, this might have become something of a tired cautionary tale. But the detective Meyer Landsman, a hardboiled-mensch of a man and the book's protagonist, is the perfect guide through the Sitka. With Landsmen, the reader goes in and out of the Sitka police universe, crossing paths with an ex-wife-turned-police chief, a cranky half-Jewish partner, and a Rebbe heading the district's ultra-orthodox sect.

In presenting the Rebbe, who also happens to be the father of a bloody crime victim, Chabon toys with the secularist's invariable disdain for these sects: "The truth is, black-hat Jews make Landsmen angry, and they always have. He finds that it is a pleasurable anger, rich with layers of envy, condescension, resentment, and pity." This seems an important aside about Landsmen, who is not fully dismissive of the observant. Chabon approaches a more honest Jewish outlook underneath these stylistic veils.

Readers will likely recall Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, another alternative American history featuring a similarly uncertain Jewish fate. Both register the strain of xenophobia that pits Jewishness against rugged Americana: Roth's creations were sent from the cities of the east coast to learn farming in the Midwest; Chabon's must contend with the Reversion slogan: "Alaska for Alaskans, wild and clean." But where Roth waves a red flag concerning ominous national policy, Chabon's story unfolds with the same half-smile that has defined the Yiddish literary scape for centuries.

True, Sitka's residents have much to be sorry about: bleak weather, political uncertainty, violent crimes. A full-blown murder investigation is underway, and all the trappings of noir blend easily with the Yiddish motif. As we watch "giddy xenophobia drain off the crowd, leaving a residue of racist vertigo," we realize that Chabon's facility with words is endless. Union is as explicitly concerned with language as with political division, and through the story, it builds in its optimism.

On Sitka Island, Yiddish occasionally gives way to an "American" expletive or phrase, but no mention of English is made. Chabon rightly roots his Zion-shunning town in this Yiddish tradition, forming a community where language and identity are one, where slips into English are akin to a shift in nationality -- an irreverent assumption of another identity, often for humor's sake. With Union, Chabon brings together a 21st century Jewish people tethered to their Ashkanazi roots. Unlike Roth, whose later works stick closely to the American-Israeli identity paradigm, Chabon joyously (or, when fitting, joylessly) mines the possibilities of this unusual community and suggests that a more robust Jewish identity is possible, even under the worst of circumstances.

By its end, the whodunit details of Union are incidental, its real strength resting on its protagonist and the pleasure Chabon takes in crafting the dreams of a Jew in Sitka in 2007. After a brutal encounter with some suspected criminals, a hazy Lansdman listens from half-consciousness: "They are talking, those Jews on the other side of the door, about roses and frankincense. They are standing in a desert wind under the date palms, and [he] is there, in flowing robes that keep out the biblical sun, speaking Hebrew, and they are all friends and brothers together, and the mountains skip like rams, and the hills like little lambs." Chabon's words on our battered ears? We should all be so lucky.