“Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,” plead Shylock to the barrister, and indeed what characterizes Jewish history in the main is calamity and tribulation of a scope and cruelty so reckless and undreamt they seem enjoined from another universe. As Shylock suggests, extraordinary persecution is so far the only homage history has elected to pay to the theology of the chosen people. Such historical persecution is not without a distinctive social-cultural heritage of traces and defense mechanisms.
On the one hand, a heightened taste and sensibility for the messianic, a taste nursed in the matrix of exile, subjugation, and dispersion across lands – the longings for a messiah, homeland, and reconstituted body-politic now conjoined into one unbroken yearning. On the other hand, in the human time of irony and ambiguity, an envelope of homeliness and profanity sufficient to the continuance of generations, something to maze the peasants and make gentle this wretched, boarding-house existence – Yiddishkeit, the Jewish sense of humor.
In other words, it seems the emolument and patrimony of some forty centuries of pogroms, exoduses, inquisitions, popes, czars, caliphs, forced conversions, passion plays, and other sundry massacres consists chiefly in the word bupkes. This is a bitter joke and a terrible covenant. Such is the tragicomic history of the Jews. Yiddish pessimism as against Hebraic optimism. The inherent indignity of wish-fulfillment as against the unfortunate exigency of needing to have a sense of humor in the first place. Enter Michael Chabon.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union has its genesis in a controversial essay Chabon penned for Harper’s in 1997: “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts.” In it Chabon shared his bemusement and phantom nostalgia for what he calls, “the saddest book that I own,” Say It In Yiddish (1958) a manual of Yiddish phrases suitable for negotiating one’s way around a modern country whose national language is a technologically up-to-date Yiddish. Chabon glosses the possibility of such a country as, “heartbreakingly implausible.” He calls the book itself, “an entirely futile effort on the part of its authors, a gesture of embittered hope, of valedictory daydreaming, of a utopian impulse turned cruel and ironic.” These descriptions could equally apply to the setting of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: the imaginary land of Sitka, a provisional district encompassing a frozen stretch of Alaskan coast, a few million Yids, and the bustling outpost they have wrested into existence from an unforgiving environment. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union embodies Chabon’s bittersweet-fantastic vision of a Yiddish state in the North, a scheme mentioned by his essay only en passant.
Such a book implicitly takes shape against a frieze of lost time and weft of unreal texture. The word for cell-phone in Sitka is shoyfer. Here we are afforded a glimpse into those spandrels and hidden courtyards of history haunted chiefly by scholars, visionaries, and the insane. The word for policeman is noz. Chabon has constructed an eruv of the imagination, if you will, demarcated by bookbinding and sheltering within itself a brief respite from the latter half of the 20th century. The word for gangster is shtarker. Every alternate history is both a negation of history and an affirmation of history. The word for hit-man is shlosser. Which is to say the more things change, the more they stay the same. The word for gun is sholem.
Some historical alterations are merely piquant (“the atom bomb dropped on Berlin,” “the disastrous Cuban war”), while others represent departures from the historical record critical to the fiction of the narrative. For instance, in Chabon’s universe, the nascent state of Israel was crushed and “driven into the sea.” Other alterations portend and recall scenes of dire moment. The American political movement which militates for the transfer of Sitka back to Alaskan control takes as its motto, “Alaska for Alaskans, wild and clean.” And Judenrein, one thinks to append. In addition, the astute reader will discover allusions and counter-allusions to such disparate events as the Reichstag fire, the recent state-mandated evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip, the reversion of Hong Kong to China, the Crown Heights Riot, and the post-9/11 jubilation which overtook some parts of the Arab world. Lastly, the absurd and childish belief which motivates the conspiracy central to the book’s plot happens to be – horribile dictu – an evangelical Christian doctrine believed by vast numbers of people.
The brutality of the Alaskan environment notwithstanding, Sitka traffics in sensuous abundance: “fish offal from the canneries, grease from the fry pits at Pearl of Manila, the spew of taxis, an intoxicating bouquet of fresh hat from Grinspoon’s Felting two blocks away.” The city houses a delicious rugelach of cultures where “work crews of young Jewesses in their blue head scarves, singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx,” flourish alongside entrepreneurs like Benito Taganes, the “Filipino-style Chinese donut king.” Yet what gives Sitka its heart, soul, motion, and matter is nothing less than the clomping esprit of Yiddishkeit itself, retrieved from its scheduled incineration and set to work within the spastic confines of the frigid city. It is a place that “thrums with the gossip of criminals, policemen, shtarkers and schlemiels, whores and night-owls.”
Detective Meyer Landsman, his half-Tlingit partner Berko Shemets, and ex-wife Bina (“For something like seven years of their lives together they fucked almost every day.”) must penetrate and navigate this noir-inflected demimonde of ganefs, mavens, pishers, platzers, momzers, shtinkers, shlossers, shtarkers, black hats, and Rudashevkys. The diversity, abundance, and recalcitrance of malefactors in Sitka is a direct translation of the incomparable lexicon of human folly and turpitude which belongs to the Yiddish language – a language at its most charming at its most truculent (“you smelt, you waxworks!”) and a language to which this English book constitutes a difficult, oblique homage. In his Harper’s essay, Chabon wrote of Yiddish that it was a, “a tumbledown old palace capable in the smallest of its stones (the word nu) of expressing slyness, tenderness, derision, romance, disputation, hopefulness, skepticism, sorrow, a lascivious impulse, or the confirmation of one’s worst fears.”
In Chabon’s hardboiled Yiddishkeit, junkies tie off with tefillin, and crime-lords vest themselves in the lugubrious plumage of the Hasidim. What The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) was for comic books, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is for the noir fiction of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett – an audacious, creative, and contemporary redeployment of a bygone form and its attendant sensibility. As such, it adheres to the general trend of postmodern rehabilitation of genre literature (see Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, etc.). Many of Chabon’s borrowings from the hardboiled idiom of neat violence and mordant humor are straightforward. For instance, he writes:
“The door flies open, and the hole-mouthed pans of big young yids in suits fill the doorway. Landsman envies them their youthful capacity for wonder but still raises the gun in their direction.”
In other places, he manages to imbue the usual noir kineticism with a certain antic clownishness and lachrymose, self-deprecating tendency (from the Harper’s essay: “Grief hand-colors all the postcards, stamps the passports, sours the cooking, fills the luggage.”) He writes:
“Landsman watches her walk across the dining area to the doors of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria. He bets himself a dollar that she won’t look back at him before she puts up her hood and steps out into the snow. But he’s a charitable man, and it was a sucker bet, and so he never bothers to collect.”
Chabon has a particular gift for the character sketch, a device which in his employment is not so much a drift of analysis as a disbursement of volubility; neither description nor projection, but rather some liminal creature wise to the rhythms which redound between the two; an ad hoc bertillonage comprised of equal parts stinging invective, unhinged ekphrasis, and street phrenology (“the grooves on his brow like a grid left in raw pie crust by the tines of a fork”). Here’s a good example:
“Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God.”
All riddles are the same riddle, argued Freud. In a Jewish detective novel, all mysteries are the same mystery: “When is the Messiah coming?” The plot of the Yiddish Policemen’s Union occurs at a strange historical moment for Sitka: Only a few months before the so-called Reversion when control of Sitka transfers from Jewish hands to Alaskan, the city is convulsed by strange forebodings, obsessions, and messianic Schwärmerei. Chabon provides a representative anecdote:
“…last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured.”
Landsman and Berko spend most of the book investigating the murder of Mendel Shpilman, whom many of the Jews of Sitka believed to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the potential Jewish messiah. A non-believer, Landsman is at first ensorcelled by the stories and charismatic legacy of Shpilman, yet ultimately he is forced to see messianism for the witless lullaby it is (Shpilman, also, turns out to be somewhat malakos, as the New Testament puts it). Here is Michael Chabon’s post-messianic, post-Heimat, and post-theological interpretation of Jewishness:
“But there is no messiah of Sitka. Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina. The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of the tongue.”
The “international fraternity” to which Landsman refers is of course the eponymous organization of the book, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” In place of messiah, homeland, and destiny, Landsman cleaves to the humanity of his confederates and the mere scrap of vellum which he admits, “carries no authority or weight, not even with Landsman, a member in good standing for twenty years.”
In other words, he’s got bupkes.