You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Harper Collins, 2007), but it helps. Michael Chabon has blended a police procedural into an alternative universe where the Arabs pushed the Jews out of the promised land in 1948 resulting in 3 million of them migrating to a narrow strip of land in Alaska. However, the land grant was temporary and with only two months to go before the Jews have to vacate, Meyer Landsman, a police detective who is living off of Slivowitz in a seedy hotel won’t let the murder of a young heroin addict go uninvestigated despite explicit instructions to drop the case by his ex-wife boss.
Chabon’s inventive history and heavy use of Yiddish terms — some of which he invented for this book — will be tough sledding for some readers. Those willing to suspend their disbelief and learn that a noz is a cop and a shoyfer a cell phone, however, will be repaid with the luxury of Chabon’s inventive imagery, imaginative plotting and ingenious insights into the human condition.
Alternative histories are not uncommon these days. Harry Turtledove is perhaps the best known writer of this genre, but Chabon also leans on Philip K. Dick, Murray Leinster and Harry Harrison. Chabon’s world has a direct bearing on the plot as readers discover when his murder investigation ties into the Chassidic longing for coming of the Messiah and secular Jews desire to recapture their lost homeland.
At its core, despite the fictional setting and ethnic flavor of the plot and characters, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is about people trying to do the right thing in a world conspiring against them. Detective Landsman works to forget the son he and his wife aborted which ended their marriage as well as the fact that he sees himself as having been a disappointment to his father. His half-cousin and partner Berko hasn’t seen his father in years and the dead heroin addict so disappointed his rabbi father than he buried him in a religious ceremony many years before the young man’s actual death.
But in addition to the complex plot and the down-to-earth characters, Chabon invites us to see a world where there are shtekeleh (Philipino doughnuts), latke (rookie policemen), boundary mavens, shtarkers and tohubohu, where the “winter sky of southeastern Alaska is a Talmud of gray; an inexhaustible commentary on a Torah of rain clouds and dying light,” where “Landman’s congratulations are so ironic that they are heartfelt, and they are so heartfelt that they can only come off as insincere,” where Landman’s ex “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken,” and where “every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve.”
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is about redemption of the kind that you don’t have to be Jewish to long for.