The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon, 2007
Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a classic noir murder mystery with a modern twist: it’s set in Sitka, Alaska, the home of thousands of Jewish refugees from the failed state of Israel. The novel incorporates political references, literature and culture references, and the rich backdrop of a Jewish world into a funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, often gripping story that is at its heart the Jewish story. It’s a story about the sense of being an outsider; of not belonging; of not being welcome.
The plot revolves around the detective Meyer Landsman’s investigation of the murder of Mendel Shpilman, known by some as the tzaddik ha-dor, the “righteous one” – a potential messiah. The Jews of Sitka certainly need a messiah: they are under threat of deportation from the unsympathetic US Senate; they are in constant conflict with the Alaska Natives in surrounding communities and with various Jewish sects in Sitka; and, of course, they live under the shadow of the Holocaust. Their situation doesn’t sound too different from that of Israeli Jews today.
While the novel reads like a story of an alternate reality with many clear parallels and references to our world, it is the sense of fear and foreboding that makes it most relevant. “He had been born, like every Jew, into the wrong world, the wrong country, at the wrong time, and now he was living in the wrong body too. In the end maybe it was that sense of wrongness, that fist in the Jewish belly…” This sense of wrongness, of not belonging, underlies 2500 years of Jewish history from 587 BC – the beginning of the Diaspora – to today. As we can see in crises revolving around the blockade of Gaza, settlements, political coups, and attacks, even in the Promised Land Jews don’t necessarily feel at home. This is perhaps a hidden message in the novel as well; with all the conflicts and infighting in Sitka’s Jewish community, would the state of Israel, which some characters are attempting to establish, really be as utopian as they imagine?
Chabon presents another story in contrast with that of the struggle, strife, and unhappiness so persistent in Jewish tradition: the importance of family. While the main character of the novel, Meyer Landsman, struggles with his relationships with friends and family (his boss is, after all, his ex-wife), his best friend prizes his family above the ideals Landsman shackles himself to. Berko Shemets’ family, while not particularly harmonious, holds together and presents a bastion of love in the tumultuous world Berko and Landsman live in. Indeed, even the fractured family of Mendel Shpilman shows some affection. Mendel was excommunicated from his family for being gay, but even after his father sat shiva for him, his mother still tried to reach out to him.
So much of the novel is about violence and anger – whether in defiance of those who oppress Sitka’s Jews or from the shtarker to prove his strength – but another hidden message is the strength that comes from love and community. Many powerful characters in Sitka keep their strength through networks of loyalty and trust built up over years in their communities. More than the head of the Verbover clan or the chief of police or federal administrators, these characters maintain respect and order and hold the community together. If the Jews of Sitka resettle in Zion, dedication to community, not religion or politics, will be what protects them from outsiders and from each other. While The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an immensely fun read, it’s also highly germane to the crises facing Israelis and Jews of today.