Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
The reviewer who makes a stink about Michael Chabon’s fiction is a bit like that kid at the birthday party who insists, to the fury of his classmates, on calling out the magician’s ruse, or the high-school crank who keeps yelling that the prom queen throttles kittens for leisure. Nobody wants to know. Book reviewers – not a tribe distinguished by the impulse to gratuitous charity – have mostly fallen over themselves in mouth-agape wonder at Chabon’s talent.
To be fair, the author’s linguistic gifts are possibly unparalleled among modern American writers. In his half-dozen adult novels and short story collections, among them “Wonder Boys” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Chabon has produced turns of phrase so elegant, similes so sinuous, and conceits so extended that they could charm the pants off an illiterate. In the tyrannical age of the transparent and bloodless general-interest-magazine short story, this is no small thing.
My mouth, too, was agape, when I put down Chabon’s latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an alternative history that has two million European Jews escaping the Holocaust to the District of Sitka, a temporarily granted homeland in the wastelands of southeastern Alaska where Yiddish becomes the “national” language. They’re joined there by all the would-be Israelis whose young republic is pushed into the sea three months after its creation. Chabon’s novel takes place nearly 60 years later, one the eve of this Jewish Lesotho’s Reversion to American control, though its immediate concerns are much earthier: A chess prodigy who once belonged to the Verbover sect of ultra-religious Jews – and, by the way, may have been the Messiah – has been found dead in a fleabag motel, and it’s up to Detective Meyer Landsman to get to the bottom of things. Landsman is drunk, disheveled, and a fatalist of Serbian proportions. And Bina Gelbfish, his firecracker ex-wife, is now his boss. You see, in addition to its aspirations to Urisian national saga – Chabon has long insisted that genre novels are capable of all the ambitions of high literature – “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is also a crime noir.
The inventiveness of the novel’s language may exceed even the acrobatics of “Wonder Boys” and “Kavalier & Clay.” Chabon crafts enough diamonds to last the length of this review, so I’ll offer just one, a description of Rabbi Shpilman, the Verbover leader, by a character named Litvak, who joins the rabbi at Sitka’s Ringelblum Avenue Baths:
“That body, the horror and the splendor of it, naked as a giant bloodshot eyeball without a socket. Litvak had seen it only once before, years ago, topped with a fedora, rolled tight as a wad of Pinar del Rio into a stiff black greatcoat that swept the toes of his dainty black boots. Now it emerged ponderous from the steam, a slab of wet limestone webbed with a black lichen of hair. Litvak felt like a fogbound airplane buffeted by updrafts into the surprise of a mountain. The belly pregnant with elephant triplets, the breast full and pendulous, each tipped with a pink lentil of a nipple. The things great hand-rolled marbled loaves of halvah. Lost in the shadows between them, a thick umbilicus of grayish-brown meat.”
The stuff takes your breath away. So I was generally inclined to agree with the raft of enthusiastic reviews that greeted the book. But then, as the warm bath of Chabon’s verbal incandescence began to recede, a very different sense of the novel began to emerge. In journalism, this is also the tyrannical age of Timeliness – of the news peg – so it’s rare, as a reviewer, to obtain this kind of distance. But as it turns out, Chabon’s the kind of writer it helps to put aside for a month before arriving at judgment.
“Yiddish Policemen’s Union” began as a minor vendetta. In 1997, in “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts,” an essay published in Civilization, a magazine affiliated with the Library of Congress, Chabon described his dumbfounded discovery, in an Orange County bookstore, of “the saddest book I own”: “Say It In Yiddish,” a 1958 entry in a travel-phrasebook series from Dover. “At what time in the history of the world was there a place of the kind that the [authors] imply, a place where not only the doctors and waiters and trolley conductors spoke Yiddish but also the airline clerks, travel agents, and casino employees?” Chabon wrote. “‘Say It in Yiddish’ seems 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… A Yiddish phrase book is an absurd, poignant artifact of a country that never was.”
On Mendele, a listserv for discussion of Yiddish, Chabon’s article provoked a predictable uproar. Scholars and laymen alike lit into the author, reminding him that, in 1958, hundreds of thousands of Israelis preferred Yiddish, also the primary language for many more North American Jews than today. One writer insisted he had been well served by the phrasebook in a visit to Lithuania, another during trips to Paris and Copenhagen. “The ‘humorous’ article in Civilization was not funny, but ridiculous,” the late eminent Yiddishist Mordkhe Schaechter wrote. “No, an ignorant insult to the World of Yiddish.”
Chabon sat out the debate until Schaechter mistakenly claimed that the author had apologized to the phrasebook’s authors. Then he returned fire with the ferocity of a spurned son spurning the elders he once wished to impress. “I wasn’t interested in writing about whether this book was, or could be, useful,” he responded on Mendele. “It is evident to anyone not blinded by sentiment or passion that such a book is, in a practical sense, all but useless.” The Mendelists had insisted that Yiddish was thriving in “Crown Heights, Boro Park, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, Vilnius, Riga, Bnei Brak, Jerusalem” but Chabon was having none of it. Only a nation could merit such a primer. (A language without an army is a dialect, to paraphrase an aphorism popularized by the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich.)
Chabon had mapped out such a place in the Civilization essay:
“I can imagine a different Yisroel, the youngest nation on the North American continent, founded in the former Alaska territory during World War II as a resettlement zone for the Jews of Europe. (I once read that Franklin Roosevelt was briefly sold on such a plan.)… There is Yiddish on the official currency, of which the basic unit is the herzl, or the dollar, or even the zloty. There are Yiddish-speaking color commentators for soccer games, Yiddish-speaking cash machines, Yiddish tags on the collars of dogs.”
This is the Yiddishland of his novel. As Chabon recently said on NPR’s Fresh Air, he was “motivated by this spirit of – there’s a Yiddish phrase, ‘ahf zu lochis,’ which kind of means ‘spitefulness’… In the wake of writing that essay and exciting the outrage of some people, I definitely had a sense, ‘Well, you know, if that made you angry, you know, just wait till you see the whole novel that I’m going to write now that’s set in this place.’”
But if Chabon wanted to show the Mendele Yiddishists just how vibrant a Yiddishland would have to be to warrant a traveler phrasebook like “Say It In Yiddish,” the District of Sitka makes for a curious example. On the face of it, this is Yiddishland as it never existed – not only are the street signs and banknotes in Yiddish, but there’s something resembling statehood as well. In the best tradition of the detective novel, Chabon’s Sitka boasts a bracingly precise sense of place.
It’s also a total dump. Here’s Landsman introducing readers to his hometown:
“Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat. The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilled islands of the Sound, across the Shvartsn-Yam, Halibut Point, South Sitka, and the Nachtasyl, across Harkavy and the Untershtat before they are snuffed in the east by the Baranof range… Landsman can smell 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 Greenspon’s felting two blocks away.”
And here’s a scene from the “chrome-and-tile desolation of the Polar Shtern Kafeteria at nine o’clock on a Friday night”:
“Landsman carries his blue ticket and tray to the big Litvak lady behind the glass counter, with the hair net and the polyethylene gloves and the metal spoon, and forks it over.
”The cheese blintzes, please,’ he says, not wanting cheese blintzes or even bothering to see if they are on the menu tonight. ‘How are you, Mrs. Nemintziner?’
Mrs. Nemintziner gentles three tight blintzes onto a white plate with a blue stripe on the rim… Then she punches his ticket and slings his plate at him. ‘How should I be?’ she says…
[Landsman] wanders across the wasteland of the dining area, past two of his rivals for the title of loneliest Jew… At the next table, somebody left a half-eaten plate of corned beef and boiled potatoes and a half-empty glass of what appears to be black-cherry soda. The abandoned meal, and the stained crumple of the napkin fill Landsman with a mild nausea of misgiving.”
Chabon’s expansiveness makes it hard to quote at length, but there are also decrepit hotels, petty gangsters, herring in cream, smells like “a pot of water in which two days ago somebody boiled noodles.” The “swinging place [with] a lot of art and music and culture” that Chabon told a reviewer he intended to create is actually nowhere on these pages, but it isn’t Sitka’s rank fallowness that sits wrong. After all, this is a detective novel – we’re in the underbelly of things.
No, the rub is that the underbelly resembles nothing so much as a backward Galician shtetl circa 1873, with all the tired trappings: The instinctively disapproving, matronly Litvak; the boiled potatoes; the reek and squalor of thwarted aspirations; the “stiffening wire of the German accent” that three generations later still tightens “the supple Yiddish” of Buchbinder, a German emigre who, like the “Litvak” matron, still goes by his old-country self. Chabon has chosen to invent anew so much in his novel. Has nothing changed for the Jews in 60 years of even circumscribed sovereignty?
The counterfactual novelist operates in two basic modes. Either he takes care to painstakingly detail his alternate reality and how it might have come to be, or he mentions a couple of major reference points and moves on, his idea being: Either you’re with me or you’re not. In “The Plot Against America,” his dauntingly specific false memoir of Charles Lindbergh’s winning the 1940 U. S. presidency on an isolationist (and anti-Jewish) ticket, Philip Roth elected the former approach. In “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Michael Chabon chooses the latter.
We learn that a booming economy and hard lobbying by American Jews – as well as an untimely auto accident involving the bill’s main opponent – persuaded Congress to give fleeing European Jews a temporary home, but that’s about it. There are references to a Cuban War, and a Third Russian Republic, but these are unelaborated. As with Meyer Landsman’s description of Sitka (Nachtasyl, Harkavy, etc.), Chabon, in a brassy move encouraging readers to imagine themselves long a part of this world, doesn’t bother to specify what he’s referring to. Don’t you walk these streets? Read the papers? What needs explaining?
There’s nothing wrong with this approach, except that the novel depends almost entirely on the full-fleshed credibility of its alternate universe to be poignant. And poignant Chabon wishes it to be. He hangs the impending disaster of Reversion so heavy over his characters that they wander the novel in an epic funk, ceaselessly intoning the novel’s incantation: “Strange times to be a Jew.” Reversion is two months away, but the Sitkan Jews have no idea what will befall them, either because the government itself doesn’t know, or because no one’s bothered to inform them. All they know for certain, as the characters’ generic groans assure us, is it’s going to be awful.
All the head-hung sighing about the fate of the Jews is so familiar, so mechanically plucks the heartstrings, that it almost doesn’t register that Reversion has received the paltriest of dramatic expositions. It’s one thing to mention street names without context, another to ask readers to tremble at the novel’s central conceit on little more than the author’s assurance.
It’s easy to believe, in the novel, the contempt with which 1940 Alaska begrudgingly greets its new neighbors – after all, it was local hostility that killed the Alaska resettlement proposal in the first place. (The Jewish Sitkans are ineligible for American citizenship and forbidden to travel outside the District.) It’s also easy to imagine that amid Europe’s chaos, the resettlement plan was cobbled together without an endgame in mind.
But it’s a bit harder to swallow that America’s level of tolerance for the Jewish Sitkans (like the Sitkans themselves, it would seem) has hardly changed in 60 years. An America as exclusionary in 2008 as it was in 1948 is as intriguing a fictional premise as any other – and, in view of the failed immigration bill, perhaps not so fictional after all – but such a leap requires far more exposition than Chabon has cared to lavish on the scenario. We’re apprised, in passing, that “the current president of America ran and won on a platform that showcased the long-overdue enforcement of Reversion, pledging to restore ‘Alaska for Alaskans,’ wild and clean’”; we’re encouraged to believe that the nation roared in approval, and that’s more or less it.
Chabon would have us assume on equally little evidence that his main characters are consumed by deep gusts of national feeling. At one moment, encountering a kind of beggar mystic in the street, Landsman notices “a question formulating in his heart, a child’s question about the old wish of his people for a home,” but it quickly “ebb[s] away.” Landsman regularly complains about Reversion, but because of its implications for his job – the police department, like everything else, will revert to Alaskan control – far more than for his people. Maybe here again Chabon wants us to agree that it doesn’t have to be elaborated: If you’re a Jew in Sitka, living a contingent, bounded life for six decades, you’re consumed with national feeling whether you pay attention to politics or only your job. Or maybe, as with the accoutrements of his Yiddishland, he’s relying on an ancient understanding: Deep down, you know why they worry.
Could Chabon not imagine a Yiddishland without looming disaster or a citizenry in existential despair? Or maybe its anachronism was his point all along, that no statehood would make Jews new until they outgrew their thralldom to outdated anxieties? But when Chabon was asked, by an interviewer for Salon.com, why “Reversion [was] necessary to ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,’” he replied:
“This story, I think, is about the status quo of the Jews, who are always on the verge of being thrown out… And I guess what I came to realize in writing the novel is that it’s still the Jewish story. We may look at Israel, we may look at the incredibly secure-seeming position of the Jews in America today and think, ‘Well here we are. This is now, that was then, this is the end of Jewish history’… But I guess that sense of fragility, of always being on the verge of being expelled – at best – is something I think we’re still living with even if we prefer not to think about it.”
Because of Chabon’s hazy, cryptic intentions, the two halves of his novel, like his Sitkans and mainland Americans, live sealed off from each other – a perfectly compelling detective story and a series of dramatically unsubstantiated pronouncements on Jewish fate. The surely unintended impression is of a cynical calculation that a smattering of references to Jewish trouble would make a serviceable shortcut to the poignancy and intellectual heft the author sought in lifting his novel above genre-lit thrills. So when Chabon, after Meyer and Bina make up and make love, cloaks the language of his detective story – “Meyer’s seed, even now, may be wandering through darkness toward redemption” – in the language of Jewish national yearning, suggesting ever so lightly that the child Meyer and Bina may finally have may be a real messiah who will lead his people to a homeland at last, the emotional ballast that would make the conceit work isn’t there. It hasn’t been earned.
As Chabon works to dovetail the detective story with grand politics, the novel keels over into spoof altogether. By means engaging enough not to spoil here, Meyer’s investigation leads him to a sinister Administration plot to make true on the President’s electoral promise as well as satisfy its own (barely justified) religious fundamentalism. The conceit is so outlandish, its elements so faintly drawn, that it completely undoes whatever emotional power Chabon had managed to derive from the Sitka Jew’s national quandary.
So much so that I began to wonder whether, all along, Chabon hadn’t been pulling everyone’s chain, satirizing Jewish anachronism and the religious proclivities of our real-life President. But satire is one thing Chabon has never really gone for, and perhaps the reason why “auf zu lochis” may have been a dubious wellspring for this novel. Chabon is earnest, a good boy who writes old-fashioned tales that begin with cynical – and often parentless – bad boys who find redemption, usually in the hands of patient, forgiving women. That was the story with Grady Tripp, the pothead professor in “Wonder Boys”; Joe Kavalier, his family’s sole, self-hating Holocaust survivor, in “Kavalier & Clay”; and it is Meyer Landsman’s in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”
In fact, though “Wonder Boys” couldn’t concern a more different milieu, it’s the novel that helped me make sense of “Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” There, too, Chabon’s writing is gorgeous. Every sentence is so clever and crisp that you want to throw down the book and start a short story yourself. And so it takes some time to see through to the fact that the story barely hangs together. For all the logorrhea, it’s never really suggested strongly enough what draws Grady to his student James Leer; why James is, in the end, false; why Grady’s friend Crabtree is heartsick.
In both books, Chabon is a superlative miniaturist, conjuring phenomenal sentences, observations, scenes, and intimations of place, but a lot of the time, the ideas don’t really cohere. (“Chabon doesn’t see the forest for the trees,” as one of the Mendele contributors wrote in arguing that Yiddish was hardly moribund even if it was looking for a homeland.) And, as is clear from “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Chabon does mean to engage in ideas. But what exactly is he trying to say?
For example, as the novel roots out persisting Anglo-Saxon prejudice toward the Jews, how to explain Chabon’s – and Roth’s, in fact – seemingly easy and un-ironic indulgence of the ancient Jewish conviction that inside every goy hides an antisemite? Can’t we put that one to bed in a country whose very philosemitism helped make his popularity so possible in the first place?
An intriguing answer came from a friend who recently visited Israel, where he had a meal with an Israeli acquaintance who had also read “Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” The acquaintance, who was born in the States, suggested that Chabon’s strain to sound the alarm was nothing other than a subconscious wish to undo the stultifying effects of mainstream acceptance on Jewish life in America: A Jewish dream of being powerless again.
Even if the Israeli was reading through the dark-colored glasses of disenchanted statehood, he got one thing right. Though the novel appears to invent a new world, in many ways it’s an old story. Chabon wished to imagine a modern Yiddishland, but all he managed was to re-tell the past, so beautifully that it almost seemed new.