Jolted by the murder of a fellow resident at the Hotel Zamenhof, the decrepit flophouse he calls home, normally apathetic Detective Meyer Landsman springs into action. The victim, a junkie, apparently was in the middle of a solitary chess match when he was executed. And that is only the tip of the Alaskan iceberg in this noirlike mystery with philosophic pretensions; Michael Chabon has crafted nothing less than an alternate history of the United States.
It is 2007, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s (historically true) proposal that Jews be given a homeland in Alaska has been a reality since 1940. In the tiny Jewish autonomous region known as the Federal District of Sitka, Yiddish is the official language, though virtually everybody knows “American,” usefully employed for swearing. Despite tensions between immigrant Jews and indigenous Tlingit Indians, this unlikely social experiment has seemingly consigned the era of Jewish misfortune to a distant old-world past. Chabon refers to the first wave of immigrants—self-described “Polar Bears”—only fleetingly, but the imagery he uses to describe them can be hilarious, as with “the work crews of young Jewesses in their blue head scarves, singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx.”
Yet the “Frozen Chosen”—as the Jews of Sitka have been nicknamed by their American neighbors—face an uncertain future. “On the first of January , sovereignty over the whole Federal District of Sitka, a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline running along the western edges of Baranof and Chichagof islands, will revert to the state of Alaska.” The United States is unwilling to grant citizenship to most Sitka Jews, and people are on edge: “Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion, and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.”
A rather ugly cynicism regarding the gentile world pervades this story. Explaining the plight of Sitka Jews, Chabon writes, “A lot of people have left town in the past couple of years, fled the District for the short roster of places that will welcome them, or that have tired of hearing about pogroms secondhand and are hoping to throw one for themselves.” Everybody from the Americans to the Arabs (who, in Chabon’s imagining, destroyed the nascent State of Israel in 1948) is anti-Semitic, and few options exist for Sitka’s unwanted Jewish population. One Sitka resident informs Landsman that he is moving to Madagascar—ironically, the island to which the Nazis initially planned to deport all European Jews. In another instance, Landsman—ever the smart aleck—asks his ex-wife, “You want to go to the moon with me, Bina? I hear they still take Jews.”
As they rub shoulders with ganefs, luftmensches, shtarkers, and schlemiels on streets named after famous Jews from Max Nordau to Ibn Ezra, veteran shammeses Landsman and partner Berko Shemets—an observant Jew despite being born to a Tlingit mother—give us a feel for the rough-and-tumble Yiddishkeit of their corner of Alaska, or “Alyeska.” Chabon even renders his characters’ speech in a distinctly Yiddish cadence: “Such a match I made for him”; “may his name be for a blessing”; “This entity I’m talking about.…So maybe they don’t give out with badges”; “Aren’t you happy to see me, Meyer?…You don’t say anything about my Parka?”; “Mr. Litvak, you don’t happen to know a man, I gather he plays here sometimes, a Jew maybe they call him Frank?”
The Zamenhof murder victim, Mendel Shpilman, turns out to be the long-estranged son of the leader of the Verbovers, an insular Jewish sect that is at once deeply observant and heavily involved in various criminal enterprises. After a bit of snooping, Landsman and Berko uncover a sinister plot by the Verbovers to blow up the Dome of the Rock (Islam’s third-holiest site) in Jerusalem. The plan is to create space for the rebuilding of the Temple, which in their view will hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Verbovers had sought to enlist the aid of Shpilman—who in his pre-junkie days was considered a religious prodigy—but something obviously went wrong. Shpilman’s death does not seem to have given the Verbovers pause; they are pressing ahead with their plan. Implausibly, the American administration is in cahoots with them, as the United States is run by evangelical extremists yearning for the end of days, for which a Middle Eastern conflagration is a necessary and exciting precondition.
It is somewhat odd that Chabon’s crazed Zionist messianists—the fictitious Verbovers—are drawn from the real-life Hasidic faction of Jews. Though animated in part by a messianic streak, Hasidism (a mystical movement within Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Judaism) includes many non- and even anti-Zionists. Jews intent on rebuilding the Temple are invariably hard-line Zionists of two kinds: secular but rabid Israeli nationalists and irrepressible religious fanatics who have broken off from the larger Jewish movements.
Chabon’s characterizations have their flaws as well. Landsman and Berko’s self-consciously ethnic posturing is embarrassingly affected, while their tendency to communicate in wisecracks is often more annoying than entertaining. Yet their personal crises—Landsman’s with his ex-wife and his late father, Berko with his Jewish-Tlingit heritage—are movingly depicted against that ominous “streak of doom that marble[s] Jewish life.” Landsman’s ex-wife, Bina, makes an especially strong impression; quite the virago in appearance and demeanor, Bina is in fact just as vulnerable as Landsman though too defiant to show it. The lingering yet largely unspoken longing Landsman and Bina feel for each other is sensitively understated by Chabon and perfectly exemplifies the dogged persistence of an obstinate love.
Yet vividly drawn characters and a painstakingly constructed alternate world only go so far. What begins as an intriguing exploration of Jewish identity set alongside a puzzling murder investigation devolves into yet another entry in the prosaic and seemingly endless “apocalypse in the Middle East” subgenre of thrillers. Worse, the question of Jewish life in a world rife with anti-Semitism remains unresolved. After creating a scenario in which the future of Jewry is once again imperiled, Chabon’s answer is escapist in the extreme.
Landsman seems to conclude that Jews do not need their own state (Israel) or autonomous region (Sitka) in order to prosper. This notion is hardly revolutionary; there have long been Jews opposed to Zionism as well as Jewish autonomism. Other fiction writers have also explored the issue, sometimes in decidedly absurdist fashion; in Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, the author’s doppelgänger tours Israel preaching “Diasporism,” meaning a return by Ashkenazi Jews to Europe, which he points out is much safer than besieged Israel. Yet, given the uniformly anti-Semitic world in which he finds himself, Landsman fails to propose a viable alternative to a collective Jewish existence, be it in Alaska or elsewhere. “My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag” he decides, with scant regard for the larger picture.
In the real world, of course, Jewish life outside Israel is safe and secure, especially in the West. Landsman’s spousal conception of identity—think of Howard and Helga’s “nation of two” in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Mother Night—doubtless appeals to many Jews, as it does to others. In the frightfully anti-Semitic world of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, however, Landsman’s repudiation of ethno-religious nationalism, while theoretically enlightened, should logically have been replaced by something able to ward off physical persecution. Love is great, but when has it ever stopped a pogrom? It’s enough to make you interject: Nu, Landsman, vos vayter? So, Landsman, what next?
The answer in the final pages is…nothing. Landsman and Bina turn their backs on Jewry, which faces renewed persecution, as well as the world itself, which the demented Verbovers have plunged into war. They seem to give up on everything but their love for each other. Indeed, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is essentially Candide for two. On a personal level, Landsman and Bina remain committed to continuing life’s uncertain journey, yet when faced with the problems menacing the world, complete and utter capitulation is their—and Chabon’s—disheartening final response.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, By Michael Chabon, HarperCollins, 432 pp., $26.95.