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Funny, You Don't Look Tlingit

Review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, 2007)

The elaborate "what if…?" scenario, a staple of fantasy and science fiction, seems to be infiltrating Jewish-American literature. First Philip Roth portrayed an openly anti-Semitic United States after the 1940 election of President Charles A. Lindbergh in The Plot Against America, and now Michael Chabon imagines a no less far-fetched but certainly happier situation in which millions of Jews escape the Holocaust by immigrating to Alaska.

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon creates an alternate reality, one predicated on the wishful notion that a proposal to save European Jews actually brought before Congress in 1940 (and supported by Secretary of the Interior and close advisor to FDR Harold Ickes) came to pass. In this alternate reality, Alaskan Jewish children speak Yiddish and favor polar bear-patterned pajamas, the fledgling state of Israel falls to its Arab neighbors after two years, First Lady Marilyn Monroe Kennedy occupies the White House some time before The Cuban War and--most tantalizing for readers of this website--offspring of interfaith marriages are the most well-adjusted of all Jews.

The plot of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, like the plot of many noir detective stories from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown, is convoluted and nearly impossible to summarize. The novel opens as Meyer Landsman, detective with the Sitka District Police, investigates the death of a man in the same run-down hotel where Landsman himself lives. Landsman is on his last legs: alcoholic, recently divorced, and mourning the loss of his unborn son, his beloved sister, and his marriage.

 The Sitka District, coincidentally, is also on its last legs; the annexed area of Alaska to which Jewish refugees fled during World War II is about to revert to American jurisdiction after 60 years of Jewish self-rule. The Sitka District Police, and Landsman's job, will soon no longer exist and Landsman has just a few weeks to solve the dead man's murder (as well as regain his self-respect and his ex-wife's affection). Along the way he encounters, in classic noir fashion, bad guys who seem to be good guys, good guys who seem to be bad guys, assorted Tlingit Indians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, chess masters and a lady who sells pies.

Landsman's sidekick in this mission is his cousin and fellow policeman, the half-Tlingit, half-Jewish Berko Shemets. Berko's father (Landsman's Uncle Hertz) was an expert on Tlingit culture who married a Tlingit woman. When Berko was a child, his mother was killed during clashes between Sitka's Jewish and native peoples and he was sent to live with young Meyer Landsman's family. Surprisingly, Berko is not bitter toward either of the groups whose fighting caused his mother's death. He grows up to be a contented and effective adult. An observant Jew with the dark skin and glossy black hair of a Tlingit, Berko is, as Chabon describes him, a "minotaur," a hybrid whose diverse heritage gives him strength and versatility. He speaks Yiddish, curses in Tlingit and "American" (English) and moves easily between Sitka's Tlingit and Jewish communities, serving as a guide and protector to the ubiquitously uncomfortable Landsman as they pursue their murder investigation. Unlike the hapless, childless and planless Landsman, Berko is happily married (the only character in the novel, Jewish or Tlingit, who is so), has two healthy children with more on the way and has already made a place for himself in post-reversion Sitka. In this alternate universe it seems that the son of an intermarried couple represents a more hopeful Jewish future in Alaska than either the non-observant son of two Jewish parents (Landsman) or Sitka's isolated and not entirely well-intentioned ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Readers familiar with Michael Chabon's other novels will not be surprised to see intermarriage highlighted and even idealized in this way. Chabon is fascinated by the theme of self and other. Like The Yiddish Policemen's Union, his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay features a pair of cousins who are professional partners and best friends. Both novels also contain homosexual men married or engaged to women. Chabon seems to enjoy blurring identities and finding clarity rather than confusion emerge, just as Berko Shemets does in his own mixed heritage.

Even the genre of The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a hybrid--an intermarriage between noir and historical fantasy--and a very happy marriage it is. Though the intricate plot may quickly fade from readers' minds, we won't soon forget Chabon's finely drawn world in which "latkes" (cops) walk Alaskan streets carrying "sholems" in their holsters and speaking Yiddish into "Shoyfer" cell phones; a world in which millions could have been saved, if only...

Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is suzannekovenmd.com.

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