Nearly everyone knows about the humble and unusual origins of Jesus: the Son of God who comes to Earth as a baby born to a virgin in a barn under dubious circumstances, the carpenter from a backwater town turned Great Teacher and Healer. But what if the messiah had a radically different background? What if he came back today as, say, a shy, gay chess genius?
A scenario along those lines is offered up in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which also poses interesting historical questions: What if the nations of the West had provided a space for Europe’s persecuted Jews to go prior to the Holocaust? And just where would all those people have gone, presuming the Nazis had allowed them to leave?
Interestingly, the panhandle of Alaska, the setting of this book, was an actual possibility. The Slattery Report was floated in Congress in 1940 by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and it proposed setting aside a section of southeastern Alaska for Jewish refugees to help settle what was then (and still is, really) a large, empty space. In real life, the bill wasn’t supported by the Jewish people already living in the U.S. at the time, and it was ultimately killed by Anthony Dimond, who was delegate to Congress for the territory. (Alaska did not get U.S. statehood until 1959.)
But in Chabon’s book, history takes a turn when Dimond is killed instead by a drunk DC cabbie — who, incidentally, is Jewish. In this counterfactual tale, the Jews are given the territory of Sitka, which is officially administered by the feds but is essentially governed without interference by the locals. They turn it into a city of sorts, one that will be both recognizable and strange to readers. Imagine Seattle populated entirely by Jews with the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Borough Park in Brooklyn replacing the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area, and you have a rough approximation of Sitka. However, there’s a catch to all of this: The area reverts to Alaska state territory after 60 years.
Meyer Landsman is a drunken, depressed police detective working in this fictional but familiar metropolis of a couple million people when that 60-year period is just about up. The book starts off with him being called to investigate a late-night murder that took place in the run-down roach motel where he lives. As he looks into the victim’s background, he finds that he’s not only the black sheep son of a Jewish organized crime boss, but also a messiah figure to many of Sitka’s Jews.
Consequently, he and his partner — actually his cousin, an imposing half-Jewish, half-American Indian named Berko Shemets — find quite a bit of resistance to their investigation. Moreover, the deadline for the reversion of Sitka to Alaska territory looms large over their efforts.
In spite of all I’ve just written above, I still haven’t said much about the story. That’s in part because I don’t want to give away too much. But it’s also due to the fact that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is fundamentally about Landsman coming to terms with his perceived failures — as a husband, a detective, and a human being — yet holding out hope for some kind of redemption. He strives to find it by throwing himself into his work, particularly the murder investigation. He also clumsily begins to rekindle a relationship with his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish (gotta love these names), who’s also his boss.
Even though the themes of the story are as dark and depressing as Anchorage in January, it’s also a highly entertaining romp through all kinds of Jewish humor. It’s full of clever one-liners and self-deprecating insults, and it’s more readable than any book stuffed with Yiddish slang ought to be. I actually liked it better than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is widely regarded as his masterwork.
(By the way, the Coen brothers, who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, are supposedly planning to adapt The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for film. I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to this, whenever it happens.)
Really, you’d have to be mishegas to not read this book. Don’t be a shmendrik — get off your tuches and go pick it up.