The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

A Novel

Book - 2007
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Baker & Taylor
In a world in which Alaska, rather than Israel, has become the homeland for the Jews following World War II, Detective Meyer Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner Berko investigate the death of a heroin-addled chess prodigy.

Blackwell North Amer

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.



Baker
& Taylor

An alternate historical work based on a premise that Alaska became the Jewish homeland after World War II finds detective Meyer Landsman investigating a heroin-addicted chess prodigy's murder, a case with ties to an extremist Orthodox sect. 250,000 first printing.

Publisher: New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 2007
ISBN: 9780007149827
0007149824
Branch Call Number: M CHABON
Characteristics: 414 p. : 24 cm

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s
snailgem
Mar 01, 2019

Couldn't get into it because of all the unfamiliar words, presumable yiddish. May try again another time.

s
Sastez1
Jan 30, 2019

I would write my own summary but I think Rab1953 did a wonderful job at that already. I will only add, having read a lot of Jewish history and familiar with the Yiddish language, I think Chabon does a masterful job at capturing that dark humoured, pessimistic European Jewish sentiment. His crusty, unlikeable but funny characters are perfect. He incorporates so much of the culture and worldview that defined European Jews in their unstable existence in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust. Even though the story is zany, the attitudes of the Jews he describes are believable. This is one heck of an alternative history. Not to mention Chabon is an incredible writer and provides amazing prose.
I wonder if people unfamiliar with the history, culture and language he is describing can really appreciate how 'spot on' Chabon is. In any event, great read.

r
rab1953
Jan 29, 2019

What if the messiah comes, but he doesn’t want to stick around? This question underlies a completely engrossing, brilliantly told detective noir story set in an alternative reality Jewish homeland in Alaska. As a detective story, it’s well done, with a mystery that leads to numerous other crimes and conspiracies, all of which seem plausible in the context of a corrupted, criminal underworld at the edge of the world and the end of time.
The situation is a murder in a Jewish homeland imposed on a piece of the world that no-one wants except the Tlingit people living there (a nice parallel for the State of Israel in Palestine). The setting, with its ever-present fog, rain, snow and cold, hemmed in by forests and water, has the same foreboding character that Raymond Chandler would call up if his Los Angeles were 1,500 miles farther north. Also like Chandler, Chabon uses a colourful, hard-boiled style to evoke a tough, cynical and bleak view of the world. His language brings in yiddish slang and similes that fit naturally in the world he has created. It doesn’t feel like a forced pastiche of Chandler to find out that a sholem is slang for a gun (or “peacemaker” in western American slang); or that a latke is a street cop (or “flatfoot”). An artful homage, I would say.
Another departure from Chandler, or at least the Chandler novels I’ve read, is that the past of the protagonist Landsman is not hidden. It is revealed slowly, but Chabon does explain how he came to his bleak outlook and self-destructive life. And while the story centres on male protagonists, the women in the story are strong capable individuals who contribute to the plot and the characters. Ultimately, Landsman finds that salvation is not in the messiah, but in his relationship to the woman he loves.
The messiah figure is an interesting one, too. He has a genuine gift for bringing contentment into people’s lives, but he can’t bring the same satisfaction into his own life. The contradictions with his ultra-orthodox sect make him miserable and he wants out. His mother wants to protect him, but he flees before she can help him, if that’s even possible in her world. A self-sacrificing messiah this is not, which makes an interesting reflection on the Christian messiah.
From the start, though, I wondered what the title referred to, and about page 230, we find that the Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a fake: after losing his badge, Landsman uses a union card to pretend to be an active policeman. So I take it that the Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a cover for looking at something else. What Michael Chabon is really looking at seems to be a multi-layered view of Jewish-American and Israeli politics, society and personal relations.
A key theme in the novel is the expiration of the lease on the Jewish homeland in Alaska, which the Americans won’t renew it, leaving the few million Jewish settlers either searching for a new homeland or in a suspended animation – the existential challenge of Israel and the renewed diaspora of unwelcome Jewish people.
To resolve the challenge, a group of Zionists finds a messiah and concocts a scheme to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and return to Israel. Their willingness to stop at nothing, including genocide, and with the probably ignorant support of wealthy American Jewish sponsors, leads to a scheme that would stir the imagination of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists. Chabon keeps the story from descending to such fantasies, mainly by making the imagined setting so much a part of the novel that the storyline cannot be separated from the city of Sitka and its seedy inhabitants. That and the fundamentalist Christian allies who back the plot.
Chabon uses the noir genre conventions to explore literature and society in complex ways, as Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay used comic book conventions to explore twentieth century Jewish life. This is a literary novel that is entertaining and a great read.

b
Bookclub95
Jan 20, 2019

Interesting concept but I had to fight my way to the end. It felt like the book was written by two people; the first two thirds by one person wanted to confuse the heck out of the reader, and the last third by someone who just wanted to get the book finished. I slogged through this book hoping by the end there would be some explanation for the way the first two thirds were written but that was not to be. It confirmed to me that I shouldn't have to work so hard read a book. I should have let it go.

The book could have used a glossary for the Yiddish words because context did not help to define them. It was the first time I wanted the electronic version of the book so I could use the dictionary feature. I considered stopping and looking up each word but that would have made a tough read even longer. But in the end I decided that the author did not want the reader to understand the Yiddish. Pity.

n
ncs1961
Apr 01, 2018

This novel served as my introduction to the concept of alternative histories - fascinating idea, that. Chabon writes up a very believable world of post WWII America-ish Alaska with a yiddish accent; and he knows about gangsters, too! It is a steady paced & amusing read. Be prepared to ask people or google yiddish words and slang...which lead me to an essay about the loss of a culture & a language, by same author. The warm funny tones of yiddish overpower the gritty noir ishness of the story, in my memory.

k
kountzcl
Mar 29, 2018

One of my favorite novels, I had to reread it to appreciate the story and characters fully. Patience will be rewarded!

g
GLNovak
Jan 16, 2018

This is a murder mystery set in a Sitka that might have existed had the hopes of a Jewish homeland in the frozen north of Alaska come to pass after 1949 instead of the turbulent Israel we have today. Meyer Landsman, a down and out homicide detective living in a flea-bag building, is confronted with investigating a murder of a neighbour. We follow his trail and get a strong sense of the city with its many dark spots, marking it as just like any other city, except for the bitter cold. Crimes of every kind; competing gangs and factions to be wary of. The game of chess and the promised return of the Messiah figure prominently in the array of clues Freedman has to work with. The beginning was a bit of a struggle until I got into the rhythm of the writing and the progression of the plot. The introduction of many yiddish words and phrases were a bit of a distraction as I don"t know much (or any) yiddish, but they didn't figure prominently in the bones of the story so I didn't get lost. I did enjoy the story but the draggy beginning was a bit of a chore to get through.

k
kafkakat
Aug 07, 2017

Absolutely one of my favourite novels ever.....I want to go to that gritty, mystical Sitka that Michael Chabon invented and stay awhile....

s
sonoraanne
Jul 08, 2015

Didn't finish. Not a compelling plot and too much yiddish jargon/reference to plod through.

ChristchurchLib Oct 21, 2013

"Imagine if tiny Sitka, Alaska, had been annexed as a temporary territory for homeless Jews after World War II. This odd proposition makes for a wonderfully surreal setting populated by rabbis, chess masters, and ultra-orthodox gangsters. In the midst of all this is Meyer Landsman, a depressed, alcoholic, and irreligious Jewish homicide cop who's only got a couple months to figure out who murdered a heroin-addicted former chess prodigy and gangster before Sitka reverts to Alaska and Sitka's Jews find themselves homeless once more. "Impressively wacky," says The New York Times." Fiction A to Z October 2013 newsletter http://www.nextreads.com/Display2.aspx?SID=5acc8fc1-4e91-4ebe-906d-f8fc5e82a8e0&N=691547

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