Three cheers for the Yiddish detective

Three cheers for the Yiddish detective

When the endless conflicts that come with each day’s news begin to exhaust me, I turn to fiction.

For better or worse, though, I find that the most satisfying novels reflect back on the real-world conflicts I wish I could escape.

This is the case with Michael Chabon’s detective tour-de-force, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which I just read for the second time. It’s a wonderful escape, but also an echo of current events. I challenge those among my friends whose sentiments lean in an anti-Zionist direction to read this book to understand just how deeply Israel was and is needed. I challenge other friends, whose feelings incline to uncritical fealty to Israel, to consider the implications of the book for what type of Jewish state we may be seeing.

As in Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning saga “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” all his major characters in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” are Jews of one type or another. And his inventiveness with these characters knows no bounds. Even those critics who fall on the other side of Chabon’s politics, like Commentary editor John Podhoretz, have called the book “extraordinary.” It’s sheer fun to follow all the Yiddishisms and the invented “Sitka slang” Yiddishisms sprinkled throughout the volume and explained in the helpful glossary.

Meyer Landsman, the book’s hero, is an updated Jewish Sam Spade, a down-on-his-luck detective who is tending toward alcoholism and cynicism. But he’s kept going by his personal code, which includes finding the murderer at all costs. Landsman is the “shammes shamus.”

The setting is a fictionalized Sitka, Alaska, in the early 21st century, where more than 2 million depressed Jewish immigrants have been kept in limbo for more than 50 years, after the embryonic state of Israel failed to repel the invasions of the armies of neighboring Arab countries.

For context, it’s worth briefly revisiting the actual status of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish post-Holocaust displaced persons in 1948. The United States, not yet the bastion of liberal democracy for Jews that we came to know it to be, had utterly failed to bring European Jews out of harm’s way before and during Hitler’s reign, and also largely had rejected opening up homes for the refugees here. Only after three full years did Congress bring forth the Displaced Persons bill Truman had requested, grudgingly allowing for 200,000 immigrants over two years, but including grotesque technicalities that would make 90 percent of the Jewish survivors ineligible to come.

In Chabon’s fictional Sitka in 1948, immigrant settlement was allowed “interim status” as a federal district “with statehood explicitly ruled out,” he wrote. “‘NO JEWLASKA, LAWMAKERS PROMISE’ ran the headline in the Daily Times. The emphasis was always on the word “interim.” In sixty years the status would revert, and the Sitka Jews would be left once again to shift
for themselves.”

The district inhabited by those dubbed the “frozen chosen” included “nowhere to spread out, to grow, to do anything more than crowd together in the teaming style of Vilna and Lodz.” Life there features the minimal comforts engineered by those making the best of it, but it’s also dangerous and bleak. “Landsman … parked on a cul-de-sac some developer laid out, paved, then saddled with the name of Tikvah Street, the Hebrew word for hope. … [Yet] the hoped for houses were never built. Wooden stakes tied with orange flags and nylon cord map out a miniature Zion in the mud around the cul-de-sac, a ghostly eruv of failure.”

Now, in the early 21st century, time is running out on the minimal toleration granted the immigrants, who definitely are not considered Americans. (American Jews as such, who play a very small role in the novel, are referred to by the Sitka Jews to their north as “Mexicans”.)

But if the imagined district is not fated to become the yishuv of a vibrant Jewish revival in Zion, what is it? The immigrant Jews here share with the historic pre-state Palestine a bitter history of clashes with other inhabitants. “The construction of a prayer house at St. Cyril by the splinter from a splinter of a sect from Lisianski was the final outrage for many Natives,” Chabon wrote. Tragic run-ins with members of the Tlingit tribe follow.

Messianic religious fanatics also figure heavily in the mystery. Imagine Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Kahanist who now serves as national security minister in Israel’s new far right government, leading Jewish zealots up to Jerusalem’s Muslim sacred sites while their supporters chant “Death to Arabs!” It’s almost too close to today’s frightening headlines.

There is solidarity, betrayal, and sometimes love in Chabon’s wonderfully winding plot. “A strange time to be a Jew,” says the shammes shamus.

Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter.

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