“These are strange times to be a Jew.”
This remark, a frequent refrain in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is both an understatement and something of a banality. For yes, the times of the book’s proceeding’s are most unusual: 60 years after the Israelis were pushed into the sea by the surrounding Arab nations, the Jewish people are about to lose the corner of Alaska granted them by the U.S. government.
Strange times indeed, but when have they not been so? The Jewish story is one of perennial strangerdom and besiege, and this particular story, in spite if not because of its alternate history, reflects a certain weariness with the question of the “Jewish question.” (spoilers follow)
The story runs a through line of duress. Its world is premised on a catastrophe—the second expulsion from Israel—whose consolation, the establishment of Sitka, Alaska, is a stopgap measure at best. That the Reversion is to happen on a pre-arranged schedule is cold comfort; at the story’s outset, the Jews will be once more a homeless people.
Amid this backdrop of defeat, our story’s anti-hero, Meyer Landsman, is, appropriately, also following a string of disasters—his job, his sister’s death, his marriage—by living in borrowed digs, spending his alcoholic daze in a room at the Hotel Zamenhof. So too does the "yid" whose death in his own room Landsman spends the length of the book investigating.
The yid in question is Menachem Mendel Shpilman, a Gordian knot of contradiction. The son of the rebbe of Sitka’s Hasidic Verbover clan, as well as a closeted homosexual. A heroin addict, believed to have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the Messiah, born once a generation. And, a Chess prodigy. His dilemma is quintessentially Jewish, a stranger in his own home. The strain of so many competing identities eventually proves too much to bear: his murder, we learn, was a murder-suicide. A hopeless Chess game provides a moving (in more ways than one) analogy:
”He showed me that damned problem of his, the mate in two,” Hertz says. “He said he got it off some Russian. He said if I solved it, then I would understand how he felt.”
“Zugzwang,” Bina says.
“What’s that?” Ester-Malke says.
“It’s when you have no good moves,” Bina says. “But you still have to move.”
Perhaps the gloomiest aspect of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s alternate universe is how familiar much of it is. This passage, describing the pushback the new Jewish population receives from the Native American Alaskans, is a story oft told but with different names:
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. It was met with demonstrations, rallies, lawyers, and dark rumblings from Congress over yet another affront to peace and parity by the overweening Jews of the north. Two days before its consecration, somebody—no one ever came forward or was charged—threw a double Molotov through a window, burning the prayer house to its concrete pad. The congregants and their supporters swarmed into the town of St. Cyril, smashing crab traps, breaking the windows of the Alaska Native Brotherhood half, and setting spectacular fire to a shedful of Roman Candles and cherry bombs…. The Synagogue Riots remain the lowest moment in the bitter and inglorious history of Tlingit-Jewish relations.
That the two sides fighting it out are both displaced peoples passes without comment, not that much is needed. By book’s ending, though, the violence has moved (back) to Palestine, with the Dome of the Rock destroyed by radical Hasids. To end the book in this manner seems an admission of resignation by Chabon: even with a radically altered history, the Jewish story be one of land wars that eventually circle back to bloodshed in the Holy Land.
This is a dour outlook, but it is not entirely so. If there is little redemption to be found in the world at large there remains hope on an individual level. For Landsman eventually pulls himself out of his funk and achieves a spiritual regeneration, entirely thanks to the dead messiah Shpilman. Investigating the case to its bitter conclusion leads Landsman to quit drinking, uncover the truth about his sister’s death, and reunite with his wife. Shpilman cannot save himself, much less the whole of Jewry, yet in this failure he offers others some chance of rebirth.
Thriving in spite of disaster is, of course, another way of reading the long history of Jewish persecution. Even after expulsion, blood libel, pogroms, and the Holocaust, Judaism and Jews continue to leave their stamp on civilization, be it through the bagel, the Coen Brothers, or Larry Summers. The anti-semitic trope of a Jewish world conspiracy has always been a barb-wired backhanded compliment, a mad jealousy at the fact of Jewish success. Such Jew hatred has shaped Jewish history as much as Jews themselves, to the result of constant uncertainty and removal. One gets the sense from The Yiddish Policemen's Union that Michael Chabon wishes everyone could just move on.