Chabon's "Yiddish Policemen's Union": wonderful blend of hard-boiled and Yiddish ironies

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a hardboiled alternate history novel set in a world where Israel falls in 1948 and its population of Jews relocate to a territory carved out of Alaska, a territory that is theirs for 60 years only. Now it is 2008, and the Alaskan settlement is to revert to the USA (or possibly to the native population, depending on the outcome of political struggles over its disposition), and in the final two months, Detective Meyer Landsman finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation.

In true hard-boiled style, the murder unpicks the seams of the whole rotten, corrupt mess, unearthing a political scandal that spans several continents, three major religions, a dead junkie messiah resurgent, and the resolution of Landsman's failed marriage to the woman who is now his boss in the Sitka police force.

I'm a great Chabon fan, and I think that this is his best book to date, better even than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as it so perfectly marries the deadpan ironies of hardboiled fiction and Yiddish storytelling, in a word-drunk reel that spanned ten CDs of bitter humor and insight. In this regard, the book is nicely complemented by a virtuoso reading from Peter Riegert, who hasn't been this fantastically understated and sly since his asides in Animal House.

I was raised by Yiddish speakers of some fluency -- and still have whole swaths of my family with whom I can only converse in my execrable Yiddish, learned through seven years of Sunday school at the Arbeiter Ring center in Toronto -- and I've always loved the language for its slope-shouldered, wry, witty flavor. It's hard to capture that in English, but Chabon really nails it here, and it merges so perfectly into the hard-boiled storyline that you'd think that Chandler had been written by Sholem Aleichem. Link to audiobook CDs, Link to hardcover


  1. Very good book, and well worth reading — though I think you go a little overboard when you say it’s better than _Kavalier and Clay._ You’re right that this is a virtuoso performance, but K&C was virtuoso plus heartfelt. The postmodern noir writing in this one make it intellectually satisfying, but not exactly emotionally cathartic.

    Still, a very very good read — just its premise alone makes it worth reading: or, as you did, Cory, listening to it. In fact, for those of us who didn’t have the good fortune of being raised by Yiddish-speakers, audio would have the added benefit of hearing authentically-pronounced Yiddish. My guess is the book is even funnier out loud.

  2. I completely agree (though I read the book, didn’t listen to the audio). Chabon’s novel reminds me a bit of Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective novels…

  3. This was an excellent book. I’m looking forward to the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation. I also have to say that it’s nowhere near Kavalier & Clay, though.

  4. Read this last year, as I’m a big Chabon fan, and I loved it (though I enjoye Kavalier & Clay more). One of my buddies was struggling through it at the time, unable to sink his teeth in because, as a non-Jew, he told me he had a hard time understanding a lot of the “jargon”. I think it’s akin to reading a sc-fi novel with a lot of new stuff to absorb as a basis for understanding the book — descriptions of aliens who are major character, for example (if you don’t mind comparing us Jews to aliens).

  5. I read this soon after reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, another alternate-history novel. Roth imagined an American where Charles Lindbergh – aviation hero and vocal anti-Semite – defeated FDR for the presidency approaching World War II, and the nation followed his lead in sympathizing with Nazis and persecuting Jews.

    I found Chabon’s alternate world far more believable and thoroughly wrought. While Roth’s story followed a predictable downward spiral and ultimately devolved into paranoia, Chabon wrote a compelling noir murder mystery set in a culture filled with vivid characters, community politics, and myriad subplots. It took me a bit more work to get into The Yiddish Policemen’s Union than Kavalier and Clay, but I might agree with Cory that Chabon’s latest is truly his best.

  6. Will try to get my hands on it, sounds great. But one caveat, is he making the all-too-common mistake of equating Ashkenazi with Israeli? After all, had Israel fallen in ’48, the majority of refugees would be Hebrew speakers. And worldwide, there were more Ladino / Arabic speaking Jews at that time than any other variant.

  7. I first heard about this book when it was first published – saw the review in The New York Times Book Review. I had just returned from a trip to Alaska, spending my Fourth of July in Sitka. His descriptions of the area is spot on.

    My usual fare is Medieval murder mysteries (Brother Cadefael-esque), but I enjoyed the book and will now check out some of his other books. I’ve already passed it on to someone else to enjoy

  8. Enjoyed this book immensely. I’m surprised at how every review and article I’ve read about it overlooks one major influence on it – the HBO series The Wire. Chabon has written about his love for the show. His main detective is named after the character, and real Baltimore detective, Jay Landsman. And the slang that the characters use are like Yiddish versions of the dense Bawlmor argot, down to the use of “yid” as a re-appropriated slur.

  9. I’m with Cory on loving “Yiddish Policeman’s” and ranking it higher than “Kavalier & Klay” among Chabon’s work.

    I also rank “Wonder Boys” higher. Maybe I dug K&K less because I’m not a comic fan.

    KarlGustav – You don’t have to be a Gentile to find Chabon’s Jews aliens. His Jews are outcasts living in a ghetto (a really *big* ghetto, true, but still a ghetto). Whereas I am a Jew but I am also an American citizen, and free to stand up and spit in the eye of any John McCain who wants to come along and tell me that this is a Christian nation.

  10. I just finished this book a few weeks ago. As a demi-jew, I really appreciated the care taken with the rhythm of the “translated” as well as the untranslated Yiddish and the distinct humor.
    I’m going to read more Chabon for sure.
    Any suggestions for a follow up?

  11. Ack. I was struck by the dread thought-of-something-else-to-say-as-soon-as-I-hit-the-SUBMIT-button virus.

    It’s tempting to equate the Jews in Alaska in Chabon’s novels to real-world Jews in Israel, and the Eskimos to the Arabs and Palestinians. And, indeed, I saw an article in the Saudi-published Arab Times (or maybe it was an Iranian newspaper – can’t ecall) that did just that. It’s tempting but, I think, wrong. The Jews in Chabon’s novel are not an independent nation, they’re an American territory, and, in the real-world, Israel does not have a self-destruct clause built into its Constitution.

    I think Chabon is simply writing here about, among other things, the conflicts between different classes on the bottom end of the social scale, and imperialism vs. indigenous people, and most especially the troubles of being born into a world you didn’t make, and grappling with social forces that were set in motion and decisions that were made for you by powerful people before you were born. Which is a universal theme.

    Also: I don’t think I’ve ever bought an audiobook of a novel I already read, but I may make an exception for “Yiddish Policeman’s” because it was such a wonderful novel and Peter Riegert is a terrific actor and perfect for the voice of Landsman.

  12. Maybe I should try the audiobook, because I read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and didn’t like it anywhere near enough to say that it’s better than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

  13. Will try to get my hands on it, sounds great. But one caveat, is he making the all-too-common mistake of equating Ashkenazi with Israeli? After all, had Israel fallen in ’48, the majority of refugees would be Hebrew speakers. And worldwide, there were more Ladino / Arabic speaking Jews at that time than any other variant.

    Well, yes, he does tend to ignore the Sephardics. And yes, Russian, Arabic, and Ladino speaking Jews outnumbered the Yiddish speakers. But how many Hebrew speakers were there in ’48? Wasn’t it basically as dead as Latin at that point?

  14. I’d like to recommend Chabon’s short novel GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD, a rollicking “Jews With Swords” story set in the Khazar empire of the 10th century.

    On its own, that would be plenty to enjoy. But as I was reading it, I came to the sudden realization “Oh my god, Chabon’s main characters are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser!”

    The names may be different, the weapons they carry may be different, Amran may be a giant African instead of a red-headed Northerner, but the flavor, the banter, the style… if Chabon isn’t a big fan of Fritz Lieber, I’ll have to bake an edible hat and eat it.

    Short take: If you miss Fritz Lieber’s work, read GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD.

    (Side note: Looking at the Wikipedia entry on Fafhrd and the Mouser, I found that the very first appearance of the characters in a comic-book form was in a 1972 issue of… WONDER WOMAN?!?!?! An issue written by… SAMUEL R. DELANY?!?!?!?!?! Pardon me while my head explodes.)

  15. Well, yes, he does tend to ignore the Sephardics. And yes, Russian, Arabic, and Ladino speaking Jews outnumbered the Yiddish speakers. But how many Hebrew speakers were there in ’48? Wasn’t it basically as dead as Latin at that point?

    Not to get to alt-history dorky here, but it’s not just a world where Israel was wiped out in ’48. It’s also one in which many Jewish refugees were allowed into the US (or Alaska) before the war and only half as many died in the Holocaust. Where the war in Europe lasted another couple of years ended with atom bombs dropped on Germany. (Also substitute Cuba for Vietnam, etc. etc.) And George Felix Allen or someone quite like him seems to be president. It’s closer to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy than the real world.

  16. Yish #9 — The divergence point is earlier than that. In 1940 the US allows Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in Europe, to settle in Alaska. A second wave of refugees comes along when Israel falls in ’48, but Sitka’s Yiddish culture is already established by then.

    Mitch #14 — I think one the several themes Chabon is addressing does have to do with modern Israel, but I can’t discuss it without giving away the book’s ending. You’re right that it’s a mistake to engage in simplistic equivalence — to say that Sitka is Israel and the Tlingit are the Palestinians. But the working out of the plot does address issues of Israel and international politics in our world as well.

    Cory, I read Union a few weeks ago, and you’ve written the review I wish I could have. Your last paragraph perfectly nails the thing I loved most about the book: the bitter ironic wit of it that perfectly captures Yiddish culture. This is a book where even the facial expressions are wry and ironic — at one point a character smiles to indicate that she doesn’t think a joke is funny; at another, a character frowns happily.

  17. I’m placing my vote for Kavalier & Klay. It was filled with a lot more action, and the quick rise of K&K was far more interesting to me than a rural murder mystery. Before any of you berate me for what you perceive as my limited view of historical fiction or Jewish politics, I was also extremely engrossed in The Union, and I love Chabon’s picturesque descriptions of a place, a face, and a race. I just liked K&K more.

  18. Never-before-seen excerpts:

    “Go ahead, remain silent. No, it’s fine; it’s your right. You can do that. I don’t mind.”

    “Could I see maybe some identification, if you’re not too busy?”

    Busting a noisy party: “So, nu, what’s with the racket?”

    Receiving their new uniforms: “It’s not bad, the lining. I could stitch better.”

    Donut shops: -> bagel shops.

    OK, I’m all done now.

  19. I finished it recently — after trying to drag out the pleasure as long as possible. A brilliant, wonder-full book — it fills me with hope for the future of the human imagination.

  20. @StripedPants Of course you are correct – it does have to do with modern Israel.

    How does the ending underscore the point? Feel free to e-mail me ( or rot13 if you don’t want to spoil it for other people.

  21. Mitch, the ending can be read as saying that yvivat va gur Qvnfcben vf zbenyyl fhcrevbe gb univat n ubzrynaq ohvyg ba gursg naq fynhtugre.

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