I am a bit fuzzy on war dates. The last American history classes I took were in high school. They were somewhat unorthodox in that we read packets at our own pace and then took one-on-one oral tests before moving on to the next packet. You could end up way ahead depending on your motivation and then begin on the next class. I seem to remember doing 3 classes over 2 semesters or something like that. The other interesting part of these classes is that we would study all the causes leading up to a war and then skip the war. That was fine with me. I did not really want to read about war and it eliminated all that memorizing of what happened when and remembering crucial battles or turning points. We would start the history lesson up again after the war was over. This is a long way of explaining why when I began reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union I would periodically have to stop and think to myself whether a particular event really happened.
This novel is set in Alaska. It is mostly set in a portion of Alaska called the Federal District of Sitka where displaced Jewish people are living. On the surface this book seems to be a detective murder mystery. Meyer Landsman is an alcoholic, divorced homicide detective living in a seedy hotel who becomes obsessed with finding out who killed a heroin addict that also lived in the hotel. He is doing this against the backdrop of the area reverting back to Alaska in a matter of weeks and it is unclear where the millions of settlers there since 1948 will go. Here’s an example of history bending that even I caught: “Observant Jews around the world have not abandoned their hope to dwell one day in the land of Zion. But Jews have been tossed out of the joint three times now – in 586 BCE, in 70 CE and with savage finality in 1948.” (pg 17)
There are a number of interesting characters in the book. Landsdown’s cousin, Berko, who is half-Jewish and half-Tlingit, came to live with Landsdown’s family when his mother was killed in the Synagogue Riots. He is now also a policeman and Landsdown’s partner. They run into Zimbalist, the boundary maven. He works on getting around the Sabbath ban by using enough strings and poles to cover the whole district. There’s Heskel Shpilman, the rebbe of the district and the father of the dead heroin addict, Mendel Shpilman. About Mendel there are many stories of his chess abilities, healing blessings, and his possibly being the Tzaddik Ha-Dor. Landsdown broaches this idea to Mendel’s father: “If the conditions were right, if the Jews of this generation were worthy, then he might reveal himself as, uh, as Messiah.” (pg 141) This is convoluted, worthy read. There’s a mystery, a possible messiah, politics, a surreal setting, an infinite number of bad guys, and even romance of a fashion when Landsdown’s ex-wife becomes his new boss.
As a sidenote Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, who is author of The Big Nap among other mommy-track mysteries. Her books are decidedly lighter fare, but pretty entertaining.