Yiddish Policemen's Union
I recently followed my mother's recommendation and read Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" (PS 3553 H1.5 Y5.4 2007). My mother said she really enjoyed reading it because of all the Yiddish words and Jewish references which she doesn't encounter so frequently in Jewish life in Davenport, Iowa.
Certainly the Jewish life portrayed in the novel has very little in common with that of Davenport, Iowa. The setting of the novel is based on two fictional premises: 1) two million Holocaust refugees have been allowed to settle in the then territory of Alaska and allowed limited autonomy in the so-called District of Sitka - in fact a 1940s American version of the Pale of Settlement. Sixty years later, the arrangement is about to end with reversion of control to the now state of Alaska and a presumed expulsion of the Jews 2) the loss of the 1948 war by the Zionists and the subsequent non-existence of the state of Israel. Together, these two circumstances create (for us post Holocaust and post 1948 American Jews) an unreal Jewish world which resembles the Galut existence of pre-war Europe. Although Jewish life in Sitka has been pretty good, all that is about to come to an end and the Wandering Jew will once again have to gather up his/her few possessions and find a new no doubt temporary home in Madagascar or Australia. Many of the characters created by Chabon are reminiscent of Eastern European Jewish characters, luftmenschen trying to make ends meet or living out a poor existence playing chess. The book's hero is a down and out Jewish policeman just trying to hang on until the "Reversion" and then, who knows what.
But the action of the book has a contemporary spin. The apocalyptic coming demise of the District has caused among some of the Jewish residents a messianic fervor. A local hasidic sect who has become wealthy through organized crime is, in cooperation with a fundamentalist Christian administration in Washington, D.C., trying to bring on the end of days by destroying the Al-Aksa mosque and rebuilding the Temple. In the process, American and Jewish plotters bring suffering and even death to Arabs, Alaskan Indians, District Jews, and even their own potential Messiah.
The book is good reading. The characters are compelling. I found myself identifying with Meyer Landsman, the poor Jewish detective trying to put all the pieces together while trying to work out a new relationship to the ex-wife he cannot live without and find meaning in a life speeding toward an apocalyptic turning point.
But I can't help feeling that even if Chabon does not want to equate the messianic Hasidic criminals with our contemporary Islamic "fundamentalists", the comparison of poor secular Jews just trying to make sense out of their disintegrating Galut existence with these extreme bringers of the messiah is not flattering to the latter. Is Chabon trying to tell us that religion is the source of everything destructive in the world? Is the book a vote for a secular Jewish identity based on Jewish solidarity and Enlightenment humanist values? Or is he just following a common Jewish habit, posing questions about the meaning of Jewish and human life and letting the reader find his/her own answers?