The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Over the weekend I read a novel that I’ve had my eye on for a while.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. It was good to curl up with a book and live in another world for a little while.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union really is another world.
Chabon has dreamed up a universe in which, following the failure of the State of Israel in 1948, a Jewish homeland was declared in Alaska. Millions of Jews have settled into the Federal Territory of Sitka and call themselves the ‘Frozen Chosen’.The Yiddish Policemen's Union
It a disconcerting read. The world is recognisably ours, the year 2007. And yet, throughout the book you keep discovering that their history isn’t quite ours. The War turned out differently, Russia turned out differently, obviously Israel turned out differently.

That’s the great strength of fiction, making the familiar strange again so that we can grasp truths usually too far within the focal range of our mental or moral vision.

It’s a detective story, and a love story, and cheesy to boot. It’s also profoundly Jewish, there are lots of Yiddish words that never get explained other than through context and usage. I love that, that’s how language works. Most of what I hear everyday is incomprehensible, and from the rest 9/10 is redundant for working out what is really going on. Why do we persist with pretending that language is a system of engineering principles?

Along with plenty of Yiddish, the novel is loaded with the great Jewish themes which fortify the most resilient narrative identity that has ever existed: Exile, Redemption, Fatherhood, Alienation. All with a classically American Jewish sense of neurotic humour.

My favourite paragraph was also the last. Surely that is how it should be. In the spirit of thongs, I reproduce it here without any expilination.

“For days Landsman has been thinking that he missed his chance with Mendel Shpilman, that in their exile in the Hotel Zamenhof without even realising, he blew his one shot at something like redemption. But there is no Messiah of Sitka. Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina. The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by the dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of the tongue.”

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2 thoughts on “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

  1. nice post. Reminds me of Jasper Ffordes novels too (worth checking out!)

    Why do we persist with pretending that language is a system of engineering principles?

    Perhaps because I have not learned to listen well?

    Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Proverbs 5:7

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