July 07

A Long Way from Zion: Michael Chabon's Yiddish Noir

Joshua Furst

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
HarperCollins, 2007

Michael Chabon knows how to shmear it on. In the debate between art and entertainment, he sides loudly with the latter, shouting out with each successive sentence, watch me as I give you what you want. The excitement Chabon’s capable of generating on the page is so compulsively readable, in fact, that it’s possible to read through his entire oeuvre without noticing how his thematic and intellectual ambition grows with each successive book.

From the batty neo-goth girlfriend of Art Bechstein, the hero of his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, through Grady Tripp, the writing professor suffering from second book syndrome in The Wonder Boys, to the eponymous hardscrabble immigrants in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay , he packs his books with cultural types, and in case those are too prosaic, he fills the cast out with crowd-pleasing mobsters, werewolves, golems, and superheroes – everything, as they say, but the kitchen sink. Then he runs these characters through the action-packed paces, dabbling in genres as various as the college soap opera, the comic book and late-Victorian detective fiction, all the while showing more fidelity to the beauty of his sentences and the nuances of human emotion than your average plot-smith and thus earning himself the well-deserved status he’s achieved as our reigning master of literary jujitsu.

This time, he’s turned his attention to the noir. His new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, follows the lumps and hunches of Meyer Landsman, a wisecracking, alcoholic detective in search of answers in a case involving a dead junky. The junky, whose name is Mendel Shpilman, turns out to be someone important – very important – no less than the Messiah himself. His fate and that of his chess board form the MacGuffin of this tale. As the novel unfolds, Landsman’s attempts to find Shpilman’s murderer lead the reader into a more and more labyrinthine underworld populated by “blackhats,” most notably, a secretive Hasidic sect called Verbovers, who somewhat resemble Lubavitchers in Chabon’s world.

Eventually, we learn that the future of the Jews hangs in the balance. Landsman’s psychological and emotional well-being – will he and his ex-wife get back together? Will he uncover the secrets of his past? – hang in the balance, as well, of course. Everything turns out to be interconnected. Of course it does. Chabon knows what we yearn for (Conspiracy! Cliffhangers! Catharsis!) and he’s going to make damn sure that we get it.

As though upping the ante, Chabon has embedded the usual dark shadows, gunfights and foot chases of his noir in an alternative-historical landscape of the high concept sort so popular in our contemporary literary moment. The conceit goes as follows: in 1948, after the nascent Jewish nation of Israel was flipped like a coin back into the Mediterranean Sea, the United States government created an interim Jewish state across a swath of the Alaskan panhandle. Now sixty years later, the Federal District of Sitka, as it’s called, is on the verge of being reclaimed by the U.S. and its Jews are on the verge of being shoved into another long period of wandering.

This is where the kitchen sink comes in (it belongs to your grandmother, she labors over it in her sturdy shoes, washing the kiddush cup and the seder plate, kvetching about the racket downstairs). Sitka is a kind of Jewish paradise that allows Chabon to revel in his nostalgia for a past that never existed – of course, in Chabon’s world this past is the alternative present and questions of authenticity are rendered irrelevant. Here we find Jews swigging seltzer, gulping down antacid, chomping on pickles and kugel, larding everything with sour cream. They eat in “Kafeterias.” They waste away the days hunched over chessboards. And of course, they speak Yiddish – shruggingly, verbosely, always in search of an opportunity to crack wise. They think Yiddish, walk Yiddish, smoke Yiddish. God, they live Yiddish. Nu, even when Landsman’s partner Berko sighs over his dinner, he “emits a weary sound, a Yiddish sound, halfway between a belch and lamentation.” Chabon has created a Jewish homeland that is one part shtetl, one part Orchard Street circa 1930, and one part Brighton Beach. He writes like one returning to the fold, reveling in all he’d tried to ignore, and in doing so, he makes a fetish of the not necessarily Jewish, but definitely Jewy kitsch that has come to signify cultural pride. It’s all so soothing, so entertaining, that when we begin to see what he’s truly up to, it almost seems like an afterthought.

In actuality, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a much more serious book than it pretends to be. By allowing his Jewish homeland to blossom far from the conflicts of the Middle East, Chabon frees himself of the need to parse and confront the polarizing effect Zionism and the politics of Israeli nationalism have had on contemporary Jewish identity. As he wistfully puts it:

‘…the traditional complaint, tantamount to a creed or at least a philosophy, of the Sitka Jew – Nobody gives a damn about us, stuck up here between Hoonah and Hotzeplotz – strikes Landsman as having been a blessing these past sixty years, and not the affliction they had all, in their backwater of geography and history, supposed.’

There’s a sleight of hand at work here. Chabon’s making us comfortable, inviting us to snuggle into the sentimentality of his conceit.

By the time the Temple Mount turns out to play its rather large role in the story, he’s carved room for himself to explore the explosive debate constantly rumbling in that Dome’s shadow from an angle that gives the less fundamentalist voices in Jewish culture the upper hand. The Zionists in the book are fanatics, mobsters and thugs opportunistically exploiting messianism and seizing onto the bête noir of the Promised Land out of sheer political necessity. They’ll do anything – slaughter their own people, destabilize the world – in order to get what they want.

Chabon lays it all out late in the book while Landsman and his boss and ex-wife (and the only woman he’s ever loved) Bina Gelbfish discuss the possibility of the U.S. Government’s secretly supporting these radical Zionist factions in Sitka:

…they think the idea of a bunch of crazy yids running around Arab Palestine, blowing up shrines and following Messiahs and starting World War Three is a really good idea.

Strong stuff.

That, in the novel, this theory turns out to be true, and the “crazy yids” in question are complicit in it makes the critique all the more searing. And exceptionally relevant to the current geo-political realities of our world. “That’s the kind of shit we have to look forward to now. Burning cars and homicidal dancing,” says one of the more progressive characters, bemoaning the dire prospects for the future. Meanwhile, in Sitka, what makes a “good Jew” has nothing to do with the 613 mitzvot or the Jewish Defense League.

But we hardly notice the angry commentary woven into the plot and this is a testament to Michael Chabon’s storytelling talent. The provocative ideas the novel’s playing with fly by like bullets and the reader surges forward, frantically reading to find out what happens next.

Chabon’s approach to the literary arts mirrors in some ways that of Graham Greene. Like Greene, Chabon interests himself primarily with genre. He sets himself a challenge – write a detective tale, a war story, a coming of age novel, write an entertainment. Take an already existing form and perfect it, then move on to something new. Like vultures, they both search the pop narrative roadside for rotting carrion to dive in and devour. And in both of their cases, the focus on craftsmanship masks and makes palatable to the general reader an ever deepening, and deeply earnest, exploration of religious themes.

For Greene the subject was Catholicism. Chabon is mapping out his growing devotion to – and ongoing, indicatively Jewish, discomfort with – his Jewish identity. With each successive novel, his focus on the Jewish themes that clearly obsess him deepens. In The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the hero is Jewish, but this circumstance is embarrassing to him; he operates in a secular reality and his central conflict throughout the novel is with how to separate himself from his gangster father’s world. In Wonder Boys, there is a Passover seder, but it’s played for laughs, and the prose fixates primarily on the stuff of Judaism, the tchotchkes and the bickering. Kavalier and Clay explores, among other things, the ways Jews cloak themselves in order to assimilate and what they lose in the process. Now, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon is attempting to uncover fresh modes through which to imagine Jewish community.

Storytelling is central to this goal. Everyone in Sitka – the journalists, the aging chess addicts, the bereaved mothers, even the “boundary maven,” everyone but the eternally silent Tzaddik Ha-Dor (the Messiah in potentia) – compulsively tells stories, contradictory, self-serving, far-fetched at times, yes, but full of revelations about how they see themselves, their communities, their world.

Crucially, the detective protagonists of the novel tell stories too. Telling stories is, in fact, their vocation. They “[get] paid – and live – to notice what normal people miss.” They compile the evidence and rumors and tales of others, then, by resolving the narrative problems they find there, they solve their crimes.

Of course, we come to know ourselves through the act of telling. Our stories remind us of what we believe and what we have in common with each other. But, Chabon notes, it’s slightly more complicated than that. “The story…is telling us. Just like it has done from the beginning. We’re part of the story. You. Me.” The detective’s – and novelist’s – job is to interpret it, to imagine the story in such a way that it somehow illuminates the large myths that make us who we are.

Early in the book, as Landsman pushes himself to confront his fear of the dark, Chabon describes his reasoning this way: “[He did it] just to spite himself, because spiting himself, spiting others, spiting the world is the pastime and only patrimony of Landsman and his people.” The joke has teeth, it gnaws at the questions that are central to the book, and it’s no coincidence that the name Landsman means countryman, neighbor, fellow Jew. As the story progresses, Chabon and his hero struggle to find an alternative heritage. They don’t want to live in bitterness and spite. They want to live with more self-respect than that, to reserve the right to define for themselves the meaning of their Jewish identity.

By the end, Landsman seems to have discovered something about what binds his people to each other.

Any kind of wonder seems likely. That the Jews will pick up and set sail for the promised land to feast on giant grapes and toss their beards in the desert wind. That the Temple will be rebuilt, speedily and in our day. War will cease, ease and plenty and righteousness will be universal, and humankind will be treated to the regular spectacle of lions and lambs cohabitating. Every man will be a rabbi, every woman a holy book, and every suit will come with two pairs of pants.

Note the future perfect tense. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union strongly implies that Chabon finds all this quite a bit unlikely. At least right now. In the meantime, what we have is our history and each other, our fellowship in exile. The passage continues, tracing the meniscus of the past as Landsman’s thoughts swell toward the future:

Meyer’s seed, even now, may be wandering through darkness toward redemption, striking at the membrane that separates the legacy of the yids who made him from the yids whose errors, griefs, hopes, and calamities went into the production of Bina Gelbfish.

Bina Gelbfish. The love of Landsman’s life. Chabon has already told us how he wants us to think of her:

You have to look to Jews like Bina Gelbfish…to explain the wide range and persistence of the race. Jews who carry their homes in an old cowhide bag, on the back of a camel, in the bubble of air at the center of their brains. Jews who land on their feet, hit the ground running, ride out the vicissitudes, and make the best of what falls to hand, from Egypt to Babylon, from Minsk Gubernya to the District of Sitka…A mere redrawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.

The future is uncertain and continuance dependent on a hard-nosed domestic preparedness for exile. The Messiah is always already dead and the messianic age infinitely deferred. Until then endurance, and wandering, will have to suffice.



Joshua Furst's novel The Sabotage Café will be published next month.