If Raymond Chandler had sat down with Isaac Bashevis Singer
over a bottle of schnapps, they might have produced The Yiddish Policemanís
The Yiddish Policemenís Union combines a noir murder mystery with Jewish
messianic beliefs in a "what if . . . " context that springs from an actual
historical fact. Chabonís starting point is the 1940 Slattery Report that
recommended that Alaska be used for temporarily resettling European Jews fleeing
the Nazis. In reality, Alaska Territory Delegate to the U.S. House of
Representatives Anthony J. Dimond prevented a vote on the Slattery
recommendation from ever taking place.
In Chabonís book, the Jews of Alaska are within months of losing their temporary
sanctuary, which will rejoin the United States. The State of Israel had been
established in 1948, but was destroyed within three months by an Arab-Israeli
War. The U.S. President believes in a divine mandate for the Jews to reclaim
Israel once again.
The main character, Meyer Landsman, is an alcoholic homicide detective for the
Sitka police department. He and his wife, Bina Gelbfish (also a police officer),
have separated because Meyer is unable to live with the guilt of their decision
to abort their unborn child Django due to a tragic genetic problem. Meyerís
father, Isador Landsman, was a Holocaust survivor and chess grandmaster. His
sister, Naomi, a bush pilot, died in a suspicious plane crash the year before.
Meyer is called in on the murder of a fellow resident of the Hotel Zamenhoff.
The victim, Emmanuel Lasker, has been shot execution-style with equipment for
shooting up heroin beside him along with a chessboard in mid-game and a copy of
a book of famous chess games. Investigation uncovers the fact that the victim is
actually Mendel Shpilman, son of a Hasidic Rebbe, who had disowned him.
Meyerís wife, Bina, is promoted to commander of their unit. The unit is charged
with speedily cleaning up its docket of unsolved cases before Alaska reverts to
American control. Meyer is involved in a shootout that leads to a suspension
from active duty. He unofficially pursues the Shpilman case on the strength of a
ragged Yiddish Policemenís Union ID card.
As Meyer drills into the issue of who killed Shpilman and why, the implications
of his discoveries grow into dramatic international proportions
While The Yiddish Policemenís Union requires consciously suspending disbelief,
it is suspenseful, poignant and hilarious. Yiddish speakers and chess mavens
mingle with Tinglit Native Americans. Characters reach for their cell phones
made by Shoyfer. Cops and bad guys alike carry guns referred to as shaloms -- a
ďpieceĒ in detective books or perhaps a peace-maker.
Chabonís Pultizer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a
more factually realistic tale of Jewish cartoonists during the 1930s and World
War II years. The Yiddish Policemanís Union is a celebration of imagination and
Yiddishkeit. Any reader with a taste for alternate realities and paradox will
have much to enjoy in The Yiddish Policemenís Union.
© Jeannette M. Hartman, 2009