The Yiddish Policemenís Union
Michael Chabon

If Raymond Chandler had sat down with Isaac Bashevis Singer over a bottle of schnapps, they might have produced The Yiddish Policemanís Union.

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

  From Issue:10.11
Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
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