Sunday, October 16, 2011
Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Noir on Frozen Tundra
(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in May 2007)
Michael Chabon’s wonderful new novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”(HarperCollins, $27) opens with Meyer Landsman, a Jewish police detective in Sitka, Alaska, being awakened from his drunken downward spiral in his flophouse hotel room. His downstairs neighbor, a heroin addict and chess hustler, has been shot dead. The grim reality surfaces that the murdered man was the missing son of Alaska’s most powerful rabbi and may have been the Messiah, according to Jewish legend.
Using alternative history, Chabon has settled the Jews of Europe in Alaska after World War II. The Zionists in Palestine were pushed into the Mediterranean in 1948, so Sitka is home to three million Jews. Chabon’s imaginary community is a freezing hybrid of Yiddish, American and Native Alaskan cultures, an incredibly witty Jewish “Blade Runner” of ethnic clashes. Landsman and his half-Indian Orthodox Jewish partner Berko must track down the dead man’s killer, plunging them into the murky world of the fictional Verbovers, an ultra-Orthodox sect with direct links to organized crime. It is six decades after Alaska was settled by Jews in the 1940s, but they bleakly await their possible expulsion through “Reversion,” the policy where the United States will reclaim its territory. Paying a brilliant homage to Raymond Chandler and film noir grittiness, Chabon has peopled a universe with Yiddish-speaking gangsters and cops, and extremist American Jews and Christian who dream of the apocalypse.
Chabon, 43, was raised in Maryland and educated at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California Irvine. Chabon is the author of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and Summerland,” and his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. Chabon met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a New York City hotel.
Q. How did you decide to set a Jewish community in Alaska?
A. At some point, I picked up this piece of trivia that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had proposed resettling the European Jews in Alaska. It’s one of these random bits of Jewish American lore that I knew. I thought of this again when I was writing an essay on the phrasebook “Say It in Yiddish: A Phrasebook for Travelers” for the now-defunct Civilization magazine. The book was written in 1958, after the Holocaust and after Yiddish had gone into decline. Where would you go with the book, where would you travel? In passing in the essay, I wondered what it would have been like if the Jews settled in Alaska, and you had as cold, Yiddish-speaking North American country. I was playing with a counter-Israel,an alternative Israel, where everything is inverted. Yet after you are done inverting everything, you are still left with some core similarities. That is what interested me.
Q. What was your own Jewish background and your relationship with Yiddish?
A. I was raised in Columbia, Maryland, in this independent congregation called the Columbia Jewish Congregation. I had a bar mitzvah. We went to synagogue on the High Holidays. We went to the synagogue on Friday night, not always, but sometimes. We lit candles, not always, but sometimes. I heard a lot of Yiddish growing up My mother’s father, my mother’s mother and my great aunt spoke Yiddish with each other all the time. They used it when they didn’t want the kids to understand.
In using Yiddish in the novel, I really proceeded as much as possible by ear, what sounded right and appropriate to me. I tried to stick to the fundamental rule that I would only use a Yiddish word in the text if it was being used in a way that was not readily translatable or being used in a slang manner. A word like shammes literally means a sextant, but it has the association with seamus. It felt like the right slang word for cop or detective. Other things I did a lot was translate Yiddish expressions, like “banging me a tea kettle,” which means to pester someone.
Q. Where does your hero Meyer Landsman come from?
A. He partly comes out of the hard-boiled detective genre. Normally, they are private eyes, but my guy is not. They are very isolated, solitary figures. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe lives by himself in a cheap apartment. It has this template of a lonely guy. in the course of writing this book, I realized that my story was overtly and implicitly concerned with redemption, and redemption of the world. This redemption was something that Meyer Landsman was going to need, too.
Q. But the book opens with the redeemer, a possible Messiah, dead in his hotel room with a bullet hole in the back of his head. Why?
A. As I started the second draft of the novel, I was pretty immersed in Jewish folklore and Hasidic folklore I had all this stuff in my mind, and at the same time I was reading Raymond Chandler’s short stories. What I noticed was that he had a lot of hotel dicks, hotel detectives. I love hotels. There was something appealing about a guy who lives in the hotel where the trouble takes place. Because I was plunged into the lore of the Messiah, I had this image of the Messiah lying dead in an hotel room. That image became very haunting. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the Messiah, but someone who had been considered a possible Messiah. This man, Mendel, is my favorite character. I have a lot of pity for him, partially because he has so much pity for others, though ultimately he is the most deserving of pity.
Q. What interested you in the “Reversion,” where the Jews may be expelled from Alaska, as their territory is returned to the United States?
A. That is our history. That is all that has ever happened to the Jews, up until 1948, one expulsion after another. I was raised with this sense, like every Jew, that everything was different after 1948, that history was altered. Now there was a new template for being Jewish, never having to undergo expulsion again. It’s incredibly shortsighted and a typical modern perspective that now we have arrived at the end of history. It’s foolish to assume that the way things are now are the way they always will be. I am very aware of the fragility of everything as Jews in America and Israel’s position in the world.