So what's a person supposed to do? You're a cop, a shamus no less, and one who didn't used to be half bad at that, one time or another, before the booze and the divorce. Which is a story for another time, although it's also the story, but not right here and now, if you get me. So, when the manager of the establishment where you are renting a room comes to you and says he thinks there's something wrong with Mr. So-and-So in Room Such-and-Such, it's only polite for you to oblige him — seeing as how you're on the spot, so to speak — and confirm that Mr. So-and-So is indeed not well.
He's as not well as a person can get when the back of his head has interfered with the path of a rather small projectile whose size was somewhat mitigated by the calibre of the item that started the object on the trajectory that saw it reach its terminus, so to speak, in the terminal of Mr. So-and-So's brain pan. Judging by the holes in his arm, Mr. Dead Body in Room 208, was just another junkie who made a bad mistake when it came to choosing friends.
But what kind of junkie uses the strap from his tefillin to tie off? Most of his fellow members of the black hat brigade put those straps with their little boxes to a different use, you know. Homicide detectives know their stuff and they know that the prayer straps and boxes of the ultra orthodox aren't a junkie's usual means for binding an arm so that a vein should stand out for its needle.
For Homicide Detective Meyer Landsman, what looks to be such a simple case of just another junkie murder starts to smell like pickled herring. Especially when he finds out the boy is the very late son of the head of an ultra orthodox sect of Hassidim, who also are the biggest crime organization in all of the Federal District of Sitka.
Welcome to the fictional world Michael Chabon has created in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, where Jewish settlers came to the federal district of Alaska prior to its being granted statehood in the years before World War II. Only three months into the creation of the nascent country of Israel, the Jews of Europe have descended on the land where settlements were already being established.
Instead of Alaska becoming a state, as we know it, Sitka was created, with the provision that its status be reviewed in 60 years. As the book opens, the 60 years have almost run down and the current American administration has pulled the plug with the land about to be pulled out from under the Jews.
For Landsman and his fellow officers life has taken on a sort of surreal quality. What happens to them in two months time? Do all of a sudden they cease to exist as law enforcement officers? What happens to their unsolved cases?
What the police department is feeling is of course a reflection of what every Jew in the district is going through. It looks as though at least 60 percent will be forced to leave and be put back on the treadmill of the wandering Jew again. It's easy to see how the promise of a Messiah could be so attractive at a time like this.
When the Messiah comes the Temple will rise again in Jerusalem on the place where Abraham the Father was prepared to offer up his son's blood to his lord; the place where both the first and second temple had existed prior to being destroyed first by the Babylonians and then the Romans. The exact spot where, the Dome On The Rock now stands, one of the most sacred sites in the Muslim world; a potential conflict of interest, needless to say.
But what happens if the Messiah decided years ago he wanted to have nothing to do with the whole business? Can the Promised Land still exist without him? Will the people still follow? The question that concerns Landsman the most, though, is could the aforementioned dead junkie be the Messiah?
I've never read anything else of Michael Chabon's so I wasn't sure what to expect. I do know that I didn't expect to find a whole book populated by characters that sounded like my mother's extended family. What he has done is imbue the whole book with the character of the Jewish people.
He walks the delicate balance of characterization and stereotype beautifully, without once ever slipping down onto the side of the pejorative. The clichés are all there on display but not once are they allowed to become real. Each time he seems to be in danger of falling into one of them he puts a little twist in our expectations of what a Jew "should" or "would" do in that circumstances, and turns the cliché or stereotype in on itself.
One of the reasons Chabon is able to escape this trap is his ability to create characters. From the smallest of cameos to his leads, every single one has an air of authenticity that ensures everything they do and all that happens around them is true. It doesn't hurt that he has an impeccable ear that has allowed him to recreate the nuances of Jewish speech patterns on the page perfectly.
These aren't vaudeville Jews; these are flesh and blood people whose place in this world has always been tenuous. What would have happened if the new state of Israel had failed in 1949? Where would world Jewry have gone then? Would they have been at the mercy of the whims of politics and fashion like they are in The Yiddish Policemen' Union in Alaska? Like they had been for centuries earlier in the various kingdoms of Europe? One minute welcomed with open arms, the next expelled, threatened, forced to convert, or burnt at the stake?
These aren't questions that any of us have had to face, but remember in pre World War II North America, in spite of the death camps, our governments were turning Jews away as unwanted. Michael Chabon throws that question in our faces and makes us deal with it, and in doing so offers the best argument for the existence of Israel that you'll ever hear.
He puts down the ultra-religious who scorn the rights of others — like those who would build settlements on Arab lands and who treat the Arab world as inferiors — by having a parallel situation with the native Tlingit's of Alaska. In doing this he shows that supporting the idea of an Israel for Jewish people does not mean a country at the expense of others, but as what it was meant to be: A place where Jews decide their own fates and are not at the mercy of another's whims, unlike any situation they have enjoyed in their long history, even to this day. If you believe that Israel today is not subject to someone else's policy, you are either naïve or blind.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is part Raymond Chandler, part Damon Runyon, and part political satire at its finest. Michael Chabon is Isaac Singer cut with a modern sensibility that makes for an honest, sad, funny, and very real novel.