Matt Forney
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The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Alternate history, like sci-fi and fantasy, is one of those genres that is nearly unreadable due to its infestation with goons and dorks. Much in the same way that science fiction and fantasy novels are larded up with extraneous detail about the world the story takes place in, alternate history writers are obsessed with vomiting out useless information about their books’ settings, destroying any possibility of character development or an interesting plot. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is about the only enjoyable alternate history novel I’ve ever read, mainly because its setting—a world in which the Nazis won World War II—is believable and it doesn’t drown you in an avalanche of superfluous information.

With The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I can add another book to that list.

The only reason I bought this book—or even heard of it—was because I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers and had read that they were planning to do a film adaptation. After reading it, I can definitely understand why the Coens were attracted to it: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an enthralling blend of hardboiled crime novels, dry humor and history. While at times it’s more pastiche than original, it comes together to create a story more than the sum of its parts.

The premise of Policemen’s Union begins with the Slattery Report. In 1940, Interior Undersecretary Henry Slattery recommended that the U.S. allow Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany to settle in Alaska, which would serve the dual purpose of getting the Jews out of harm’s way while developing Alaska’s vast natural resources. Despite support from other members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, the plan was killed before it could be brought to a vote before Congress. In Michael Chabon’s story, however, the untimely death of Alaska Territory delegate Anthony Dimond results in the Slattery Report being passed into law:

Not quite two years later, Hertz Shemets, his mother, and his kid sister, Freydl, arrived on Baranof Island, Alaska, with the first wave of Galitzer settlers. He came on the notorious Diamond, a World War I– era troop transport that Secretary Ickes ordered taken out of mothballs and rechristened as a left-handed memorial, or so legend has it, to the late Anthony Dimond, the Alaska Territory’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. (Until the fatal intervention on a Washington, D.C., street corner of a drunken, taxi-driving schlemiel named Denny Lanning—eternal hero of the Sitka Jews—Delegate Dimond had been on the verge of getting the Alaskan Settlement Act killed in committee.) Thin, pale, bewildered, Hertz Shemets stepped from the Diamond, from the dark and the reek of soup and rusty puddles, to the clean cold spice of Sitka pine. With his family and his people he was numbered, inoculated, deloused, tagged like a migrant bird by the stipulations of the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940. In a cardboard pocketbook he carried an “Ickes passport,” a special emergency visa printed on special flimsy paper with special smeary ink.

As a result, only a fraction of Europe’s Jews are killed in the Holocaust, and while Zionists do succeed in setting up an independent Israel in 1948, it is conquered and wiped out mere months later due to a lack of manpower to fight the surrounding Arab states. Policemen’s Union is set sixty years after World War II in Sitka, which has become a massive, sprawling metropolis on the brink of extermination. It’s the eve of Reversion, when Alaska will return to gentile control, meaning all the Jews will have to emigrate.

The beautiful thing about Chabon’s premise is that this is where he leaves it. While he mentions other aspects of history in passing, he doesn’t belabor the novel’s backstory, instead depicting the lives of Sitka’s Jewish residents though subtlety and omission. The defining theme of Policemen’s Union is alienation, a common trope in Jewish literature but explored here in a way that is original and refreshing. Sitka’s residents primarily speak Yiddish, cutting them off not only from gentiles but from their fellow American Jews; they are restricted from traveling to other parts of the U.S.; their society is anachronistic, preserving aspects of European Jewish culture long after the rest of the world has moved on:

“I’m willing to venture that on occasion he played chess,” Landsman says. One of the three books in the room is a creased and broken-backed paperback edition of Three Hundred Chess Games by Siegbert Tarrasch. It has a manila pocket pasted to its inside back cover, with a return card that shows it was last borrowed from the central branch of the Sitka Public Library in July 1986. Landsman can’t help thinking that he first made love to his future ex-wife in July 1986. Bina was twenty at the time, and Landsman was twenty-three, and it was the height of the northern summer. July 1986 is the date stamped onto the card in the pocket of Landsman’s illusions. The other two books are cheap Yiddish thrillers. “Beyond that I know goat shit.”

The novel’s protagonist is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, divorced, middle-aged homicide detective assigned to investigate the murder of Mendel Shpilman, believed by many of Sitka’s residents to be the messiah. Landsman’s sad-sack yet determined personality calls to mind Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; he is consistently bossed around by his superior and ex-wife Bina and relies on his partner, the half-Indian Berko Shemets, to pull his feet out of the fire every time he gets in a jam. Much of the novel’s comedy comes from Landsman’s Sam Spade fantasies constantly colliding with reality:

“Who said anything about needing?” Landsman says, fumbling with the button fly of some worn twill trousers. Cotton work shirt, laceless canvas sneaks. They want to dress him like a wino, or a beach bum, or some other kind of loser who turns up naked at your intake desk, homeless, no visible means of support. The shoes are too big, but otherwise, everything’s a perfect fit.

The other clever aspect of Policemen’s Union comes from Chabon’s use of Yiddish. He claims his inspiration for the novel came from an old translation guide he found in a bookstore called Say it in Yiddish; his dialogue is peppered with various Yiddish phrases both authentic and original, giving the book a flavor all its own. For example, snitches are known as “shtinkers,” while hitmen are referred to as “shlossers” (literally “mechanic”).

While the main plot of Policemen’s Union follows a somewhat predictable path for detective novels, the story remains engrossing due to Chabon’s tight dialogue and the book’s unique setting. Chabon’s prose is economical and only dives into repetitious overwriting on a couple of occasions. Additionally, the plot ties into contemporary American culture in a pretty creative way. I won’t spoil it, other than to say that if you know how Jewish and Christian relations work in the U.S., it won’t surprise you much at all.

I would love to see what the Coen brothers make of this book.

My one complaint with Policemen’s Union, or at least with the Kindle edition, is the way the book’s glossary is organized. Chabon helpfully provides an index of all the Yiddish slang used in the novel, but the Kindle version lacks hyperlinks to it, meaning you need to stop reading and manually flip over to the glossary every time you come across a new word. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little annoying. The book would have been improved had Chabon used footnotes instead.

Otherwise, if you enjoy detective fiction and alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a great entry for both genres and is absolutely worth your time.

Click here to buy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

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