Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has been on my to-read list for a while now. I finally picked it up when I came across it browsing for another book. I decided, what the hey, why not read it now? I wasn’t sure what to expect because the summaries on the book were somewhat vague, but I was interested in the story because it’s an alternative history whodunnit murder mystery.
In this world, the United States created a Federal district in Sitka, Alaska to house the Jews fleeing Europe during and after WWII. And when Israel fails in 1948, those Jews also evacuate to Sitka. So the population of Sitka hovers around the 3 million mark. It’s not a state and it’s not permanent. They aren’t even granted U.S. citizenship. This becomes one of the themes the author deftly develops throughout the novel: Where do we belong?
Then we have the protagonist who is struggling to over come some rough experiences in his life while trying to the be the awesome cop that he is. A recent murder in his long-term hotel (his home for the time being) sets him up for a quest into the under-belly of Sitka and right-wing Jewish religious politics.
10 hours after finishing the book I still don’t know whether I liked it or not. It’s almost the same feeling I had after reading the Game of Thrones quintet. Part of why I hesitate to shout my praises from the roof top is due to needing a lot of cultural context to read this book. Because this is a Jewish district populated by mostly European Jews, Yiddish is the language of the district. Because Israel failed, Hebrew is basically extinct expect for in the synagogue. Throughout the book there’s a lot of Yiddish used but no translation given. Having read Chaim Potok, Jonathan Safran Foer, and studying both Yiddish and German, I didn’t have too many problems. In fact, the geek in me was excited when I recognized several words and phrases (See! being a language geek does pay off. Sometimes.) But someone who doesn’t have this background may get frustrated or miss out on some of the nuances of the text.
Then there’s the Jewish religious culture. Not all of the Jews of Sitka are religious. Those that are religious represent the major sects of Judaism, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic. Again, though, being familiar with Judaism helped me understand the plot and context because no explanation was given by the author. This is what led me to wonder if the author wasn’t writing for a Jewish audience. Or maybe he figured that if you were interested in the book you might be, like me, familiar with Judaism and Jewish culture. Or maybe you just wanted to jump in and try your Yiddish and get your Kosher on. Who knows?
Nu, what I do know is that every day at work I looked forward to jumping back into this world while I read at lunch. And I couldn’t wait to race home at the end of the day to see what updates there were on the murder case. And when I read, I got lost in the world. I’d find that I had read 25-50 pages without really knowing I had gone that far. For an author to get me so absorbed into the book that I don’t notice when I’ve crossed over into another chapter, it’s good writing. So while I had to struggle through all of the yiddishkeit, I’m going to give the author props for drawing me into the world and introducing me to characters and a story I’m going to miss.