Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (again)

I blame Israel's government entirely for the decisions it has made since October 7, 2023; I blame Hamas for its actions of that day, and for whatever it has done since then to hold up resolution.  The years before that (and the days since, too) are muddy, fuzzy, and smeared with blood and dust. If there's no resolution, then there will be permanent war, and neither Hamas' actions on October 7 or Israel's actions since then have done anything to make me expect anything but permanent war in the region.

I've been grieving this since the very first moment that I first learned anything about Mideast politics, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. My grade 6 class was camping at McQueen Lake when it happened, in the hills above Kamloops, and the teachers and counsellors were glued to the radio. They made an announcement to us about what had happened, and honestly I don't think a single one of us had a clue what we were being told, or why. Over the succeeding months, I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, and all I learned was that it was utterly, utterly, utterly beyond my grasp.

(Yesterday was May 26, 2024. Among other things, Israel dropped some 2000-pound bombs on the tents of a refugee camp in Rafah. Israel is saying that two senior Hamas commanders were killed. Everyone else is a little more focused on the other 26 deaths so far, plus the roughly 200 injuries.)

After recently stumbling across and reading Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, an improbably beautifully volume of book reviews etc, it felt like time to revisit his novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I had read and remarked on it it before, but it has been much on my mind for months, given the churn of terrible news out of Gaza and Israel since October 7, 2023 (although there was also terrible news on October 7th itself, obviously, and sporadically but almost constantly so for decades before that as well).

What a great picture! Click here for source.
It's an alternate history, which I summarized this way the last time I blogged about this novel: "in 1940, the US acts on Harold Ickes' proposal that Jewish settlement be approved for Sitka, Alaska, and when Israel collapses in 1948, Jewish immigration to the US explodes and concentrates there. Decades later, with the sixty-year lease about to expire, there are more than three million Jews living in Sitka."

(On October 7, 2023, Hamas crossed into Israel, kidnapping approximately 240 people and killing approximately 1200. Details have proven impossible to verify absolutely so far, but it seems that while Hamas killed the vast majority of those who died in the fighting, others were killed by the "friendly fire" of Israeli forces that were pursuing and attacking the Hamas fighters.)

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is basically a murder mystery, with a few deaths to be pursued by detectives Meyer Landsman and Berko Shemets (whose mother was Tlingit) and their boss and Landsman's ex-wife, Inspector Bina Gelbfish. The problem is that all of this is happening in the endtimes,  so to speak, which makes it entirely logical that everyone's focused on what amounts to an apocalypse: the termination and non-renewal of the 60-year lease that has made Sitka the new Israel. As a result, 60 years of settlement will have to be abandoned, leaving the Jews once again a people without a home who are forced to give up their homes and belongings. The deaths of a few Jews, Landsman and the others uncomfortably admit, isn't much beside the coming implosion.

Landsman--a perfect name, no?--doesn't want to face what's coming, so for some years he's chosen to be consumed by his work and by alcohol. His partners live in an awkward kind of symbiosis with him, letting his police instincts drive them forward while trying to protect him from himself, which they've recognized by this point is an impossible task. Shemets and his family won't have to leave, of course, because of his Tlingit heritage, but he sees the apocalypse just as clearly as Landsman does.

(Between October 7, 2023, and today, May 27, 2024, approximately 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, and another 81,000 seriously injured. Of those killed, it's believed that 44% are under age 18, and another 28% are women. Even if every man killed in Gaza had been a Hamas fighter, which would be nonsensical, this would be by far the most lethal attack on a civilian population in modern history.)

It's challenging to talk much about this novel's plot without giving it away, but let's just say that by the end of the novel, the Jews of Sitka and elsewhere have been shown to have always been fractured into sects and groups and splinters, with radically different aims. This is no different from the present world, of course, and no different from any other large group of people (Canadians, for example, in the current rainbow of pro-/anti- Trudeau/Poilievre schisms), but I appreciated that Chabon would take that approach. Evangelical Christians, too, show up to play a predictably filthy role, much as they're doing in the timeline that we're all living through rather than reading about in The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

While prepping to post on Chabon's Maps and Legends, I learned that Chabon and his wife are both open about their politics on the current Palestinian situation. Chabon's in the US still, but Ayelet Waldman was arrested in April 2024 for trying to carry food into Gaza.

Given their politics, I'd be really curious to see what Chabon would've done with this novel's conclusion in relation to what's been happening in Israel and Gaza over the last six months. It's a fascinating novel, but for someone like me, who follows no faith and habitually distrusts the more vocal followers of any faith, my sense is that I'm going to miss a lot. I don't want to learn enough that I could get it all, either, but Chabon's a writer that absolutely I trust to be thoughtful about whatever is on his mind.

(Children shouldn't be killed. Not by individuals, and not by governments. Whatever the resolution turns out to be for those Middle Eastern lands that have been under nearly continuous combat for so many decades, maybe we can agree that children shouldn't be targets?)

Really a fun novel, in the intensity of its imagined revision of the Alaskan coast, but it's a continual reminder of the current situation in Gaza, without offering any kind of resolution or escapism, and that's a tough thing.


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