The novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union should come with a large, bold warning label affixed to the outside cover, like those labels on cigarette packs. WARNING: READ WITH CAUTION IF YOU ACTUALLY LIVE UNDER A JEWISH ISRAELI MILITARY OCCUPATION.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon should have known better than to gift me his novel. Michael visited our home in Palestine this past summer and after spending the day giving him a tour of the Palestinian cities of Al-Bireh and Ramallah (central West Bank) and Nablus (northern West Bank) we settled down, along with Palestinian writer Fida Jiryis, for dinner at Darna Restaurant, located in the heart of historic Ramallah. By the time dinner was over, not only had we learned about this author’s amazing professional career and life journey, but he casually mentioned a note about this novel that he wrote back in 2007 that was based on a real historic fact in U.S. politics related to the issue of Palestine and Israel. I was puzzled and asked if he was joking. He wasn’t. I’m sure it showed that I was embarrassed to have never heard of this fact, given I’m rather well read on the topic. Before parting, he passed me a copy of the novel as a thank you gift.
I must make a confession here. Reading fiction does not come easy for me. I guess, while living under a military occupation, there is too much non-fiction pounding at our lives to allow us to get happily lost in fiction. Reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union may have changed that. No wonder this novel received a ton of awards; it takes fiction to new levels. Not only does Michael have a truly amazing command of the English language (proof being that my dictionary accompanied me in turning each of the 414 pages), but it turns out his Yiddish is not so bad too. Add to that a true historic premise to base his plot on, and linking the story to a few themes that are alive and well, albeit repulsive (think murder, racism, substance abuse, and more) in today’s real world, and what comes to life is something that you’ll be reflecting on long after the book takes its well-earned place on your bookshelf.
When I was about half-way through the novel, a New York Times article came across my desk that made me burst out laughing. The article was titled, How Do You Say ‘Email’ in Yiddish?, by Joseph Berger (Oct. 4, 2016). It was about a new 826-page Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published in June by Indiana University Press. How’s that for synchronicity? Given every other word in Chabon’s novel that I was looking up was not in my English dictionary—because it was Yiddish—I almost wrote the New York Times to tell them that they missed mentioning a major contributor to keeping Yiddish alive, the novel I was reading.
I must say Michael is a bold writer. If The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was written by a non-Jew, it could well have marked the end of the author’s career, if not worse. But coming from a Jewish-American, a member of the tribe, if you will, he can take readers where others would not dream of going. He does this with an all-so-delicate balancing act that would afford him a lifetime membership with the Palestinian Circus School.
The historic U.S. political fact that took me off balance was, as I have come to learn, the very real 1940 Slattery Report, officially titled The Problem of Alaskan Development, which was produced by the United States Department of the Interior under Secretary Harold L. Ickes in 1939–40. It was named after Undersecretary of the Interior, Harry A. Slattery. The report recommended the provision of land in Alaska for the temporary refugee settlement of European Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.
Ickes proposed the use of Alaska as a “haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions.” The plan was introduced as a bill by Senator William King (Utah) and Democratic Representative Franck Havenner (California), both Democrats. The Alaska bill won the support of theologian Paul Tillich, widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, the Federal Council of Churches, and the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). The plan was dealt a severe blow when Franklin Roosevelt told Ickes that he insisted on limiting the number of refugees to 10,000 a year for five years, and with a further restriction that Jews make up not more than 10% of the refugees. Roosevelt never mentioned the Alaska proposal in public, and without his support the plan died. (Reference Jewish Standard)
This is where Michael leaves reality behind.
A Wikipedia entry summarizes the setting concisely, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternative history version of the present day. The premise is that, contrary to real history, the United States voted to implement the 1940 Slattery Report […]. The novel’s divergence point from real history is revealed in the first dozen chapters to be the death of Anthony Dimond, Alaska Territory delegate to the U.S. Congress, in a car accident; Dimond was one of the congressmen responsible for preventing a vote on the report. It imagines a temporary independent Jewish settlement being created on the Alaskan coast.”
The New York Times published a book review of the novel titled, The Frozen Chosen, by Patricia Cohen (April 29, 2007). You will understand why the New York Times and I both use this same title (although my use of capitalization is more accurate) after you read the book and if you have any knowledge of the real Israel. Cohen writes that Chabon attempts to answer the questions, “What if Jews had poured into a frigid island instead of the Middle Eastern desert, and the state of Israel had never been created? What if the small settlement of Sitka had grown into a teeming Jewish homeland, a land not of milk and honey but of salmon and lumber?”
The Jews in the novel who settled in the Alaskan city, Sitka, are anxious throughout the novel because the “Reversion” is nearing. The “Reversion” is the date when the orderly return of Sitka back to the State of Alaska is supposed to take place.
The Wikipedia entry continues, “In the novel, the State of Israel is founded in 1948, but is destroyed after only three months in an alternative version of the Arab-Israeli War. Without Israel, Palestine is described as a mosaic of contending religious and secular nationalist groups locked in internecine conflict; Jerusalem is described as “a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles.” The United States president believes in “divine sanction” for neo-Zionism, a movement seeking for Jews to reclaim Israel once again.”
All this while the main character, Yiddish policeman Meyer Landsman, seeks to resolve several murder investigations, and he and his partner stumble upon a paramilitary group that wants to build a new Temple in Jerusalem after destroying the Dome of the Rock, hoping to speed the birth of the Messiah. An evangelical Christian Zionist American government supports the group. As the novel nears the end, news reports are heard of the Dome of the Rock being bombed.
Chabon writes these words which made me stop to rethink if I was reading fiction or the daily news, “…they [U.S. Government] think the idea of a bunch of crazy yids running around Arab Palestine, blowing up shrines and following Messiahs and starting World War Three is a really good idea.” Elsewhere, Meyer Landsman contemplates the meaning of a “promised land” by saying, “I don’t care what is written. I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea.”
Now, why should this novel come with a warning label? Because between the seriousness of the political premise, the gut-wrenching humor, the community involved, the concept of a collective return of land as even being imaginable, the real, day to day stories—love, death, addiction, work, relationships, etc.—interspersed, and the burning of the Dome of Rock, which already happened once in reality and is being threatened again these days, it’s just too much for a person living under an actual Jewish (or so believed)-inspired military occupation to handle.
After coming away from the book feeling that my mind had just come out of a washing machine, I recalled this poster that I found a while back:
Thanks, Michael! I truly enjoyed this read. We are all looking forward to your and Ayelet Waldman’s upcoming book, Kingdom of Olives and Ash, from HarperCollins Publishing, addressing 50 years of the very real Israeli military occupation of Palestinians. The dozen or so award-winning, world-class authors contributing to this upcoming book will offer a sincere cry from the mountain top for this human-made tragedy called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to come to an end. Unlike in your novel, we Palestinians do not seek Reversion; we seek peace based on justice and equality for all, in a land not divided by walls, fences and checkpoints, but whose people are joined in harmony.