Books: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

I remember reading reviews of this novel when it was first published. Perhaps I was put off by the glowing reviews by a publication whose views often differed so much from my own. Perhaps it was the incongruity of a union of Yiddish policemen in Alaska that made me think the book was kind of off-the-wall. Somehow I just didn’t find the idea of reading it appealing.

But sooner or later my quest for more books on CD to listen to during my daily commute makes me reconsider books I hadn’t thought I was interested in reading. I suppose it didn’t hurt that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was one of the books recommended by my librarian friend when I asked for suggestions.

I was somewhat confused for a while because of the alternate history presented in this novel. I’ve read novels before with an alternate history, but usually the changes are to events in history which just about everyone is familiar with, such as having Hitler have won WWII.

I know little of the history of Alaska, and while I did not recognize the version of history presented here, I didn’t know how much was made up. Was there a resettlement of European Jews in Alaska? I’d never heard of it, but there are a lot of things I haven’t heard of if they had little impact on the larger world. And there was in fact a plan to resettle Jews in Alaska.

I found it interesting to learn that Michael Chabon came up with the idea as a result of finding a book called Say It In Yiddish. It is a phrasebook like those sold for travelers to many countries. But, Chabon wondered, where would one travel and need to be able to communicate in Yiddish? So he decided to make up such a place.

It is an interesting enough detective novel, but I found much of its strangeness more strange than intriguing. Meyer Landsman is apparently modeled after detectives such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Those are not the sort of detectives or detective novels I generally care for.

I was intrigued by the description of life within the ultra-traditional Verbover sect, as well as the mindset of the other, less religious (mostly non-religious?) Jews. But I have no idea whether they were moderately realistic for the alternate historical context set by Chabon. Sometimes they seemed more like caricatures to me.

This is especially so when it comes to the mystery finally uncovered by Landsman, which definitely qualifies as “strange.” Might real people hatch such a scheme? Probably – there are people who do and think some outrageous things. But at that point in the novel, the people behind that far-fetched plan are mostly faceless, if not nameless, and there is an air of unreality about the whole thing.

I like the premise of the book, about this Yiddish homeland in Alaska. But I was somewhat disappointed in the book itself. It’s probably a very good book – just not to my liking.


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