The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

Hardcover, 2007

Call number




Harper/Collins (2007), Edition: 1st, 432 pages


In a world in which Alaska, rather than Israel, has become the homeland for the Jews following World War II, Detective Meyer Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner Berko investigate the death of a heroin-addled chess prodigy.

Media reviews

Chabon is a spectacular writer. He does a witty turn reinventing Yiddish for the modern Alaskan Jews - of course the lingua franca of Jews without an Israel - just a little of which I, with only faintly remembered childhood Yiddish, could grasp. A mobile phone is a shoyfer (perhaps because, like
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the ram's horn, it calls you), a gun is a sholem (a Yiddish version of a Peacemaker?). Chabon is a language magician, turning everything into something else just for the delight of playing tricks with words. He takes the wry, underbelly vision of the ordinary that the best of noir fiction offers and ratchets it up to the limit. Nothing is allowed to be itself; all people and events are observed as an echo of something else. Voices are like "an onion rolling in a bucket", or rusty forks falling. An approaching motorcycle is "a heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp." Chabon's ornate prose makes Chandler's fruity observations of the world look quite plain. Nothing is described as just the way it is. Nothing is let be. He writes like a dream and has you laughing out loud, applauding the fun he has with language and the way he takes the task of a writer and runs delighted rings around it. For the most part, Chabon's writing serves the knotted mystery that is being unravelled, but there is eventually a point where it begins to weary the mind, where the elaborations of things get in the way of the things themselves and the narrative gets sucked under by style. The compulsory paragraph of Byzantine physical description whenever another character arrives on the scene starts to seem an irritating interlude; another over-reaching cadenza. Though it seems churlish to complain about such a vivid talent, a little less would have been enough already.
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8 more
It’s obvious that the creation of this strange, vibrant, unreal world is Chabon’s idea of heaven. He seems happy here, almost giddy, high on the imaginative freedom that has always been the most cherished value in his fiction.
Some of the pleasures of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are, actually, distinctly Dan Brown–ish. Mr. Chabon often ends chapters with cliffhangers that might be tiresome in the hands of a lesser writer (say, Dan Brown). Here, they’re over-the-top suspenseful, savory and delicious.
More important, Mr. Chabon has so thoroughly conjured the fictional world of Sitka — its history, culture, geography, its incestuous and byzantine political and sectarian divisions — that the reader comes to take its existence for granted. By the end of the book, we feel we know this chilly
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piece of northern real estate, where Yiddish is the language of choice, the same way we feel we have come to know Meyer Landsman — this “secular policeman” who has learned to sail “double-hulled against tragedy,” ever wary of “the hairline fissures, the little freaks of torque” that can topple a boat in the shallows.
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This novel makes you think, but it is an ordeal to read. The problem: Chabon has mixed two very dark story lines that jar the reader. There is the real tragedy of Sitka's wandering Jews, and then there is the faux bleakness of the noir genre with its posturing attitude. The central character comes
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across as a Jewish Humphrey Bogart wannabe, not a three-dimensional character who can shoulder a 400-plus-page novel about exile, fanatics and longing.
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"The novel’s central mystery hinges on a chess problem that was designed, Chabon tells us in the acknowledgments, by Vladimir Nabokov—and like the Russian puzzlemaster, Chabon seems to be trying, entertainingly, to push vivid prose to its natural limit. His sentences are clean and cocky and
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loaded and at least as entertaining as the mystery itself. "
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Michael Chabon er en vidunderlig skribent.(...) Hans sprog er så detaljeret og sansemættet, at man nærmest kan fornemme duftene og mærke det, der sker i bøgerne." "Først og fremmest er Det jiddische politiforbund en virkelig, virkelig god roman. (...) Men den er også morsom. Og grum. Og
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smuk. Og fabulerende. Og fuldstændig enestående underholdning på en og samme tid.
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Berlingske Tidende
Michael Chabon brillerer igen med genreleg i en roman, der er lige lidt mere end blot underholdende.(...) Han kan sit håndværk perfekt, og man overgiver sig uforbeholdent.
Michael Chabon er stadig skæv, vild, morsom og ligefrem storladen i sin fortælling. Jeg finder det nemt at overgive mig, man kan slet ikke lade være, dertil er Chabon alt for sprudlende begavet, og hans fortælling alt for lystfyldt.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
What if in 1948 the newly established state of Israel collapsed? And what if the Alaskan panhandle(named Sitka) became the home for 4 million Jews instead? And what if, after 60 years, this "home" reverted back to the Alaskan Indians and left those Jews looking for a place to live? This is the
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premise of Michael Chabon's fascinating novel.

The protagonist, Meyer Landsman, is a police detective with a drinking problem, an estranged wife who has suddenly become his boss, a moral compass that prevents him from going with the flow and no idea what will become of him when the reversion is complete. He is half-heartedly trying to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of Mendel Shpilman, a flophouse junkie, who just might be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor,that individual who, according to the Hsaidic concept, is a special, saintly person, born once in a generation, who could become the Jewish Messiah if conditions are right in the world. "Landsman feels a profound ebb in his will to pursue the matter of the dead yid in 208. What difference will it make if he catches the killer? A year fron now, Jews will be Africans, and this old ballroom will be filled with tea-dancing gentiles, and every case that ever was opened or closed by a Sitka policeman will be filed in cabinet nine."

There is so much action and so many characters to keep straight, and so much history to these characters, everything sprinkled with lots of Yiddish vocabulary that it takes a good hundred pages to begin to appreciate Chabon's genius. The alternate history has you second guessing your own knowledge of the past and the character development, especially of Landsman and his wife, Bina is so thoughtfully done that you empathize with them completely. And you root for them! Oh do you root for them because what they're up against is so much bigger than a murder.

At one point in the story, after Landsman has been interrogated for over 24 hours, the author gives us this: "The night is a cold sticky stuff that beads up on the sleeves of his overcoat. Korczak Place is a bowlful of bright mist, smeared here and there with the pawprints of sodium lamps. Half-blind and cold in his bones, he trudges along Monastir Street to Berlevi Street, then over to Max Nordau Street, with a kink in his back and an ache in his neck and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity. The space recently occupied by his mind hisses like the fog in his ears, hums like a bank of fluorescent tubes. He feels that he suffers from tinnitis of the soul." Wow. Beautiful language is the name of the game throughout. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Michael Chabon ‘s book has been optioned by the Coen brothers, and that seems entirely appropriate. It is like a Jewish Sopranos episode seasoned by a Marx Brothers writer with a predilection for noir and a Fargo cast of characters, all baked into a tzimmes - the quintessential Jewish dish of
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endless variety, surprise, and subtle unexpected flavors.

The story takes some getting used to: as you would expect a Coen-friendly script to be, it can be rude, crude, and a little jarring. After all, in this imaginary Jewish Homeland of Sitka, Alaska, not only are the police Jews, but the gangsters as well. The official language of Sitka is Yiddish, and it is presumed that the characters speak it; non-translatable words are not translated (there is a glossary in the back), and at times, especially when savory cursing is needed, the characters “speak American.”

The premise that Israel as a refuge didn’t pan out, and that Alaska did, has an actual historical basis. Harold Ickes (Department of Interior Secretary in 1940) proposed that Alaska be established as a temporary sanctuary for Jewish refugees. Stout opposition from Alaskans quashed the idea before it even made it out of congressional committee.

In Chabon’s alternate universe, Jews have been living in Alaska for almost sixty years, since 1948; they are “the frozen chosen.” But sixty years also marks the end of the congressional mandate, and the land is about to go back to Alaskan control: “The Reversion.” Many of the Jews have nowhere to go; there is only a short list of places in which they will be welcome. As Meyer Landsman, the main character observes, “Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion, and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.” (Later he observes also that it’s pretty much always a strange time to be a Jew.)

Landsman (Yiddish slang for “member of the tribe”) is a homicide detective, as is his faithful partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, who is half-Jewish and half Tlingit (Alaskan native peoples), and who also has the Indian name Johnny “the Jew” Bear. As the novel starts, Landsman is rousted out of a post-divorce alcoholic stupor to investigate the murder of a mysterious man in his own apartment building. He calls upon Shemets to help him, and the two get involved in a dangerous, but also humorous, and also poignant, quest to find the killer. Their supervisor at work, Bina, who happens to be Landsman’s ex, joins in as the complications accelerate.

But this is not only a detective story. It is also a story of an imaginary city, and what Jewish life might be like if Jews lived in a different place than one surrounded by hostile Arabs. Sitka is not a utopia, but it’s home. It’s a love story. It’s a story of the struggle for identity. And it’s a book of soaring, clever prose that lets you fly over Sitka like a Chagall couple in love, sensing colors and patterns and emotions you would never have seen tethered to the ground.

An example: at one point, Landsman encounters an ashtray from a former neighborhood store, Krasny’s. “Krasny’s, with its lending library and encyclopedic humidor and annual poetry prize, was crushed by American chain stores years ago, and at the sight of this homely ashtray, the squeeze box of Landsman’s heart gives a nostalgic wheeze.” Or this: Landsman, when he’s facing Bina across the desk: “He tries and fails not to observe the way her heavy breasts, each of whose moles and freckles he can still project like constellations against the planetarium dome of his imagination, strain against the placket and pockets of her shirt.”

Chabon starts the book, in a way, with his dedication to his wife, whom he calls “Bashert” (destiny). The idea of bashert, that everything is meant to be, “the foolish coyote faith that could keep you flying as long as you kept kidding yourself that you could fly” is a recurring theme in the story; indeed, it is a recurring theme for the Jews. It ends the book as well.

This is a book that should not be missed, from a writer whose prose of disguised poetry should not go unheard.
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LibraryThing member sophroniaborgia
What if the Jews had been driven from Israel in 1948 and forced to settle in a remote part of Alaska -- and now they're about to be expelled again? And what if a washed-up, alcoholic detective tries to get himself together to solve one last case before his homeland of Sitka reverts to American
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control, leaving him out of a job? Sounds interesting, doesn't it?

That's what I thought, but unfortunately this book really let me down. One thing you can say about genre novels is that they move a plot along. That is not something you can say about The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The plot dragged and dragged, bogged down in incredibly detailed descriptions of characters and settings that vividly communicated the seedy atmosphere of the Sitka world, but stopped the story momentum cold. Every now and then I would feel the excitement start to build, and I would think that things were about to pick up, but then some new colorful character or place would come along and the plot would be forgotten again.

Truth be told, I don't think Chabon was ever really interested in his plot at all. Most of the developments happen in the last third of the book, and the climactic event takes place hundreds of miles away and is barely even described. Contrast that to one section of the book where Landsman has a conversation with his ex-wife and new boss, Bina Gelbfish, at a cafeteria as they eat dinner, and then has another conversation with her first thing the next morning when she visits him in his hotel room. Clearly the author was much more invested in whether these two worked out their problems than I was. Also, a good editor would have told him to combine those conversations into one scene.

Was this book worth reading? The colorful characters were indeed very colorful and memorable, and there were several involving scenes. I probably would have enjoyed it more if Chabon had not tried to combine the alternate history with the detective story, because my expectations for the second made it difficult for me to appreciate the imaginative detail that went into the first.
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LibraryThing member Aeyan
Delving into Chabon's Sitka, not knowing or ever having heard about the discussed possibility of establishing an Alaskan refuge for European Jews in the late 1940's, I took the set up as factual, or rather, I didn't think to question the veracity or historicity of it. Historically accurate it is as
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a concept, but not an actuality. Silly me. It made for a rather fun discovery, melded with sheepishness at having been so obtuse, as Chabon started to fully develop his little slice of northerly Yiddish-dom, and after a few complex political and geographical explanations I finally cottoned on to his brilliance. Chabon crafts a fully realized world, replete with the weight of sixty years of alternate history.

This story fails to neatly slide into a genre; a work of pulpish detective fiction, toying with alternate history, deftly interweaving literary quality without pomposity, marked by an imagined and entrenched Yiddish culture, Chabon makes it all work. His writing is biting and witty and deceptively simple, adeptly managing to at once embody the very human and flawed focal point of his Detective Meyer Landsman, while also composing harsh yet beautiful language like the cold climes of his setting. It made me envious. Falling out of a window has never been so freaking funny nor linguistically gorgeous.

Chabon packs so much characterization, detail, plot, wit into this novel that it should really have taken me longer to listen to the whole thing, and I know it would benefit from a second reading. I cannot even begin to do justice to the multitudinous strands of story and character that he writes, so I'll shorthand it: dead junkie chess-playing possible Jewish Messiah attracts attention of bitter drunk divorced chess-hating former star Yiddish detective and his Native-born stoic chess-oblivious converted Jewish partner in a downtrodden Jewish mob run outpost of Yiddish culture facing Reversion to American control and the semi-prophetic severely well-funded conspiracy to enact the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. And chess is important.
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LibraryThing member miriamparker
Ruined my summer.
LibraryThing member trandism
It is not often that someone can find a non-chess book - or movie - that has its chess facts right. Whenever chess is not the central element of a plot - unlike Nabokov's Luzhin Defense - chess is abused; its history, theory and practice butchered by many a good novelist. In that sense, Michael
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Chabon's novel was a pleasant surprise for my oversensitive, regarding chess, and always alert for misquoting and mislabeling, eyes. Openings are correctly identified, chess figures put in their correct timescale and characters read chess books that do actually exist. And Jan Timman is presented to the reader as the world champion of the game in the late 70s.. oh wait..

Well, the aforementioned "anomaly" is just one of the less important parts of an alternate world situation that Michael Chabon brilliantly developed in order to provide his story with a fitting historical context. The second World War ended with a nuclear attack on Berlin itself in 1946, Soviet Union never happened, Mantsuria is considered a world power and most importantly, the Arabs have triumphed in the war of 1948, therefore destroying the Zionist dream on his birthbed. And for good. United States of America intervene and offer a temporary home for the million of Jewish immigrants - terrified after the Holocaust and yet another war lost. A special arrangement offers to them a district in the state of Alaska. And it's there, surrounded by hostile native tribes and a suspicious US government, that Chabon's scenario takes place.

A crime and a main character that bring Raymond Chandler to mind, a great conspiracy underneath, lots of Yiddish slang and a love story resurfacing in the middle of the whole mess. All and all, it deserves the hype.
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LibraryThing member berrya
Murder mystery set in an alternative post-WWII timeline in which the world's Jewish refuges have found a temporary refuge in Sitka, Alaska after the state of Israel collapses. A great example of the way an author can blend genres to produce a unique novel that is in a class by itself. The Yiddish
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Policemen's Union won the Hugo award for best science fiction novel of 2007, but it is also a complex mystery in the best noir tradition and a fascinating and a finely detailed portrait of Yiddish people at a point in history that never happened.Michael Chabon has a large number of literary balls in the air here, in a juggling act that falters a bit at the end but doesn't fail to dazzle. 4/5
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LibraryThing member lmichet
This is once fascinating book. First of all, it's both parody of and homage to the hardboiled detective genre, and it does it brilliantly: anyone familiar with Raymond Chandler will get a kick out of it. It's a mystery, technically, because the characters are trying to find a truth, but it's more
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of an adventure story because, like many hardboiled novels, the reader could never solve the mystery on their own: it is unfolded to them in the same way that it is unfolded, from total confusion into understanding, for the characters.

It is also an alternate-history novel: it imagines that the state of Israel had failed and that the exiled post-WW2 Jews of the world had resettled on the Alaskan coast, where they constructed a vibrant community with a unique culture that, unfortunately, was saddled with the time bomb of a 'Reversion': at the time of this story, the land is set to return to Alaskan control, and the Jews are about to lose their homes and their sovereignty. This strange world is deliberately menacing and sinister: the atom bomb, for example, was dropped on Germany, not Japan; Russians and the native peoples of Alaska have had a history of wars and massacres; an increase in American anti-Semitism and immigration quotas are leaving these Alaskan jews homeless and futureless; Jews are subject to terrorist tendencies; the Cuban missile crisis ended with a war. Half-hints and implications suggest a world more violent than our own, while simultaneously leading the reader to question sources of violence in our own modern history. It's clever. It's also extremely interesting, on both purely curious and intellectual levels.

However, the tone of the novel shifts dramatically as it proceeds. Chabon is firmly anti-Zionist, and in the end his characters have to grapple with their self-identities as relating to Zionism, with implications for both their world and ours. However, Chabon can't restrain himself. He conflates his criticism of American imperialistic tendencies, whatever they may be in our world as opposed to the book's alternate world, with a totally last-minute and seemingly-irrelevant, absurd criticism of American evangelical Christianity. For some reason, Chabon's alternate-Americans are trying (SPOILER) to use Jewish Zionism not only for control of the Middle East but also in order to provoke-- get this-- the Rapture/End Times!? It seems totally out of place with the rest of the story and too absurd to be believable even within the scope of Chabon's alternate universe.

Though Chabon discusses American Jews and mentions black and hispanic Americans, and goes in-depth into America's native populations, the face on institutional America is, in this book, pink, blonde, southern, consumerist, and evangelical. This is, as far as I can understand it, some kind of knee-jerk northern urban liberal kind of view of America-- the insular, degrading, almost offensive view a man in a New York skyscraper would have of the rest of the country, and a view that is totally out of place, I think, in the world he creates. When I read it I was hauled bodily out of the narrative. The rest of his challenging ideas are challenging without forcing the reader to pull out of the joy of the story. This aspect, however, is not. I think he was trying too hard, in the end, to be controversial: he lost his subtlety.

The book is still, however, the kind of thing everyone should read. Chabon's greatest skill is his ability to make genres patently 'serious': this is a hardboiled novel that academics are carrying around in their tote-bags. If anyone can rescue fiction and transform it from a fractured, genre-driven morass into a fuzzy, warm, and wonderful utopia of merit-driven loveliness, it will be Chabon.
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LibraryThing member eenerd
A police procedural murder-mystery which takes place in a fictional Jewish settlement in Alaska. I couldn't get into it; the writing wasn't horrible but there was just something missing in the storytelling. Plus there was a lot of Yiddish which I couldn't understand, so I felt like I was missing a
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lot of the story.
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LibraryThing member Kplatypus
Set in the bleak world of Sitka, Alaska, this alternative history by the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an odd mixture of detective story, personal redemption, and Judaica. For this familiar with the escapades of Kavalier and Clay, the Jewish aspect and the screwed up
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protagonist will be a return to old territory but the book is otherwise quite different. The protagonist, a Jewish detective by the name of Landsman, is an alcoholic wreck of a man who is strongly reminiscent of detective greats such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlow. In fact, the whole book reads like it was penned by someone who had recently spent a lot of time reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Since both were brilliant writers in their own ways, the resemblance is not unpleasant, and Chabon adds enough of his own voice for it not to feel plagiarized.

The story itself revolves around the mysterious homicide of a junkie who, conveniently, lived in the same building as Mr. Landsman. As the Jews of Sitka prepare for Reversion (the revocation of the temporary permit allowing for the Jewish settlement of this district of Alaska), Landsman strives to solve this one last case, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage some shred of professional pride. He gallivants about the Alaskan countryside, delves deep into the seamy underbelly of the frontier town, and offends most of the leaders of the various Jewish communities, all in the name of the law. Shenanigans ensue, and, as more information begins to surface, the case takes on ever more complicated implications. Add in Landsman's half-Tlingit Indian partner (and cousin), his ex-wive who is brought in to supervise the police force and prepare it for Reversion, and apocalyptic visions, and you have quite the melee.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is at its best when it sticks to exploring Landman's past, present, and regrets. His relationships with Berko (the partner) and Bina (the ex-wife) are especially human, in that they are riddled with miscommunication and failure, yet sincere nonetheless. The parts of the story that feel more like moralizing about the fate of the Jews, the corruption of the American government, and apocalyptic delusions were less successful. I'm not entirely sure what Chabon is trying to say about these topics, to be honest; the story just felt tainted by some kind of obscure moral lesson at times.

Compared to TAAKC, The Yiddish Policemen's Union was more realistic (except for the whole Jewish settlement in Alaska thing), and more fast-paced. On the whole, I actually think I liked TAAKC slightly better, but TYPU was still a very strong book. One warning- there are a lot of Jewish in-jokes, and those without a background in Yiddish/Jewish culture/Torah/etc might be a bit perplexed at times. Still readable, since plenty of Yiddish has made it into mainstream culture, but I thought I'd put it out there.
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LibraryThing member TadAD
I really don't know what to say about this book other than I read it straight through, enjoying it all the way. Saying that it's an alternate history, noir detective story is true but doesn't really capture the flavor. Neither does saying that it's a Yiddish stew which, nevertheless, does not come
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across as a complete caricature.

The actual mystery is a bit absurd. Without spoilers suffice it to say that, if this were set amongst WASPs in California, I'd probably have a very different reaction to the book. However, it's not. What makes this book work for me is not the mystery plot, but the atmosphere of the Chandleresque, alcohol-drenched protagonist contrasted not with white-bread America, but with a society even more despairing and guilt-ridden than he is, set in a 'reality' that is very believable. The characters are unabashedly stock but they become interesting in their setting.

I suspect that many will find fault with this book because the portrayal of Jews, especially the Hasidim, is unrealistic. Yes, true. However, I prefer to follow Azar Nafisi's thought that, "the contract with the reader is this is not reality; it's an invented world." I see no reason why an invented world must follow ours exactly.

Others may find barriers in the heavy use of Yiddish...without footnotes (though glossed at the end). However, if one pays attention, the meanings of all words become clear and I think that this blending of languages to create a local dialect enhances the sense of a place separate and different from our own. Chabon expects a minor amount of effort on the part of the reader and it's worthwhile to make it.

The book gets categorized as a mystery (or, perhaps, even as science fiction by those who put anything alternate history into that genre), but I see this more as simply fiction dealing with identity, loss and redemption and I definitely recommend giving it a try.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I've never quite seen the point of alternative history as a literary convention: this book has done nothing to change that. As a reader, I would expect a writer who has gone to the trouble of designing a whole "might-have-been" culture and society ought to be using that perspective to tell me
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something profound and original about the culture and society we actually have. In Chabon's case, all he seems to be doing is showing off a lot of clever linguistic fireworks and concealing an implausible thriller plot behind a pastiche 1940s detective story. If you suspend the rules of realism, there should be more to it than word-play and a few cheap gibes at Zionists, American imperialists, and followers of orthodox religion.

Having said that, it is undoubtedly an entertaining and clever book: not as funny as I was led to expect, but nicely done. Just as in real noir detective fiction, the best bits are those scenes where the detective has been shot, hit on the head, is faced with some intellectual challenge while trying to recover from a hangover, or has been locked up by the bad guys. The book is perhaps long enough for the reader to get a bit bored with extravagant similes and the present historic tense, but the Yiddish language-play does help to liven things up a bit.
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LibraryThing member mdreid
What happens when a community of Jews, exiled to Alaska, are told that they can't stay there any longer? Why are members of the same community so upset over the death of a chess-playing junkie? Why are the ultra-orthodox black hats so uncooperative over this matter?

These are the questions Meyer
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Landsman, a broken, alcoholic, insomniac Yiddish detective faces when he finds out about the dead body in the flophouse he calls home in Sitka, Alaska. In a very noir style, Chabon has Landsman and his partner Berko delve into Jewish and American Indian culture, questions of homeland and destiny, Zionism and chess.

If you're planning on reading this book I would recommend persevering through the first 50 or so pages. For me these felt overly stylised and deliberately confusing and I got the sense that Chabon was just indulging a love of genre writing. Once the mystery around the chess playing junkie's death starts to unfold I was completely hooked and the style began to fit perfectly with the rhythm of the story.

As well as being a cracking whodunnit, the scene and characters Chabon sets up allow him to explore the difficulties of modern and ancient Jewish culture and religion: the Verborer island within the Alaskan settlement with the "Mexicans" (Americans) just south of the border; Berko's conflicting Jewish and Indian heritage; the burden of prophecy at a personal and cultural level.

There are some stunning passages in this book. Chabon uses the noir style of description-by-simile like a musical prodigy picking up the violin for the first time.
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LibraryThing member santhony
I NEVER fail to finish a book once started, and I was committed to finishing this one, though after 100 pages it was clear that there would be no improvement.

I am a big fan of alternative history, and the premise for this novel has promise. Instead of settling in Palestine, Europe's Jews are
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settled in Sitka, Alaska. The Sitka District is slated by statute to last for sixty years, and the sixty years is up. Sitka is reverting to Alaskan sovereignty and most of the Jews will have to move on. Against this backdrop is sad sack Sitka District detective Meyer Landsman and his efforts to solve a murder.

If you are Jewish, or even familiar with Yiddish and Jewish culture, it is possible that you might enjoy this novel. In that instance, I can see it as a three star effort. Otherwise, you'll be left trying to read and decipher a foreign language.

It is possible that were the story line better developed, wading through the indecipherable prose might be worthwhile. Sadly, it is not. I gave up after 200 pages when I looked in my closet and saw the number of potentially outstanding novels I had not yet read. Life is too short to waste reading such poor material.
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LibraryThing member DCArchitect
Writing is a craft as well as an art and at times the craftsmen is tempted to create something just to see how it will turn out. These self indulgent trinkets are rarely masterpieces, but can often be windows into how the craftsman approaches his craft.

Reading 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' one
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can see Mr. Chabon playing with the elements of his craft. He takes a standard plot (a murder mystery) a set of stock characters (a hard-boiled detective, the whacky partner, a black-clothed villian, etc.) and jumbles them up with far less expected elements (an alternate reality history, a political thriller-esque twist, a chess heavy plot and a heaping dose of Yiddish and Jewish Culture) to give us a book that creates a fascinating world that is very far from our reality but can also be instantly believed and inhabited by the reader.

As with all 'adventure' novels, the characters are secondary to the plot. Meyer Landsman, the protagonist, his ex-wife and boss, Bina, as well as his partner are not quite as 'round' as his characters from 'Kavalier & Clay.' Don't let that dissuade you. This is still a very good book.

If the characters aren't carrying this novel, the plot which Mr. Chabon has crafted is up to the task. While a bit slow to reveal itself during the exposition, the action intertwines wonderfully with little glimpses at the pseudo-history that Chabon has invented, deft commentary on many real-world issues, and Mr. Chabon's ever present ability to make the reader so present within his world that he or she can feel the Alaskan cold and smell the cigarette smoke. If you want a synopsis, there are plenty of other reviews that recap the plot. I've always thought books are better read 'cold' to keep the reader guessing.

In the end, 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' suffers not from any failure of Mr. Chabon's prose but because of its nature as a sort of literary thought-experiment. While the book struggles at times under the weight of its own ambition and the bredth of its imaginativeness, those attributes are also best reasons to read 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union.'
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LibraryThing member AramisSciant
Wow! Where to begin? At first I had so much fun re-translating some of the words of the characters in my mind, back to their original Yiddish. Every "sweetness" got corrected in my head to "bubbaleh" and the curses, ah the curses... they just sound better in Yiddish!
You certainly don't need to know
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the language to understand the book, but it would probably make it much more fun... Before I knew it, though, I was deep into the thriller and the mystery and following the detectives collecting and joining the pieces of the puzzle. And when the mystery got solved, at the end of the book, beyond the fun and the satisfaction of tying up all the ends what remained was a hopeful feeling and a smile - he did it again. He wrote these deeply flawed, painfully scarred characters with such fine talent that they grow on you and make you care. Just like with "Wonder Boys" and especially with Joe and Sam (or Kavalier & Clay), he made me laugh, and kept me interested, and let me share the pains and hopes of his characters and really, what more can you ask of a great novel.
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LibraryThing member jennyo
Chabon's done it again. Knocked another one right out of the park. The premise for this book is about as outlandish as they come, but it was fascinating reading. It's a noir thriller, political espionage, murder mystery, love story, police procedural, literary marvel. And, boy, is it a
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Just in case you haven't heard anything about the book, it's based on an alternate history. One where the Jews did not get to settle in Israel, but moved to the Alaskan panhandle in 1948. They've built a community there, but it's a community with a death sentence. The story is set a couple of months before Reversion, the time that the U.S. takes Alaska back and it's no longer a Jewish sovereign state. Sounds really crazy, right? Well, Chabon's imagined it so well, that you're sucked right into the story and the bizarre-ness (I know, I'm making up words) just flies right out the window.

But I can't really tell you any more about it. The plot's half the fun in this one. But only half. The characters are wonderful, and no one does metaphor quite like Chabon does. I'll just give you one example:

p. 111 Krasny's, with its lending library and encyclopedic humidor and annual poetry prize, was crushed by American chain stores years ago, and at the sight of this homely ashtray, the squeeze box of Landsman's heart gives a nostalgic wheeze.

I love the way this man turns a phrase.

So, yeah, this one's a keeper. I'll put it on the shelf right next to my autographed copy of Kavalier & Clay.
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LibraryThing member yarmando
A stale genre with a tired, down-trodden protagonist in an empty, hopeless setting, and yet this book is the most vibrant thing I've read in years.
LibraryThing member phoebesmum
A fascinating experimental A/U noir set in a world where the settlement of Israel failed, but a part of Alaska became the Jewish state instead. Inventive and gripping, but … I do feel a glossary might have helped.
LibraryThing member suetu
When did Michael Chabon become one of our finest living writers? I've been reading his novels for about two decades now, loving each successive work more. Suddenly I realize that he is one of those rare writers where you go out and buy the book full price on the day it's released. He's that good.
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And The Yiddish Policeman's Union lived up in all ways to my high expectations.

The novel grabbed me right from the opening pages. We meet Meyer Landsman, as somewhat down on his luck homicide detective. We meet the victim, a John Doe in the cheap hotel Landsman calls home. We meet Meyer's cousin/partner, his ex-wife/boss, and many, many other supporting characters, each more richly-drawn than the last.

I must confess summarizing plots is not my strong suit. However, unlike many "literary" novels--and it is as literary as they come--this is most definitely a plot-driven novel. It's a who-done-it, and perhaps more importantly it's a why-done-it. Because as Meyer and Berko investigate the execution-style murder of this young addict, the world they live in is revealed to us. And it’s possible that this alternate universe is the most interesting thing about the novel. It’s a world where the European Jews fled from Hitler to Alaska—a premise based on a historic trivia fact. They’ve populated Sitka and made it their own for the past 60 years, and in just a few weeks they need to get out. Alaska in “reverting” back to the Americans in much the way that Hong Kong recently reverted to the Chinese. The oft repeated refrain of these characters is “Strange times to be a Jew.” True enough.

And if nothing else, this sure is one Jewish murder mystery. It’s chock full of Yiddish, a joy for me, but surely not for a majority of the novel’s readers. A lot you can pick up in context, but Chabon’s not going out of his way to help readers there. You’ll learn about boundary mavens and Jewish prophesy. It’s all very exotic, but so richly and realistically portrayed. Chabon brings this world that never was to life, and it’s fascinating. And while the mystery surely kept me turning pages late into the night, it was my pleasure in the characters and the setting and the world created that made me truly, truly love this novel. Reading simply doesn’t get any better than this.
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LibraryThing member James_Knupp
The world and history around the Sitka District that Chabon creates is reminiscent of the book itself: slow to develop but intriguing and engaging when you take the time to really sift through it. While the main premise of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a murder mystery, it feels more like an
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exercise in world building, with a plot thrown in to keep you engaged. Chabon's alternate history diverges at 1940, and leaves us with a world wildly different from our own, while still being familiar. My issues with the book can be boiled down to: Michael Chabon can't help but get in his own way.

The book is enjoyable, but the pacing feels all wrong. Instead of developing a gripping plot right off the bat, Chabon spends the first quarter of the book in endless metaphor and simile describing everything and every interaction. While the writing is good, it gets to be so excessive that at times you forget what is actually happening in the moment because its been too long since he actually told you. By the time the plot really starts to come together enough to finally feel like an actual mystery book, you're about half way down. I found myself caring a lot more about the history of the Sitka District and the changes to world history, because for most of the book the murder mystery feels anecdotal.

But by the end, the plot does come together and the mystery feels satisfactory as a central plot. It speaks to modern politics, and the hopes and dream of both Zionists and Evangelicals. It touches on greed, nationalism, piety vs. zealotry, and finding one's place in a world that feels entirely hostile to your mere existence.
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
Have just finished my second time through the book and remain dazzled. In this outing more than any of the others that came before, Chabon modernizes and Americanizes the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to create a work that seamlessly blends fantasy and reality to create an alternate
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universe that is at once exotic, meticulous, poignant, and brutal.

What starts off as a fairly familiar-seeming plot (morally and emotionally bankrupt detective with nothing left to believe in but the truth, no matter how devastating, investigates a crime, uncovering layers of duplicity, brutality, and betrayal) soon assume entirely unfamiliar contours when you realize that the setting is an alternate universe (in which the Jews, post-WWII, have been settled not in Israel, but in Alaska); the crooks are a sect of ultra-conservative Jews; the locals are Tlingit Indians; and the murdered man may be the world's long-awaited Messiah. Now add chess, espionage, ancient Jewish law, snow-streaked streets, bush pilots, heroin, love, yiddish slang, wolves, red cows, and miracles ... top with Chabon's brilliant prose ... mix thoroughly, and watch something brilliant happen.

Ultimately, this book isn't about a crime: it's about a succession of rootless people yearning for a place to belong. It's the timeless search of the Jews for a homeland, of Meyer Landsdown for a reason to believe, of a boy messiah to be accepted for who he is rather than who everyone wants him to be, that elevates the book to something much, much more ambitious than simply an exercise in yiddish noir. As anyone who has read Kavalieri and Clay knows, Chabon is as deft at creating fully-realized, sympathetic characters as he is at crafting dazzling metaphors. You don't have to believe Chabon's alternate history to understand that beneath the literary fireworks, this is a story about diaspora and the fundamental yearning of all living things to find their way back to the place where they belong.
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LibraryThing member es135
Based on the idea that European Jews are made to settle in Alaska after the first world war, Chabon provides readers with his unique spin on a mystery novel. The setting is inventively set, and the dialogue is some of the smartest and wittiest I have ever read. I get the feeling that readers will
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either love this novel, or, unable to except his speculative history and interesting narrative style, will find it unreadable. In talking with others who have read this novel, those who finished it found it to be great and those who didn't finish hated it. From my perspective, I thought that the inventive twists in this novel made it an absolute must read.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
I've had a hardback copy of this book on my shelf for some time, but kept shying away from it. What a mistake.

Part detective story, part alternative history, part romance, part discussion of religious dogma, this enchanting book held my attention like the best suspenseful mystery, so that I read it
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almost in one sitting. What would have happened if Israel had never taken hold in 1948? What would happen if you gave a whole people a 20 year lease on which to lick their wounds? And what would happen when one kind of hope collides with another? Some of the Jews in the borrowed land of Alaska want to try to win back Palestine, some want to stay, some are fearful of eviction, again, as has happened for millenia. And in the midst of this, a chess wizard is found dead in a seedy hotel, in which a guilt-ridden police detective spends his non-working hours drinking his sorrows. The classic Chandler-esque noir plot melds perfectly with the deeper discussions to produce a book that is very hard to put down.
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LibraryThing member railarson
I always feel a little sad upon finishing one of Michael Chabon’s novels. The Berkeley author weaves such wonderfully detailed tapestries of language and imagery that a feeling of loss is inevitable once the Big Finish has come and gone. That same feeling pervades The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
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from the beginning as the world the characters have inhabited for 60 years is about to be flung on the trash heap of history.

The alternative-history conceit is as follows: after the horror of World War II, and a collapse of the stillborn State of Israel, Jewish refuges were settled in an American Federal District hastily carved out of the Alaskan wilderness—and now the lease is up.

As alcoholic policeman Meyer Landsman begins the search for who may have killed a fellow tenant of his own down-at-the-heels hotel, he heads toward the basement and this throw-away bit of narration: “[Landsman] checks behind the hot-water tanks, lashed to one another with scraps of steel like comrades in a doomed adventure.”

The metaphor could be stretched to represent Landsman himself and his ex-wife/new-supervisor Bina Gelbfish. Gelbfish has been sent to tidy up all the loose ends at Sitka Central and Landman’s investigation is one big throbbing nerve of a loose end.

Drowning in the machinations of the District’s Hasidic mafia and a cold ocean of slivovitz, Landsman is haunted by a complex chess problem left by the dead tenant. Is it a clue? Is it just a reflection of his own hang-up caused by his chess champion father’s disappointment in him and resultant suicide?

Chabon has explored these themes before. He revels in the arcane details of modern Judaica, and I was waiting past the 200-page mark for his patented Big Gay Character to show (he does, although posthumously). As Chabon has repeatedly shown—in his on-going bid to become a one-man Coen Brothers of the literary world, chewing up and spitting out genre after genre—it’s not the materials, plot points, or archetypes you start with, it’s how you play the familiar pieces that wins the game.
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0007149824 / 9780007149827
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