What place does Yiddish have in the modern American novel? About the same as a Jew in Alaska, perhaps, but it didn’t stop Michael Chabon from trying it out.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist took an odd turn while channeling Raymond Chandler in his new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, imagining a southeastern Alaska populated by millions of Jewish refugees. The Jews of Sitka, Alaska, still like a good bagel, and Yiddish is their language of choice.
The novel recalls a time gone by for Chabon, 44, who grew up in Maryland with Yiddish-speaking grandparents. The language is rarely heard these days.
“What I miss are the people who were speaking it rather than the language itself,” Chabon said. “I would like to have all that back.”
Not that life is bad for Chabon these days. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is his sixth book, published six years after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer.
The new novel stems from a real discussion among U.S. leaders about making Alaska the Jewish homeland in the 1940s. Israel prevailed in real life, but Chabon had long been intrigued by the Sitka idea.
“I must have read about it at some point,” he said. “It just stuck with me.”
Life among the fictional Sitka Jews—as opposed to the small group of real Sitka Jews whom Chabon met during visits there—is uneasy. Six decades after the Jewish territory was established, it is scheduled to revert back to its former status, leaving many residents without a permanent homeland. The novel follows burnt-out detective Meyer Landsman, who must navigate the politics of Sitka’s Orthodox population to solve a murder mystery. The fictional Orthodox population has isolated itself from the rest of the city’s Jews, and “black-hat” life is full of suspicion and religious zeal. In a reversal of real life, Sitka’s Orthodox Jews plot to destroy Muslim holy sites in order to take back Israel. It’s a new spin on the Israel-Palestine dispute, and decidedly more controversial than Chabon’s past work.
Chabon called himself “proudly and wholeheartedly Jewish,” but said he always has felt somewhat alienated from Orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is a problem for all faiths, he said.
“I suppose what I care most about, and the thing I feel the least sympathetic for, is the certainty that most adherents claim,” he said. “I think certainty is dangerous for believers and for the people around them.” Judaism—the less certain type—remains an important part of life for Chabon, his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. “The Bay Area has an incredibly rich, diverse Jewish life going on,” he said. That diversity is “part of the larger mosaic of life in the Bay Area.” Although the mosaic has included sometimes bitter debates over the Palestinian situation, particularly in Berkeley, Chabon said his decade in the East Bay has been enlightening.
“The thing I love about Berkeley is that people say what they think,” he said. “You have such a diversity of opinion.”
In his newest novel, Chabon relied on a diversity of influences. He called Chandler one of “the presiding spirits” as he developed the nearly hard-boiled Landsman, and he also cited mystery novelist Ross Macdonald and the Russian writer Isaac Babel. One of the most obvious influences in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the game of chess, with which Chabon said he has a “love-hate relationship,” just like his protagonist. Also like Landsman, Chabon was taught to play by his chess-loving father. The game itself is like good fiction, Chabon said, and the cultural ties made it perfect for the novel. “Chess just has this whole other lore and history, in terms of the way the game has been played historically,” he said. “There is a strong Jewish tradition in European and Russian play. It was probably likely that the Jews of Sitka would have this tradition.”
Chabon also theorized that the Jews of Sitka would have kept Yiddish alive as an everyday language. Although the tongue spoken by European Jews for hundreds of years has declined, Chabon foresees a Yiddish renaissance. “The story of the Jews is full of all kinds of unlikely things,” he said. “There are new speakers of Yiddish being born every day. Those people are having a lot of kids, too.”
But some experts say the birth rate among Hasidic Jews is not enough to revive a language that was decimated by the Holocaust. While about 7 million Jews worldwide spoke Yiddish before World War II, that number has dwindled to “tens of thousands,” said John Efron, a UC Berkeley professor of Jewish studies and Yiddish. “You can’t bring back the dead,” Efron said. “It was murdered.”
Forgive Chabon his optimism. The author has been feeling good at least since Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer, which he called “totally validating, totally encouraging” for a novel that was something of an experiment for him. The intervening years have been a whirlwind. Chabon has edited several fiction anthologies, written screenplays and sold the rights to his novels to movie studios. Having his wife on a similar career track has helped, he said.
“My wife and I are kind of in it together,” Chabon said. “We know just what it takes to get the work done. She and I kind of push each other.”
But despite a plethora of ideas, success has its price, he admits. Speaking by phone from a hotel room in Seattle, Chabon said the frequent book tours do not help ease the flow of fiction.
“It doesn’t help at all,” he said. “Writing is something you do in your home, in your chair, at your desk.”
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
Wonder Boys (1995)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
The Final Solution (2004)
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
Coming: Gentlemen of the Road (October, 2007)
Short story collections:
A Model World and Other Stories (1991)
Werewolves in Their Youth (1999)