Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon




(Highly Recommended)




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Michael Chabon’s fine writing skills shine again in his latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. With playful imagination, Chabon creates an engaging story in which Jewish refugees have failed to create the State of Israel, and are settled into a temporary homeland in the Alaska panhandle. After sixty years, this temporary Federal District of Sitka is to revert to American rule. With a bow to Raymond Chandler, Chabon’s protagonist, Meyer Landsman, is a cop on the all-Jewish Sitka police force, and gets interested in a murder case as his job is about to be abolished. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 14-17:


In the street the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat. Landsman tucks himself into the hotel doorway. Two men, one with a cello case strapped to his back, the other cradling a violin or viola, struggle against the weather toward the door of Pearl of Manila across the street. The symphony hall is ten blocks and a world away from this end of Max Nordau Street, but the craving of a Jew for pork, in particular when it has been deep-fried, is a force greater than night or distance or a cold blast off the Gulf of Alaska. Landsman himself is fighting the urge to return to room 505, and his bottle of slivovitz, and his World’s Fair souvenir glass.

Instead, he lights a papiros. After a decade of abstinence, Landsman took up smoking again not quite three years ago. His then-wife was pregnant at the time. It was a much-discussed and in some quarters a long-desired pregnancy—her first—but not a planned one. As with many pregnancies that are discussed too long there was a history of ambivalence in the prospective father. At seventeen weeks and a day—the day Landsman bought his first package of Broadways in ten years—they got a bad result. Some but not all of the cells that made up the fetus, code-named Django, had an extra chromosome on the twentieth pair. A mosaicism, it was called. It might cause grave abnormalities. It might have no effect at all. In the available literature, a faithful person could find encouragement, and a faithless one ample reason to despond. Landsman’s view of things—ambivalent, despondent, and with no faith in anything—prevailed. A doctor with half a dozen laminaria dilators broke the seal on the life of Django Landsman. Three months later, Landsman and his cigarettes moved out of the house on Tshernovits Island that he and Bina had shared for nearly all the fifteen years of their marriage. It was not that he couldn’t live with the guilt. He just couldn’t live with it and Bina, too.

An old man, pushing himself like a rickety handcart, weaves a course toward the door of the hotel. A short man, under five feet, dragging a large valise. Landsman observes the long white coat, worn open over a white suit with a waistcoat, and the wide-brimmed white hat pulled down over his ears. A white beard and sidelocks, wispy and thick at the same time. The valise an ancient chimera of stained brocade and scratched hide. The whole right side of the man’s body sags five degrees lower than the left, where the suitcase, which must contain the old boy’s entire collection of lead ingots, weighs it down. The man stops and raises a finger, as if he has a question to pose of Landsman. The wind toys with the man’s whiskers and with the brim of his hat. From his beard, armpits, breath, and skin, the wind plucks a rich smell of stale tobacco and wet flannel and the sweat of a man who lives in the street. Landsman notes the color of the man’s antiquated boots, yellowish ivory, like his beard, with sharp toes and buttons running up the sides.

Landsman recalls that he used to see this nut a lot, back when he was arresting Tenenboym for petty theft and possession. The yid was no younger then and is no older now. People used to call him Elijah, because he turned up in all kinds of unlikely spots, with his pushke box and his indefinable air of having something important to say.

“Darling,” he says to Landsman now. “This is the Hotel Zamenhof, no?”

His Yiddish sounds a bit exotic to Landsman, flavored with Dutch maybe. He is bent and frail, but his face, apart from crow’s-feet around the blue eyes, looks youthful and unlined. The eyes themselves hold a match flame of eagerness that puzzles Landsman. The prospect of a night at the Zamenhof does not often give rise to such anticipation.

“That’s right.” Landsman offers Elijah the Prophet a Broadway, and the little man takes two and tucks one into the reliquary of his breast pocket. “Hot and cold water. Licensed shammes right on the premises.”

“Are you the manager, sweetness?”

Landsman can’t help smiling at that. He steps aside, gesturing toward the door. “The manager’s inside,” he says.

But the little man just stands there getting rained on, his beard fluttering like a flag of truce. He gazes up at the faceless face of the Zamenhof, gray in the murky streetlight. A narrow pile of dirty white brick and slit windows, three or four blocks off the tawdriest stretch of Monastir Street, the place has all the allure of a dehumidifier. Its neon sign blinks on and off, tormenting the dreams of the losers across the street at the Blackpool.

“The Zamenhof,” the old man says, echoing the intermittent letters on the neon sign. “Not the Zamenhof. The Zamenhof.”

Now the latke, a rookie named Netsky, comes jogging up, holding on to his round, flat, wide-brimmed patrolman’s hat.

“Detective,” the latke says, out of breath, and then gives the old man a squint and a nod. “Evening, Grandpa. Right, uh, Detective, sorry, Ijust got the call, I was hung up for a minute there.” Netsky has coffee on his breath and powdered sugar on the right cuff of his blue coat. “Where’s the dead yid?”

“In two-oh-eight,” Landsman says, opening the door for the Iatke, then turning back to the old man. “Coming in, Grandpa?”

“No,” Elijah says, with a hint of mild emotion that Landsman can’t quite read. It might be regret, or relief, or the grim satisfaction of a man with a taste for disappointment. The flicker trapped in the old man’s eyes has given way to a film of tears. “I was only curious. Thank you, Officer Landsman.”

“It’s Detective now,” Landsman says, startled that the old man has retrieved his name. “You remember me, Grandpa?”

“I remember everything, darling.” Elijah reaches into a hip pocket of his bleach yellow coat and takes out his pushke, a wooden casket, about the size of a box meant for index cards, painted black. On the front of the box, Hebrew words are painted: L’ERETZ YISROEL. Cut into the top of the box is a narrow slit for coins or a folded dollar bill. “A small donation?” Elijah says.

The Holy Land has never seemed more remote or unattainable than it does to a Jew of Sitka. It is on the far side of the planet, a wretched place ruled by men united only in their resolve to keep out all but a worn fistful of small-change Jews. For half a century, Arab strongmen and Muslim partisans, Persians and Egyptians, socialists and nationalists and monarchists, pan-Arabists and pan­Islamists, traditionalists and the Party of Au, have all sunk their teeth into Eretz Yisroel and worried it down to bone and gristle. Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles. Observant Jews around the world have not abandoned their hope to dwell one day in the land of Zion. But Jews have been tossed out of the joint three times now—in 586 BCE, in 70 CE and with savage finality in 1948. It’s hard even for the faithful not to feel a sense of discouragement about their chances of once again getting a foot in the door.

Landsman gets out his wallet and pokes a folded twenty into Elijah’s pushke. “Lots of luck,” he says.

The little man hoists his heavy valise and starts to shuffle away. Landsman reaches out and pulls at Elijah’s sleeve, a question formulating in his heart, a child’s question about the old wish of his people for a home. Elijah turns with a look of practiced wariness. Maybe Landsman is some kind of troublemaker. Landsman feels the question ebb away like the nicotine in his bloodstream.


Chabon wastes no words, and reveals great skill in presenting dialogue, setting, and mood in this imaginary world, at all times displaying great storytelling talent. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union provides great entertainment from a fine writer.


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2007 issue of Executive Times


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