The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

April 4, 2010

Can a story about Jews ever be described as a romp? What if the story is about Jews living cheek-to-cheek in a massive refugee camp on the Alaskan peninsula, a camp that has been carved from Native American hands by federal fiat, a camp that has an expiration date and and that will leave the Jews without a future? Does this sound like the basis for a summer’s romp?

The answer, of course, is yes it can be a wild, hilarious, breath-taking romp. Who could have guessed that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union , a story of meshugah Jews with their backs to the wall, would be the most fun reading of my entire summer? For many a summer I had turned to Jeeves and Bertie Wooster to set the mood for my yearly vacation from the classroom, but I may find myself re-reading the YPU every June instead. Or, maybe I’ll do both, a visit with Bertie and Jeeves, and then a visit with Landsman and Berko, because why dip only once when you can dip twice?

The real question, though, is not whether a story like the YPU can be a side-splitting romp, but why I ever thought my wife and daughter ought to read it before I did? OK, its true, my daughter enjoyed some Shalom Aleichem stories that I had read to her when she was young, and my wife has been nuts about murder mysteries for as long as I can remember (every Christmas I buy her a gift card for Murder by the Book), but I’m the certified Jew of the family. The story was written for me, not for them, so why did I buy the book as a gift for them (my wife, probably – my daughter says she bought her own copy?) and then let it sit on the shelf for another year before getting around to reading it?

Perhaps I was somehow savoring its unopened pleasures? Little did I know that the book would “have me” from the very first pages when I recognized the Lasker-chess connection in the dead man’s hotel room. Did I ever tell you that I spent a few years of my childhood hunched over chess books reenacting the moves of one famous game after another? (This bit of craziness had something to do with growing up with the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky championship circus in Reykjavik.)

But that’s not all. Little did I know that my father’s English-spiced-with-Yiddish speech patterns would make Landsman’s speech patterns instantly sensible to me and pleasurable in the way they brought my father’s speech to life. Perhaps I could have guessed that the Sitka Jews, locked in the eternal gray and wet of a Pacific Northwest winter would echo the SAD-tinged disorders so richly embedded in my Oregon home, but little did I suspect that Verbovers, Moshiach and his ever-hopeful fans, the Bible Belt evangelists hoping for the apocalypse, the sacrificial heifer, and even re-emerging Native Americans, all of which had been floating back and forth above my mental landscape like the airborne donkeys and angels in a Chagall painting, floating there ever since my two-year stint in the Land of Israel in the early 80’s, would bubble up out of this cholent-of-a-book.

Because that’s what this book is – a stew, a goulash, a Sabbath cholent. A detective story like every other (does anyone ever doubt the outcome?), and yet like no other, because its the story that makes the book, not the foregone conclusion.

Thank you, Michael Chabon. I don’t if you used ESP to mine my soul for my life’s detritus, or if you are simply an inspired genius, but either way, thanks. Can you write a sequel? Perhaps something in which Landsman and Berko join forces with Jeeves and Bertie? Summer is just around the corner.

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