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The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel [Hardcover]

Michael Chabon
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 19 2007

For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.


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From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Jess WalterThey are the "frozen Chosen," two million people living, dying and kvetching in Sitka, Alaska, the temporary homeland established for displaced World War II Jews in Chabon's ambitious and entertaining new novel. It is—deep breath now—a murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller, so perhaps it's no surprise that, in the back half of the book, the moving parts become unwieldy; Chabon is juggling narrative chainsaws here.The novel begins—the same way that Philip Roth launched The Plot Against America—with a fascinating historical footnote: what if, as Franklin Roosevelt proposed on the eve of World War II, a temporary Jewish settlement had been established on the Alaska panhandle? Roosevelt's plan went nowhere, but Chabon runs the idea into the present, back-loading his tale with a haunting history. Israel failed to get a foothold in the Middle East, and since the Sitka solution was only temporary, Alaskan Jews are about to lose their cold homeland. The book's timeless refrain: "It's a strange time to be a Jew."Into this world arrives Chabon's Chandler-ready hero, Meyer Landsman, a drunken rogue cop who wakes in a flophouse to find that one of his neighbors has been murdered. With his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner and his sexy-tough boss, who happens also to be his ex-wife, Landsman investigates a fascinating underworld of Orthodox black-hat gangs and crime-lord rabbis. Chabon's "Alyeska" is an act of fearless imagination, more evidence of the soaring talent of his previous genre-blender, the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.Eventually, however, Chabon's homage to noir feels heavy-handed, with too many scenes of snappy tough-guy banter and too much of the kind of elaborate thriller plotting that requires long explanations and offscreen conspiracies.Chabon can certainly write noir—or whatever else he wants; his recent Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution, was lovely, even if the New York Times Book Review sniffed its surprise that the mystery novel would "appeal to the real writer." Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style. Characters have skin "as pale as a page of commentary" and rough voices "like an onion rolling in a bucket." It's a solid performance that would have been even better with a little more Yiddish and a little less police. (May)Jess Walter was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for The Zero and the winner of the 2006 Edgar Award for best novel for Citizen Vince.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Like Haruki Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), Chabon plays with the conventions of the Chandlerian private-eye novel, but that's only one ingredient in an epic-scale alternate-history saga of Jewish life since World War II. The premise draws on an obscure historical fact: FDR once proposed that Alaska, not Israel, become the homeland for Jews after the war. In Chabon's telling, that's exactly what happened, except, inevitably, it hasn't gone as planned: the U.S. government now has enacted a policy that will evict all Jews without proper papers from Sitka, the center of Jewish Alaska. In the midst of this nightmare, browbeaten police detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy who happens to be the disgraced son of Sitka's most powerful rabbi. No one wants this case solved, from Landsman's boss (his ex-wife, Bina) to the FBI, but our Yiddish Marlowe keeps digging, uncovering apocalypse in the making. Chabon manipulates his bulging plot masterfully, but what makes the novel soar is its humor and humanity. Even without grasping all the Yiddish wordplay that seasons the delectable prose, readers will fall headlong into the alternate universe of Chabon's Sitka, where black humor is a kind of antifreeze necessary to support life. And when Meyer, in the end, must "weigh the fates of the Jews, of the Arabs, of the whole unblessed and homeless planet" against a promise made to a grieving mother, it's clear that this parallel world smells a lot like home. Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ran the book-award table in 2000, and this one just may be its equal. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Seldom will you have an opportunity to read a book that offers so much fine writing, imaginative fancy dropped in lightly to expand your mind, wit, and examples of how we are our own worst enemy by assuming we know what's going on rather than getting the facts. If you are Jewish and know Yiddish, you'll have the extra benefit of many good-humored, self-directed jokes: In places, you'll think you've stepped into a Neil Simon comedy. And there are lots of nods to fine literature throughout the book to keep the serious reader entertained.

To give this book a conventional book review does Mr. Chabon a disservice. How can I best summarize The Yiddish Policemen's Union? Expect the wildly unexpected.

Most novels try to fit tightly into a genre. By following certain conventions, readers have an easier time following what's going on and are soon basking in reflected pleasure from other books they've read in the genre. If you mash together genres instead as Mr. Chabon has done, the results can be chaotic, humorous, and revealing about the flaws in the genres. This book combines so many genres that you'll probably find yourself losing track of how many are referenced in one place or other.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union isn't one of those books that you should read quickly. You should savor each conversational exchange, each scene, and each historical, social, cultural or biblical reference as you might savor a fine wine. Sip slowly, stop, and experience as many flavors as you can.

I have two warnings however.

If you are looking for a book that's exactly like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you've been misinformed. The same author is involved, but the two books are quite different.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Paths to Redemption Feb. 10 2008
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I've started to take an interest in some of Chabon's works as to how he develops and equips the protagonist to both survive and flourish in outrageously hostile environments. This recent novel is brilliant example of how a writer can place a seemingly ordinary, everyday person like Landsman, a lapsed Jew, who likes his job as a detective but has just come through a bitter divorce, in the most incongruent of environments, a Hassidic community in Alaska called Sitka. As this group of faithful and focussed Jews awaits the return of the Messiah from on frigid top of the world, theirs is an existence of fastidiously keeping the law and practicing the old customs in readiness for the big event. Chabon includes a host of Hassidic and Yiddish customs in his story to make the point that Sitka is a very parochial Jewish homeland. It is built on orthodox principles for the exclusive accommodation of the Jewish remnant that will survive the Tribulation, which had apparently already happened with the Holocaust and the fictional collapse of Israel in 1948. Outsiders have managed to creep in and take up residence. Into this setting comes Landsman on a mission to solve a double murder involving an old chess master named Lasker and his sister Naomi. To complicate matters, Landsman still works under his ex-wife, who is the chief detective for the territory. His compulsion will force him to violate many cultural boundaries and break many taboos in his zigzagging search for the culprits. Chabon uses the many challenges facing Landsman as opportunities to instruct his reader on the peculiarities of custom and where they possibly lead. As Landsman closes in on his quarry, the reader is treated to some of the darker side of this supposedly monotheistic community awaiting the millennium. Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Innovative setting; average story April 13 2009
Format:Paperback
This novel takes place in Sitka, a temporary Jewish settlement located in Alaska, at the verge of being re-integrated to the USA after 60 years of independence and prosperity. Since there is a quota of Jews that will be naturalized as American citizens after the "Reversion" of Sitka, most of its Jewish population is facing the prospect of deportation. And because the state of Israel was destroyed 1948 only tree months after it was founded, there does not seem to be any future for the Jews of Sitka.

The strength of this novel definitely lies in its setting, which presents to the reader an alternate version of the events that have followed the end of WWII. This very original setting is presented in the course of a police investigation on what at first appears to be a casual case of a murder of a drug addict. The novel also introduces vocabulary that is unique to Sitka Jews, which contributes to the reader's immersion in this unique setting although it does take time to get familiar with it. Although I am quite enthusiastic about the setting of the novel, I can't say that the story itself blew me away. You will find in this story many common stereotypes for police investigators. With all the praises from critics this novel is showing on its cover, I must admit I expected more story-wise.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His best yet July 11 2007
By C.W.
Format:Hardcover
For me, reading this was something like reading a book by Roth (any of his) and something by Chandler (think, his mysteries). The book is definitely a hybrid and starts out similiar to Roth's "The Plot Against America." I guess the Chander slash mystery part explains itself. Chabon, who is known to most for his award-winning "The Amazing Adventures," doesn't disappoint in this quirky mystery. BUT, you don't have to be Jewish to understand or appreciate this work. Set in various setting, including Alaska ("The Frozen Chosen") this book never lets up its pace and you'll be flipping those pages faster than you can say "Another Pulitzer-Prize." A mixture of black humor and angst, it is also reminniscent of books such as Foer's "Everything is Illuminated," or McCrae's "Bark of the Dogwood," though the latter is set in the South and has nothing to do with Jewishness.

For those who might possibly be scared off by the subject matter, let me assure you, the writing is first-rate and accessible to anyone with a brain. Must also recommend to you his first book: THE AMAZING ADVENTURES and the novel MIDDLESEX by Eugenides.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars I love it
Loved the story, the language and the characters
Published 21 days ago by TK
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, the plot is strange and forced
I had high hopes for this book as Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favourite novels of all time. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Aggie G
5.0 out of 5 stars Mishegas Shtick
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon, was originally published on May 1st 2007. The story is set in an alternate reality, where the U.S. Read more
Published on July 18 2012 by Dave_42
5.0 out of 5 stars "[W]hen I have formed the sounds
said the words out loud those who had assumed Yiddish was a language of the past only, suddenly felt it had been revived. . . . Read more
Published on March 30 2011 by Leonard Fleisig
5.0 out of 5 stars An utter surprise
I heard a lot about this work and about Micheal Chabon, but I honestly didn't know what to think. On a lark, I decided to give this book a shot and bought it. Read more
Published on June 16 2009 by T. Hore
1.0 out of 5 stars Know Yiddish it Will Help
The story revolves around the idea that part of Alaska has been ceded to the dispossessed Jews after WWII on the stipulation that during the next sixty years they have to find a... Read more
Published on Oct. 3 2008 by Toni Osborne
5.0 out of 5 stars Imagine Sitka Alaska as Tel Aviv?
This is simply too good a book to capture or appreciate in a review. It's written on so many levels: police mystery, political and religious intrigue, human interest, alternative... Read more
Published on July 9 2007 by Road King
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