It’s all Yiddish to me


An amateur’s review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

by D.Scott Phillips

Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Pulitzer Prize winner, also Hugo, Sidewise, and Nebula award winner, began his literary meteor-strike with Werewolves in Pittsburgh. An east-coast native, a supporter of rigid writing discipline (10am-3pm, Sunday-Thursday), he began writing Yiddish in February of 2002, and released it to critical acclaim in May of 2007.

Part hardboiled detective story, part historical fiction, it is a completely unique retelling of the Jewish plight post-WWII. The title derives from a fictional and mostly inept organization of detectives residing in the Chabon-created district of Sitka, Alaska, the place where Jewish refugees have been exported after the failed Jewish re-settlement to Israel, 1948. Truly, “a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.”

The story begins with a murder in The Hotel Zamenhof, the place where washed-up homicide detective, Meyer Landsman, has landed after a failed marriage, a disastrous career, and the overall shambles of his slivovitz friendly life. The death occurs during an inconvenient time:  the Jewish district of Sitka is a few months shy of Reversion – the 60 year generosity of the American government has come to an end and the Jewish district will revert to just another chunk of Alaskan soil. Landsman discovers that his murdered neighbor is a heroin-addled chess prodigy of some renown, but as he digs further, he is told to “black folder” the case and end his investigation.

Told from the 3rd person present tense, Yiddish reads like exotic candy, partly from its unusual perspective, but also because the book is filled throughout with genuine Yiddish phrases, enough to warrant a 4-page glossary at the end. Like Wonder Boys and Kavalier & Clay, Yiddish is not for the literary faint of heart, grappling as it does with a strong sub-text of spiritual and political tensions. A fictional “what-if” for adults, Yiddish is for the adult reader who likes their fiction with a stiff flavor of the real and intellectually deep.

Fans of Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will find themselves in familiar territory, as Chabon does for Jewish-American history what Clark did with her own native England – combining fresh prose with interesting research and loveable characters, leaving the reader second-guessing the stories told in history books. There is magic in Yiddish, and American fans in particular will rejoice in finding the literary Tzaddik Ha-Dor we’ve been longing for.


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  1. […] no great compliment in my opinion) His Dark Materials trilogy. Stylistically, it reads more like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union than any of these books, and though it is filled with throwbacks to Narnia & HP, it is by no […]

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