by Bonny V. Fetterman
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon
(HarperCollins, 414 pp., $26.95)
When a murder victim is discovered in a flophouse called the Hotel Zamenhof on Max Nordau Street, homicide detective Meyer Landsman is called in to investigate—mainly because he lives at the hotel too. Landsman has been falling apart since his divorce; he carries on his police work in a mild state of drunkenness. (According to the narrator, “Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.”) But there is also another reason for his hopelessness: the Jews are about to be expelled from their home in the Federal District of Sitka.
The Jewish place names would suggest a setting in Eastern Europe or Israel; however, this story takes place in a fictitious place called the Sitka Territory located in the Alaskan panhandle (an autonomous Jewish region like Birobizhan in the former Soviet Union). Sitka is a temporary home for Jews granted by the U.S. government to refugees after W.W. II and (we are told, matter-of-factly) the demise of Israel in the 1948 war. Landsman’s father, originally from Lodz, had come here after the Holocaust to build a new life. But now the sixty-year land grant is due to expire within a matter of weeks, and each Jew in Sitka must make his own plans about where to go.
The amazing feature of Michael Chabon’s new novel is his construction of a completely believable Jewish community in Sitka, with its own history, geography, and culture (including Jewish cops and gangsters). All the characters speak Yiddish (we know because we are told when they are speaking “American”) and a powerful Jewish sensibility is woven into their spicy, acerbic exchanges. Some reviewers have referred to this quality as noir or dark humor, but the more accurate term is the Yiddish laff mit yashtsherkes , “laughing through tears.”
In light of the upcoming “Reversion” (or expulsion), Detective Landsman is ordered not to pursue the case—the entire Jewish community is closing down—but his sense of justice will not let it lie. Gradually he involves his ex-wife, Bina, who is also his superior officer on the force, and his loyal police partner, Berko Shemets, a huge, phlegmatic, half-Tlingit Jew who wears tzitzit and a yarmulke. (“It has nothing to do with religion ,” Berko says, “it has everything to do... with fathers ,” referring to his efforts to connect with the deadbeat Jewish father who abandoned him.) Together the three detectives identify the murdered man as Mendel Shpilman, son of the Verbover rebbe —and discover that murder is just the tip of the iceberg in a plot with international repercussions (involving a militant sect of Jewish fanatics, American government officials, and an evangelical president, who does not think the Apocalypse is necessarily a bad thing). The complicated plot, however, is ultimately the frame for a story of individual integrity in a time of uncertainty—or what Chabon calls “strange times to be Jew.”
by Amir Gutfreund,
translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
(Toby Press, 407 pp., $24.95)
Who would expect such a gentle book with the title “Our Holocaust,” or Shoah Shelano in the original Hebrew? This best-selling novel in Israel, which also won the Sami Rohr Choice Award in English translation, begins with a child’s perspective, as two precocious children in Haifa explore their neighborhood and describe the characters in it.
Grandpa Lolek is a miser who saves old teabags for subsequent dunkings; Grandpa Yosef is a saintly man who busily tends to everybody’s needs, including those of his bedridden wife and autistic son. These grandparents, uncles, and aunts are not related to the children, but adopted by them, as well as by their parents who are Holocaust survivors. This is as close as they will come to “family” on Katznelson Street, in the Kiryat Haim suburb of Haifa, where all the adults are survivors.
While the twelve-year-old narrator and his best friend Effi know a bit about the Holocaust, no one talks to them about it directly. Grandpa Yosef has decreed that the children are too young to be burdened with their stories. The children resort to surreptitious means to find out what they can, but by the end of the first section, they are grown and have moved on to other interests: the narrator is an army officer, married and a father; Effi is a doctor at the local Sick Fund.
But the narrator cannot let go of his questions in adulthood. Now that he is finally deemed “Old Enough,” in the view of Grandpa Yosef, to hear stories about the Holocaust, people start talking to him—beginning with reticent Grandpa Yosef who, as he sits by Grandpa Lolek’s hospital bed, realizes that their stories may die with them. Attorney Perl, a former lawyer in Poland, shows him his vast collection of index cards documenting the postwar fate of thousands of Nazi criminals—whether they disappeared, or were tried, sentenced, and set free again. Attorney Perl’s obsession with justice becomes the narrator’s as well.
The last section, entitled “Yariv” for the narrator’s son, is concerned with legacies. As the adult narrator discovers the varied and complicated pasts of victims and perpetrators, how does he deal with that knowledge? With mounting emotional intensity, this novel poses the essential questions about the role of our own generation as the living link between the generation of the Shoah and the children who come after.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
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