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Bookends: Imagining Sitka. Alaska, as a Jewish Homeland December 29, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Imagining Sitka. Alaska, as a Jewish Homeland

By Dan Davidson

Yiddish PolicemanApril 17, 2013

– 826 words –


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

By Michael Chabon

Harper Perennial

416 pages



I picked up this book, intrigued by the fact that it was set in Sitka, a place I know about only from John Straley’s mystery novels. Within few sentences I discovered that this wasn’t any Sitka that exists in our world, but an alternative universe where four million Jewish refugees have been granted a temporary homeland, free from the oppression of Hitler’s Germany. They share the islands in an uneasy relationship with the Tlingit.

In this world the war lasted until 1946 and was ended by the dropping of atomic weapons on Berlin. Israel was created in 1948, but was destroyed almost immediately by its Arab neighbours, leaving Palestine in even more of an internecine mess than it is in our world.

The Jewish refuge in Sitka was timed to end in 60 years and the territory to revert back to the USA, with the Jews apparently supposed to go elsewhere Just where that might be is not entirely clear to anyone.

Our central character is Detective Meyer Landsman, a divorced wreck of a man with a drinking problem. His partner is Berko Shemets, half-Tlingit, half-Jew, and sort of a walking personification of the racial tensions on the islands.

When a skid row bum is murdered in the fleabag hotel where Landsman lives, he feels obligated to solve the crime during the short time that his police forces will still have jurisdiction on the islands. This is made more complex by the sudden arrival of his ex-wife, who has been promoted to be the head of the homicide unit.

The tale is told in the third person present tense from Landsman’s point of view in a kind of clipped delivery that has touches of the Black Mask style of hard-boiled private eye fiction while also sounding quite Jewish in tone. This is assisted by a liberal larding of Yiddish terms throughout the story, so many that I advise readers to keep a bookmark in the handy four-page glossary at the back of the book. I found it essential.

As a result of their investigations, which have to be off-book as the American authorities, who will taking over the islands within months, have forbidden it, the detectives discover that the dead man is Mendel Shpilman, the son of the Verbover sect rebbe (or rabbi), who is also Sitka’s most powerful organized crime boss. Ironically, before sinking deep into addiction, Mendel showed signs of be the Tzadik ha-Dor, or potential messiah. One is said to be born in every generation, and young Mendel, besides being a chess genius, displayed talents of physical and spiritual healing. It appears that he collapsed under the weight of everyone’s expectations, but why he was murdered remains a mystery until near the end.

In what must be a dig at America’s evangelical neo-conservatives, Chabon develops a complicated plot in which the Offices of the President and the American Congress are colluding with the followers of the Verbover Rebbe to reestablish Israel and place Jerusalem under the control of the Jews. This is to be done in order to force God to bring on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and implement the prophecies that lead to the Rapture.

All of this involves blowing up the Islamic icon, the Dome of the Rock, and reestablishing a Jewish temple on that site.

If this sounds far fetched for a plot, remember that Chabon began writing the book only two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when many were certain that the invasion of Iraq that same year was part of a neo-con conspiracy fueled by evangelical fervor, and Bush II actually made the mistake of referring to the venture as a Crusade.

In Chabon’s alternate history, there are a lot of changes. JFK was not assassinated and eventually married Marilyn Monroe. The Soviet Union did not survive WWII, and there have been several Russian Republics, while an independent Manchuria has its own space program.

The mystery gets really personal for Landsman when he connects Mendel’s travels to the death of his sister, a pilot who apparently flew the poor man to a place that certain people did not want anyone to know he had visited.

Shemets undergoes an identity crisis when he discovers just what role his Jewish father, a former cop and political fixer, has played in events.

This is a hybrid sort of novel and it won all the major science fiction awards for the year it came out as well as being shortlisted for the mystery genre’s Edgar Allan Poe Award.

The copy that I have has a very distinctive gatefold cover graphically illustrated with Tlingit style designs, while the inside cover folds out to be a “Welcome to Sitka” brochure with a kind of timeline of illustrations showing major events in the story.





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