Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review/Summer Reading: The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon

By Eric Green

The Yiddish Policemen's Union,
Michael Chabon
A Novel, 430 pages
Harper Perennial

AVery Different Look at the Middle East

When I first saw this book, last year, I shied away from it. While I really enjoyed Chabon's, Kavalier & Clay, I had misgivings about this book. After all, how could such a best selling novel [which is also a great mystery book] be any good? Chabon also was awarded the Pulitzer for that book. What little I read about it, and I read very little, led me to believe it might be just another one-sided book on the Middle East.

Well, I was given the book by a person with no Jewish background, let alone any background in Yiddish. He just smiled and said that I would like it. A colleague of mine at PA, also a person with no Jewish or Yiddish background, also smiled after I told him I was reading it. He really enjoyed it, no small feat for that guy to enjoy a novel.

By the time of this second "review" I was well into being totally mesmerized by Chabon, once again.

This time, Chabon transports readers to the Sitka District of Alaska where the Jewish settlement was placed after 1948, not in the Middle East. That, by itself, is an amazingly creative and imaginative concept. But, if that isn't enough, it is through Chabon's main character, Meyer Landsman, my father's first name, that we learn about the inner workings of the Jewish settlement with all its warts, criminal elements, and redeemable and unredeemable people. Some readers may come to know sometimes more that you would want to. The phrase we often hear today, "you didn't have to tell me all of those things," is what you could tell Michael Chabon when he goes into his colorful descriptions.

Doing some more research I found an interview of Chabon where he tells readers that in the early 1940s, Harold Ickes, FDR's Secretary of the Interior actually suggested Alaska as a homeland for displaces Jewish people. Chabon is not too far from the truth. Or as we say sometime, "You can't make these things up."

I guess the amazing thing to me is that this book received such accolades and rare outright condemnations from right wing and defensive elements of the Zionist and the pro-Israeli world that reacts and over reacts to any criticisms. The Commentary reviews, there were a few, continued their accolades of Chabon, giving him, for them, a backhanded complement by comparing his writings similar to Philip Roth's novels that involved Jewish characters. But, John Podhoretz made it clear that while Chabon was a very good writer, "sentence for sentence the best writer of English prose of his age in America," that he was still anti-Zionist and that he "hates Israel." The Jewish Forwards similarly seemed afraid to say too much against Chabon's work, but its tortured review made it clear that they were not happy with the book.

Like Roth, Chabon doesn't mince words. In a way, the book is reminiscent of Michael Gold's book, "Jews Without Money." When some one says that the "Jews have all the money," I refer them to Gold's book. And, the scene hasn't changed much.

Now, I have another book to refer people to who would like to have some insights into the ultra-religious sects and political world within the Jewish community. Like Gold and Roth, Chabon shows that Jewish people succumb to the same things as everyone else does, i.e., drug and alcohol addiction, organized crime and wild war like schemes to achieve goals that on the face of it might seems ridiculous, but upon reflection is painfully too close to reality.

Picking up a book by Chabon, for me, is similar to going to a movie by great film directors who transport you into a new place. You have to trust that they will not abuse your trust of them. In that regard, Chabon is very trustworthy fellow.

I look forward to more Chabon books.


1 comment:

Joel said...

Michael Chabon is one of my favorite writers. This book you've reviewed was the first of his I have read, and I enjoyed it very much. I just finished his recent book of essays, Maps and Legends, which he praises the entertainment and literary value of "genre" fiction (sci-fi, detective novels, adventure, youth fiction, etc.) and strongly critiques those critics who obsess over "serious" or adult literature and devalue genre fiction. Chabon prefers and thinks the most creative work comes from writers who break down genre barriers, but who do so only after being experts.

He links the division of literature into genres and categories as the Barnes and Noble technique of commodifying art and packaging it for a predetermined consumer. In some small way challenging those divisions creatively challenges commodification itself. Creativity itself is a political act, even apart from its content.

But Maps and Legends, which is a sort of memoir on many of the Chabon's favorite writers and books and stories, has a serious shortcoming. Few if any non-white writers appear in his lists of favorites or as subject of his considerable and thoughtful scrutiny.

This is unfortunate because some of the greatest genre writers are missed. Think of Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Isabel Allende, and many others who are currently packed away in our moving boxes ready to make a trip across the state.

Still, he is an important writer.