Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

August 6, 2012

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon is a fictional alternate history book published in 2007. This book has won several science fiction awards: the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best SF Novel, the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for Best Novel. It was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel.

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

My rating for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – 4

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The premise of The Yiddish Policemen’s Unionby Michael Chabon (website) is simple: what if Israel lost the 1948 war, the Jews were driven into the sea and Roosevelt’s proposal of establishing a Jewish state in Alaska passed (I’m sure the deciding vote belonged to Storm Thurman). Thus the setting of Sitka, Alaska – a town where Yiddish is the native tongue and kosher is the law of the land – is born. The tale is weaved around an alcoholic, yet highly moral, homicide detective, his ex-wife (now his boss), his missing sister and a bunch Jewish mobsters hiding behind their religion (but which mobster doesn’t).

Throw in a wannabe messiah as well and you got yourself a story.

The novel has a noir feel and smoothly moves along like an old familiar pulp detective novel, the story has some rich Jewish imagery from old Europe as well as jokes and, like the old Yiddish tales, each paragraph is crafted to be rich in meaning and thick with symbolism.

This is a good book but, for me, a slow read. Maybe the symbolism was too much, maybe I had to re-read some parts or maybe I just didn’t “get” several points.
Yet, I enjoyed the novel very much.

I felt the book dragged a bit in the middle, but quickly picked up. The story is interesting, the premise is brilliant. This is not just a “Jewish murder mystery”, but also about Diaspora, a search for a home and a community which is being ostracized from the world.

Related Reads:
The Amaz­ing Adven­tures of Kava­lier & Clayby Michael Chabon
Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jew­ish Com­mu­nityby Charles Lon­don

Meyer Landsmanis a detective with the Sitka police department. Meyer is also an alcoholic who lives in a hotel where, by the way, is the murder which he is investigating. Berko Shemets is Meyer’s partner, half Jew half Tlingit, when the partners file the report they discover that Meyer’s ex-wife has been promoted and is now their boss.

The detectives discover that the corpse belongs to Mendel Shpilman, son of a powerful rebbe/mobster who was believed to be Tzadik Ha-dor (righteous of his generation) and a potential messiah. To make the murder even more convulouted, it turns out that the rightous one has taken a flight with Meyer’s deceased sister, Naomi.

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Zohar – Man of la Book
Disclaimer: I bought this book.

BOOK BLOGGERS – Have you read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? If so link up your review below:

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  • BrooksAugust 6, 2012 at 10:59 am

    I read most of this book a few years ago and due to some insanity in my life, I didn’t finish it. I tried to pick it up again a few months later, but I had forgotten much of the complicated storyline and just decided I’d have to start over. Someday.

    Based on what I remember, I totally agree with your review. There’s a lot going on and I felt like sometimes I wasn’t quite getting everything. Lots of Jewish stuff that was probably going over my head (there was some of that in Kavalier and Clay too).

    • Zohar - Man of la BookAugust 7, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      I can’t imagine putting this book down and picking it up at a later time. As you said it’s dense, I did enjoy the Jewish themes but maybe because I get them.

  • RyanAugust 6, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    I really liked this book but I wished Chabon had taken a little more time to formally outline the alternate history after 1948 instead of piecing it all together as the book progressed. I wasn’t asking for an entire chapter, just a few solid landmarks in which to hang my hat. It would have put the Sitka Settlement into a little more perspective.

    • Zohar - Man of la BookAugust 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      I didn’t think about it Ryan but you’re right. On the other hand, maybe he did and it was edited out. I would venture to say that an outline would have been nice.

  • Michael @ Literary ExplorationAugust 7, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Great review

    I’ve only just recently read this book, but my review isn’t up yet. will let you know when it is.

  • LisaAugust 12, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Oh my gosh, this is one of the first books I ever reviewed – so fun to go back and read it. I listened to this one and really enjoyed it on audio.

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