The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael ChabonGuest Reviewer: David Stein

Full Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel
Michael Chabon
Publisher: Harper Perennial (2008)
Number of Pages: 411
How long it took me to read: 4 weeks
Where I bought this book: I borrowed it from my mom after she recommended it to me.
ISBN: 978-0-00-714984-4

Like a Moth to a Flame

I don’t know whether it was my mom’s enthusiasm for reading that turned me into a fan of high school English, and later a scholar of Literature. She couldn’t wait for me to come home from university so she could raid my setworks and devour them. Lengthy conversations would follow as we sat in the afternoon sun. I treasure those days, and I’m grateful that we’ve found a way to keep the connection alive, even though we now live in different cities. Phone calls and text messages pass between us as we recommend books to one another. I always leave a bit of extra space in my suitcase when I visit my parents, because I know I’ll come back laden with books. That’s how The Yiddish Policemen’s Union came into my life. My mom gladly passed it on to me, and waited patiently for her phone to ring so we could debate and discuss it.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Sometimes when the younger black hats are caught by the police, they turn haughty and angry and demand their rights as American subjects. And sometimes they break down and cry. Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss.” (p.96)

4. “Landsman is holding a baby boy. The baby cries, for no very grave reason. His wailing constricts Landsman’s heart in a pleasurable way. Landsman feels relieved to discover that he has a fat handsome baby who smells of waffles and soap. He squeezes the puffy feet, gauges the weight of the little grandfather in his arms, at once negligible and vast. He turns to Bina to tell her the good news: It was all a mistake. Here is their boy. But there is no Bina to tell, only the memory in Landsman’s nostrils of rain on her hair.” (p.182)

3. “On a deal table sat a black telephone with no dial. If she picked it up, an identical phone would ring in her husband’s office. In ten years of living in this house, she had used it only three times, once in pain and twice in anger.” (p.217)

2. “Landsman, the son and paternal grandson of suicides, has seen human beings dispatch themselves in every possible way, from the inept to the efficient. He knows how it should and should not be performed. Bridge leaps and dives from hotel windows: picturesque but iffy. Stairwell leaps: unreliable, an impulse decision, too much like an accidental death. Slashing wrists, with or without the popular but unnecessary bathtub variation: harder than it seems, tinged with a girlish love of theatre.” (p.153)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top…If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.” (p.135)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: apostasy (noun)

Definition (Source: Collins English Dictionary 10th Ed): abandonment of one’s religious faith, party, a cause, etc.
Synonyms: defection, renunciation
Origins: 14th century; from Church Latin ‘apostasia’
As in: “His apostasy, though notorious, remained unknown to her.” (p.217)

New Word: hortatory (adjective)

Definition (Source: Collins English Dictionary 10th Ed): tending to exhort; encouraging
Synonyms: exhortative
Origins: 16th century; from the Latin ‘hortatorius’
As in: “He has to stop once, halfway up, to smoke a hortatory cigarette.” (p.251)

New Word: shtarkers (noun)

Definition (Source: a gangster or stout fellow
Synonyms: strongman
Origins: Yiddish
As in: “Russian shtarkers, a gangland hit, it just doesn’t mean that much to your average Bobover.” (p.98)

New Word: noz (noun)

Definition: policeman (as explained in the glossary at the end of the novel)
Synonyms: cop, law enforcement officer
Origins: slang from Sitka community, Alaska
As in: “Still want to be a noz when you grow up?” (p.39)

New Word: lumpia (noun)

Definition (Source: Wikipedia): a pastry of Chinese origin
Synonyms: pastry, confectionary
Origins: Indonesian ‘loempia’
As in: “Landsman has occasional visits from Romel, bearing a brown paper bag of lumpia.” (p.9)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“As always, I’m eager to read the latest recommendation from my mom. But it surprises me to discover that my first encounter with this book isn’t quite love at first sight, or an instant connection between two entities who were simply made for each other. To be honest, I’ve read a few chapters of this book and want to give up. I just can’t get into it. I know nothing about chess or small Alaskan towns, and don’t have much interest in highly religious sects of Judaism. And to be honest, this novel doesn’t paint any of these elements in a particularly flattering light. The unsolved crime plot line is intriguing, but it’s all just too bizarre, and the world of the novel feels so alien to me that I just can’t identify with it. I hate abandoning a book without finishing it, and it’s something I seldom do. But then I tell myself that time is precious and I could be spending it better by reading one of a billion other books. So, I set it down…for now…

“A few months later, I notice that it’s still lying next to my bed. Remembering Chabon’s masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I decide to give this book another chance. After all, the story of two cousins and their comic book empire still blows my mind every time I think about it (especially having worked as a comic book writer myself). Carefully managing my expectations (because not every novel can be Kavalier and Clay), I decide to give my second shot at Chabon a…well, a second shot.

“As I persisted, it grows on me until I can’t put it down. And strangely enough, it’s precisely the bizarreness of it all that I come to love and admire.

“Although I found it intriguing the first time I started, but there were too many unusual words and the environment felt too strange and unfamiliar. I know that sounds lazy, but the truth is this novel didn’t connect with me. The early chapters feel a lot like hard work, very much like a homework assignment that doesn’t really interest me but must be completed. One of my friends has a special name for films that are not particularly watchable but are socially conscious, morally important, and will possibly make us into better people. She calls them ‘spinach movies,’ because they’re not very tasty but very good for us. Ploughing through the first chapters of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I’m borrowing her terminology and branding this a ‘spinach book.’ ”

“This novel assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. I’ve already come across so many unfamiliar words. It helps to have a glossary at the back, but I feel it interrupts my reading process to constantly page to the end of the book to look up a word midway through a sentence. Then again, if not for the glossary, where would I ever find the meanings of these obscure and culturally-specific words? It’s almost as if Chabon is saying, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna make you suffer through this book. But I’m willing to help you out… just a bit.’

“But it’s not just the unfamiliar words that make this novel hard work. It’s set in a particular time in Jewish history, within an Alaskan environment. This is a very obscure period in history—one I don’t imagine many readers will know—and this makes it difficult because I have no frame of reference. It’s quite a unique experience, because I don’t recognise place names or characters’ speech patterns, and the names of the characters aren’t familiar to me at all. It’s a strange experience having read so many novels about London and New York! I feel I can relate to Charles Dickens and his characters because I’ve walked along the Thames and through Southwark and Westminster. I connected with The Bonfire of the VanitiesAmerican Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho because they capture the pulse of New York that overcomes me every time I visit. When I think about it, it’s not often that I read a novel about a place I’ve never been, and have never had a desire to see.

“I have no idea why Chabon chose to set his novel in a sad Alaskan town at a turbulent time in Jewish history. In fact, I’m very happy not to have the answer to that question. It somehow adds to the mystique of this very innovative author, and the sense that the novel’s world just is, without needing to explain itself. My lecturers always warned us about taking the ‘biographical approach’ to reading. They told us it was dangerous to read about an author’s life and impose those details onto a fictional text. I simply feel it spoils the pleasure of the reading experience. I’d rather not know where Chabon drew the inspiration for every image, event and idea in his novel. Sorry Google, but information overload isn’t always an advantage. Sometimes it’s fun to be swept up into a different world, with a bit of naïveté and oblivion thrown into the mix.”

“I’m amazed at what I’ve learned about my own religion. I was brought up Jewish and educated in all the rules and rituals. As I grew older, I moved away from many of these rituals. It’s interesting (and sometimes moving) how a single image of Jewish men waiting for the sunset to bring the Sabbath can take me back to times and places in my own life. I become nostalgic as I think about how moments like these were part of my world at one time. The description of a retreat for young Jewish men takes me back to my days at summer camp. I haven’t thought about those experiences for years, and in just a few short descriptions this novel manages to bring them back.

“And yet I find something on every page that I’ve never come across before. Fundamentally, it deals with Judaism, but it’s a branch of Judaism as unfamiliar to me as a completely different religion. Having never been part of the inner circle of devoutly religious Jews, I was always on the outside looking in, and missed many of the details. Chabon has observed and captured these details, from the burial rituals of highly Orthodox sects to the hierarchies that exist in a Rabbi’s home.

“It’s exciting to see how the author uses familiar Jewish iconography. It’s even more interesting to see how he subverts it. At times I laugh out loud at Chabon’s interpretation of Jewish law as his characters see it (and live it). I even have a moment when I gasp in shock when Chabon introduces a well-known object in the form of ‘tefillin’—the leather straps wound around a man’s arms during prayer—and has one of his characters use it to tie around his veins before shooting heroin! I can only imagine what devout observers would have to say about this. (By the way, my gasp of shock would probably draw reactions on a bus or a park bench, but I’m disappointed to report that I uttered this gasp alone at home where there was no one around to bear witness to it. In a few months’ time, however, I’ll be living with my girlfriend, and I’m intrigued to see whether this kind of thing will annoy her…along with a whole lot of other quirks that we single people develop in our bachelorhood.)”

“I’m really glad I’ve persisted. There’s no doubt that it’s been a challenging read, because Chabon expects his reader to make connections and read between the lines. But Chabon’s use of language is nothing short of spectacular. His prose is effective in creating pathos, interest and laugh-out-loud humour—all within the space of one page. He weaves a story piece by piece and takes the reader on a journey to a place one would never otherwise go. It’s almost as if he knows that it’s tough going in the early stages. And, in a very subtle way, he asks the reader to bear with him and go along for the ride. There’s a promise that all will become clear later, and it most certainly does.

“I suppose it all has something to do with trusting an author. Chabon is a master wordsmith, and his gift for narrative is truly astounding. Bearing that in mind, I would gladly submit to another one of his crazy novels…even if (or especially if) it makes absolutely no sense when I start out on the journey.”

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