Like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Michael Chabon’s newest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is set in a counterfactual world. In Chabon’s retelling of history, the U.S. permitted European Jews fleeing Hitler to settle in Sitka, a small fishing town in Alaska. After the 1948 defeat of the nascent state of Israel, the city becomes the improbable center of a new Jewish homeland—one where the language remains primarily Yiddish. The book is, among other things, a gripping murder mystery set in the “present” as the settlement is preparing to revert back to Alaskan control. Chabon won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Dissent contributor Jon Wiener (“The Weatherman Temptation,” Spring 2007) caught up with him in Los Angeles.
Jon Wiener: You say it’s a fact that FDR suggested Alaska as a temporary homeland for the displaced Jews of Second World War Europe. I never heard that before.
Michael Chabon: It wasn’t F.D.R. himself, it was Harold Ickes, his Secretary of the Interior. The proposal was couched in terms of exploiting the Alaskan territory and its resources, the huge untapped wealth up there. We need people up there. Nobody really wants to go up there. Where could we find some people who would want to go up there? I know: there are these millions of people in Europe now who are clamoring to get out, desperate to get out; why don’t we kill two birds with one stone and let them go there? But we won’t let them go anywhere else, and they won’t be granted any kind of permanent residency status. When the war is over, they can go back.
JW: How far did this Harold Ickes proposal get?
MC: It got to Congress. A bill was introduced in the Committee on Insular Affairs, I think it was, where it died. There was very strong opposition from the establishment in Alaska. Alaskan lumber and mining and other interests were dead set against having this unwashed immigrant population come in and sully this pristine wilderness.
JW: I get the picture.
MC: So the man who was the nonvoting delegate of the territory of Alaska, but who nevertheless had some influence, spearheaded the opposition in committee. The bill was quickly defeated and never made it onto the floor.
JW: However in the book –
MC: Yes, in the novel, this delegate was dining at Hogate’s seafood restaurant in Washington, DC, an establishment once famous for its rum buns. I remember eating them myself as a kid, and they were quite delicious. He drops one of his rum buns when he’s coming out of the restaurant. In his haste to get it, he chases it into the street, where he’s run over by a passing taxicab, and killed. In my story this bill is passed and becomes law and the Jews are admitted. They come in several waves, first in 1940, and then after the war more come, and then many more in 1948 after the collapse of the state of Israel. Israel collapses partly because the United States, having done this grand gesture, doesn’t feel the same sense of guilt and the same pressure to do something to help the Zionists in Israel. Therefore the fledgling state of Israel is overwhelmed and defeated, and after that a lot more refugees come to Alaska.
JW: This is a book about the world of Yiddish—the language of the Yids. How come you know so much about Yiddish?
MC: The truth is I don’t actually know any Yiddish really. I can’t speak two sentences of Yiddish. I can read it with a lot of trouble. I can vaguely understand things said to me. I did a lot of research and tried to teach myself on my own, as much as I needed to write this book.
JW: This is something you’ve been interested in for a long time, going back to Kavalier and Clay days.
MC: It is. I wrote an essay published about ten years ago that was a response to this phrase book that you can buy in a bookstore called Say It In Yiddish: A Phrase Book for Travelers. It’s not a joke, it’s divided into the usual sections: how to deal with government bureaucrats in Yiddish, how to make your way through an airport in Yiddish—
JW: What airport is this?
MC: Precisely. That was the point of the essay: to try to speculate on where you could go with this book. Realizing there was no actual place where you would need this book, I tried to dream up some imaginary destinations where such a book might come in handy. And I dwelled a little bit on this Alaska thing in that essay, just for a paragraph. But I found I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I always wanted to know more about Yiddish. I grew up hearing it all the time, spoken by the grandparents’ generation. I had a great-great aunt who was a regular reader of the Forward in Yiddish. I was very aware of Yiddish, but I did not understand it, so that immersion and alienation from the language had a strong impact on me. And I found when I started to write this novel that I could hear the sound of Yiddish, and it influenced the style in English of this book.
JW: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is in part a mystery story – our protagonist is a Jewish homicide detective.
MC: Yes. Whatever else this book may or may not be, it is also a murder mystery. I wanted to write a detective story that a reader of detective stories would read and love.
JW: The book suggests that you have some affection for a genre from an earlier era, stories about a down-at-the-heels dick on a caper.
MC: Yes. Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite writers. I go back and re-read his books pretty regularly, particularly The Long Goodbye. I think it’s one of the great American novels. And I also love and admire Ross MacDonald, whose novels I think surpass Chandler’s on a technical level, in their construction. They’re not quite as much fun as Chandler, and that might explain why he’s unjustly forgotten now. His novels are still in print, and people still read them, but I wish he were better known.
Both Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer are in the same mold: solitary, isolated men. They don’t have girlfriends, they live alone in apartments, drinking themselves to sleep at night over their books of chess problems. I wanted to play with that, in the most fond and affectionate sense. I’m not trying to write parody or pastiche, I’m really trying to engage with the work of these writers I love so much and whose novels mean so much to me.
JW: Part of this genre is a deep immersion in a place. For these two writers, it’s Los Angeles. But you have done something they didn’t do: you have imaged a whole new place. Sitka, Alaska, the site of your story, is in reality just a dumpy little town that fills up with cruise ship passengers several times a week during the summer.
MC: That’s a really good point, and in that respect the framework of the detective novel served me well. It wasn’t the most conscious decision that I’ve ever made, but I made an intuitive decision that if I was going to describe the world of this Yiddish-speaking district in Alaska, I was going to need a narrative framework that enabled me to have access to every aspect and layer of that world. I wanted to present it in toto to the reader. A lot of other possibilities could have occurred to me: an omniscient narrator, a Dickensian narrator, probably would have worked also. But right away I thought of this detective figure who is able to go anywhere, see anything, talk to anyone. This is not a private detective, this is a homicide detective, so his badge gets him in any door. No doors are closed to him. Not only that, he also understands the inner workings of his society. He knows which wheels are getting the most grease. It seemed like the right choice for a figure to be a guide for the reader into this Jewish inferno.
JW: This is also a story about a superman with a hidden identity, a kind of Clark Kent of the Jews. But your Clark Kent doesn’t want to be the Jewish Superman.
MC: That’s very true. He’s a superman who has refused the cape. This man was a prodigy. Many great expectations were raised about him when he was a child. He was a chess prodigy and also a prophesied chosen one of his people. A man of great abilities, great sensitivity, great tenderness, great ability to connect with others – a Jewish Bill Clinton in many ways.
JW: And yet he’s a heroin addict.
MC: He couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t take the overwhelming responsibly of being able to connect so powerfully with people. So he’s living very much alone, as a heroin addict, in this cheap hotel in which our hero, Detective Meyer Landsman, also lives, and in which he meets his death at the very opening of the novel.
JW: The Third Temple in Jerusalem figures in your story. This first two of course were destroyed in ancient times. I remember walking around Jerusalem in the Jewish Quarter of the old city and coming across an upscale place that was displaying a model of the Third Temple, to be built according to architectural instructions in the Bible. Black-hatted Jews with beards stood outside urging me and everybody else, “Come in, take a look!” I was horrified because I knew where they want to build this temple.
MC: I’ve been there too. It’s not just that model they have on display. They also have all the implements on display as well. In certain reviews of this book the sentiment has been expressed that, if anything is marring this book, it’s this far fetched element of these fanatical people who want to see the third temple constructed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, where there once was a temple there is now this incredibly important Muslim shrine that was built in seventh century.
JW: We call it the Dome of the Rock.
MC: And if a temple ever were to be built on that site, somebody would have to do something about that mosque. These people with their institute in Jerusalem with their model and their implements – they don’t really like to talk about how the space for the temple is going to be cleared. They don’t want to go into that. It’s often said that has been left in the hands of God, which terrifies me. This is not farfetched. It’s very much a real thing. There are people out there who are evangelical cattle breeders, you can see pictures on the internet of the various attempts, thus far unsuccessful, to breed a red heifer, which is necessary for the fulfillment of certain prophecies associated with the rebuilding of the temple and the coming of the messiah. That’s one of the things I didn’t have to make up for this novel.
JW: I’ve heard that the Jews can be argumentative. Has anybody been outraged by the portrayal of Jews in your book? Have you been called a self-hating Jew?
MC: So far the only person who has said such a thing was not himself Jewish, so his credentials, in my view, seemed a little bit impeachable. But it’s traditional for American Jewish writers that, if you depict Jewish characters engaged in some of the less admirable kinds of behavior that human beings engage in all over the planet, like greed, rapacity, violence, intolerance, if you attribute such behavior to Jews, some Jews get upset about that. They accuse you, in the Yiddish formulation, of “making a shande for the goyim”: airing dirty laundry in public, making a display of disunity at a time when unity is so important. It doesn’t matter what time it is, it’s always a time when unity is so important. The great example was pointed out to me by my mother, in the aftermath of some criticism of my work: Philip Roth, who many times in his career has been accused of this, for many books, starting at the very beginning with Goodbye Columbus. My mom said it was proof that I had finally arrived.
Want to listen to this interview? Click here.
Jon Wiener teaches history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble.