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Literature: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an Alternate History detective novel by Michael Chabon published in 2007. It received the Hugo Award for best novel, as well as other awards.

The year is 2007 and nobody in the Federal District of Sitka knows what the future will be made of. The rain-soaked territory in the Alaska Panhandle became the last refuge of the Jews after the state of Israel was stillborn in 1948, and the United States is going to reclaim it in a few months. Meanwhile, hard-boiled and chronically depressed detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has a murder case on his hands. In the very rathole of a hotel where he has washed up, a man with a false identity has been executed, contract-style.

Teaming up with his long-time partner Berko Shemets, a Tlingit Native American and convert to Judaism, Meyer tries to elucidate the case before the deadline of Reversion, when the entire district will cease to exist and he'll likely be out of a job. The investigation takes him into the reclusive world of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, where word had it that the murder victim might have been the Messiah of prophecy...

The Coen Brothers are currently working on a film adaptation of the novel.


The Yiddish Policemen's Union contains examples of:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: Landsman spends much of the novel trying to figure out how the perp entered the victim's hotel without being seen, and ultimately concludes that he entered through some underground tunnels. It turns out that the perp simply walked through the front door and, when presented with the accusation, has no idea what Landsman's talking about.
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Sitka society is almost entirely based on Ashkenazi culture, to the point that Yiddish is the common language. This is because other Jewish cultures such as the Separdim, Mizrahim, Habashim, etc. remained in their home countries after Israel was crushed. Having won the war, the countries had no need to expel the remaining Jews.
  • Alternate History: The point of divergence occurred in 1940, when Alaskan Delegate Anthony Diamond died in a car crash, this allowed the US congress to implement the Slattery Report which opened Alaska to Jewish immigration, 4 million of the 6 million Jews who would have been killed in the Holocaust fled to Alaska, creating a vibrant and sprawling community centered around Sitka. Also, Germany was nuked in 1946 and Israel was destroyed after only 6 months during the first round of the Arab Israeli War. Other minor examples include the fact that Orson Welles made his film of Heart of Darkness.
  • Always Night: It is Alaska in November, which really is dark most of the time.
  • Anti-Hero: Landsman, big time. Being a classical anti-hero, not a Dark Age one: a normal person, fundamentally good, but hardly heroic and with numerous flaws.
  • Arc Words: "Strange times to be a Jew."
  • Author Appeal: Chabon usually focuses on Jews and Jewish subjects.
  • Bad Ass Grandpa: Alter Litvak, a broken down old man with a long history of wetwork. He's still got enough spunk to help orchestrate an attempt to retake Israel and bring about the Messianic Age.
  • Bad Ass Israeli: Transfered onto Sitka due to Israel being crushed while still a few months old. Sitka seems to be almost entirely populated by gangster-scholars, chessmasters, retired spooks, information traffickers, cowboy cops, giants and the odd super-genius.
  • Bag of Holding: Bina's bag contains the necessary items in any given situation.
  • Beard of Evil: Aryeh Baronshteyn's long Orthodox beard with a fake Skunk Stripe to give the impression he's Older and Wiser than he is
  • Bilingual Bonus: You'll get a lot more out of the puns and subtext if you understand Yiddish.
  • Broken Masquerade
  • Bury Your Gays: Mendel Shpilman
  • By-the-Book Cop: Bina Gelbfish. She even has a conversation about it with Meyer, adding, "I believe in the book."
  • Chekhov's Gun: the Tunnels, the Red Heifer.
  • Chess in general, to the extent that Caissa the goddess of chess is name-checked.
  • The Chessmaster: Itzik Zimbalist and Hertz Shemetz (literally and figuratively).
  • Chess Motifs
  • The Consigliere: Baronshteyn to Rebbe Shpilman. He's even a lawyer.
  • Cowboy Cop: Landsman.
  • Da Chief: To make matters even worse for Landsman, his superior happens to be his ex-wife.
  • Dead Man Writing / Kilroy Was Here: Landsman is thrown into a cell, and chillingly finds a snarky comment written by his dead sister carved on the wall.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Landsman. In his case, it's a coping mechanism.
  • Defective Detective: Landsman is an alcoholic mess with massive issues about family, guilt, religion, and chess.
  • Determinator: Landsman is shot, gets the crap beaten out of him multiple times, chased through the snow in his underpants, and faces a lot of emotional and political turmoil on a case he shouldn't even be investigating.
  • The Don: Reb Shpilman, the patriarch of the Verbover crime syndicate/religious sect.
  • Drop the Hammer: Berko's warhammer, a homemade replica of a tribal Tlingit weapon.
    "He carries in his right hand the uncanniest hammer any Jew or gentile is ever likely to see. It's a replica of the one that Chief Katlian is reported to have swung during the Russian-Tlingit war of 1804, which the Russians lost... The head is a thirty-five-pound block of meteorite iron..."
  • Drowning My Sorrows: What Landsman's doing at the beginning of the novel.
  • Enter Stage Window
  • Evil Plan: The plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock.
  • Film Noir
  • Food Porn: Chabon's description of Filipino-style Chinese donuts (which Sitka is apparently famous for) comes off like this.
  • Future Slang: Alternate History slang, more accurately. Chabon invents a few terms and creates new idiomatic meanings for several Yiddish words/phrases:
    • "Sholem," literally meaning peace, is Sitka slang for a gun, derived from the slang "piece" for gun in English as well as the name "peacemaker."
    • Also, mobile phones are called "shofars," after the traditional ram horns used to announce holidays.
    • Beat cops are called "latkes" because their flat-topped caps resemble pancakes.
    • Sitka Jews are slangily referred to as "Icebergers" by American Jews, while Sitka Jews call American Jews "Mexicans" because they live South of the border (the Canadian border, that is).
  • Gentle Giant: Berko.
  • Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex
  • Godwin's Law of Time Travel: A rare inversion. In this world's alternate timeline, Hitler got his ass kicked even harder that he did in our world. Among other changes, Germany was nuked in 1946 and the Holocaust killed only a third as many Jews as it did in Real Life. The book explores how these events (coupled with the collapse of Israel) complicate the lives of surviving Jews.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted; although Bina doesn't appear to be psychologically damaged by the difficult decision she and Landsman made, it was the impetus for their divorce. In fact, Landsman feels far more guilty about it than Bina.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Alter Litvak's body is a horrorshow of scars from his many decades as a brutal spook.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Bina Gelbfish
  • Just Before the End: Not in the apocalyptic sense typical for the setting (being a non-lethal and highly localized variant), but in an emotional sense for (almost) every Jewish character. The upcoming Reversion means the end of the Jewish district and most (if not almost all) residents will not be able to stay in the US once the territory is under their control, but neither do they have any emigration alternatives. Thus, many Jews don't know what exactly they are supposed to do and what will happen in a few months at all, and the book portrays the resulting feeling of all-pervasive uncertainty, emotional collapse and resignation very effectively. The best example is the police force itself, which is disintegrating rapidly as the events of the novel take place, so that, for instance, a report by the forensic pathologist is left uncompleted because said pathologist leaves the District, open cases are "blackflagged", i.e. closed without resolution, by police chiefs and no one besides Landsman actually cares about solving the mystery of Shpilman's murder (not even Berko, who's in it out of loyalty to Landsman rather than an actual interest in solving the case).
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade Naomi Landsman
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Landsman.
  • Knowledge Broker: Landsman meets one to get some info.
  • Large and in Charge: Rabbi Shpilman, the leader of the Verbover crime syndicate/sect, is grotesquely overweight, apparently due to a health disorder rather than overeating.
  • Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Naomi Landsman's plane crash
  • Male Gaze: Done textually. When Meyer is crawling down a tunnel behind Bina, Chabon spends a good-sized paragraph describing his reactions upon gazing at her ass for the first time in years. With Chabon's characteristic Purple Prose, it comes of sounding like a religious experience.
  • Meaningful Name: So many. Landsman himself, as the central character in a novel obsessed with the question of the Jews having a land of their own. Melekh Gaystik, the former chess champion, has a name meaning 'intellectual king'. The American agent Mr. Cashdollar. And many, many more (most of them disguised by being in Yiddish).
  • The Men in Black: Cashdollar and his men fit the trope, but they're not Badass in a Nice Suit, they wear thick sweaters, occasionally with a tacky penguin motif.
  • Mundane Wish: Rather than kill Landsmen and his friends because You Know Too Much, Cashdollar offers to buy their silence instead. All Landsman wants is his gun and badge back. When he's duly reinstated as a detective he says: "I should have asked for a million dollars. They'd have given it to me!"
  • Mysterious Informant
  • The Napoleon: Willie Dick, the 4'7" tall Tlinglit cop, rides a 2/3 scale motorcycle and is generally described in terms that qualify him as a Badass of tall-tale proportions. Berko even Lampshades this, calling Dick "the emperor of the French."
  • Never Suicide: Inverted. It never occurs to anyone that Mendel's death was (assisted) suicide until the very end.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Unusually for an Alternate History story the incumbent President of the United States is not named, nor is any description given. The reader is left to make up their own mind which conservative politician or Christian fundamentalist religious figure has risen to the top in this reality.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Willie Dick, though he claims to hate everyone equally.
  • Noodle Incident: A lot of the details of the Alternate History the novel is set in are alluded to, but not actually described.
  • N-Word Privileges: Since almost everyone in Sitka is Jewish, the slur "yid" has become commonplace. Willie Dick, though a gentile, is also granted privileges due to growing up with Berko.
  • Ominous Fog: Alaska in November
  • Only Sane Man: Naomi was this for the Landsman family; Bina also qualifies.
  • Present Tense Narrative: Used.
    "Landsman lives in 505, with a view of the neon sign across Max Nordau Street." (from the first page)
  • Rummage Fail: Bina's purse full of random stuff.
  • Runaway Groom: Mendel Shpilman.
  • Sacred Language: Landsman thinks that Yiddish is for talking to people, and that Hebrew is for talking to God.
  • Shout-Out: In one scene, Berko's son watches an unnamed Yiddish-dubbed cartoon that's clearly meant to be Dragon Tales.
  • Sinister Minister: The Verbover crime syndicate is also an Orthodox religious sect, lead by the powerful Rebbe Shpilman.
  • Smart People Play Chess: a Discussed Trope
  • Stealth Pun: Plus Bilingual Bonus. When Batsheva Shpilman realizes that her son is gay, the text uses metaphors comparing him to a bird. This is because feygele, the Yinglish slang word for 'gay', literally means 'birdie' in Yiddish; but the word feygele is never used.
  • Stylistic Suck: Alter Litvak's written messages are light on punctuation and feature the occasional grammatical error, because they're hastily jotted down while in conversation.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Flingler and Dr. Roboy
  • Title Drop
  • Translation Convention: Most characters are actually speaking Yiddish, which is translated into English. For this reason, certain word choices sound odd, such as referring to perfect strangers as "darling" and "sweetness." note  Slang Yiddish words, however, are presented unstranslated. When a character swears, it's usually noted as spoken in "American."
  • Turn in Your Badge: Landsman, as a predictable consequence of his being a Cowboy Cop.
  • The Voiceless: Alter Litvak, whose voice box was crushed in an auto accident, and must communicate by written messages.
  • The War on Terror: Although an Alternate History, it's very strongly a post-9/11 commentary.
  • Wild Hair: Bina's hair is always getting in her face; all efforts to restrain it fail miserably.
  • With Friends Like These...: Seen when Willie Dick, Berko Shemets and Meyer Landsman are in the same room together. There's a lot of antagonism due to personal and historical reasons, but it's obvious their work as policemen gives them a stronger bond than anyone.
  • Working with the Ex
  • World Half Empty: So it feels to the Jews in the story.
  • X Meets Y: Imagine The Shivah crossed with Fargo
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Inverted into Yiddish as a Primary Language. In a true flip of the trope, they use "American" phrases and curses. There's a handy Yiddish glossary in the novel, particularly helpful with the Sitka slang.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters
  • Zeppelins from Another World: No actual Zeppelins appear, but early in the novel Landsman finds "a windup zeppelin" amongst other junk in a basement, in keeping with the Alternate History setting.


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alternative title(s): The Yiddish Policemens Union
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