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Literature / The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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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, his cousin and half Tlingit Native American, 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 were working on a film adaptation of the novel, but the project seems to have been cancelled. However, in January 2019, CBS acquired the script from Chabon and his wife for a possible TV series.

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 felt no need to expel the remaining Jews.
  • Alternate History:
    • Alaskan Delegate Anthony Diamond died in a car crash, thus allowing 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.
    • World War II lasted until Germany was nuked in 1946, and Israel was destroyed after only 6 months during the first round of the Arab-Israeli War.
    • Orson Welles made his film of Heart of Darkness.
    • There was a lengthy war between America and Cuba during the sixties.
    • President John F. Kennedy appears to have married Marilyn Monroe, whom the protagonist Meyer Landsmann remembers at the First Lady Marilyn Monroe Kennedy.
    • The Soviet Union appears to have collapsed at some point during the 1970s, with there being a Third Russian Republic by 2007.
  • Always Night: It is Alaska in November, which really is dark most of the time.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The ending is deliberately unclear about what "story" Landsman is planning to give to Dennis Brennan. Considering the circumstances, he could either be telling him that Hertz killed Mendel Shpilman, or that Alter Litvak was the one behind the conspiracy.
  • 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 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.
  • Balkanize Me: Manchuria is independent and has its own space program.
    • Ultimately subverted with Sitka. Rather than a permanent Jewish homeland, it's a provisional land agreement only meant to last for sixty years and its administered as a federal district, similar to Puerto Rico. With the lease near its end, the land is set to revert back to full American control.
  • Beard of Evil: Aryeh Baronshteyn's long Orthodox beard with a fake skunk streak to give the impression he's Older and Wiser than he is
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Alter Litvak and Heskel Shpilman are collaborating to blow up the Dome of the Rock and restore the Temple of Jerusalem.
  • Bilingual Bonus: You'll get a lot more out of the puns and subtext if you understand Yiddish.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hoo boy. Alter Litvak and Heskel Shpilman escape Landsman with no comeuppance whatsoever, the District of Sitka returns to American control, and the plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock goes forward—leaving the Middle East in utter chaos. But in spite of it all, Landsman and Bina rekindle their relationship, Landsman appears to be on the way to kicking his alcoholism, the Big Bad Duumvirate's real goal (installing Mendel as Messiah) fails, and our heroes are prepared to face an uncertain future.
  • Bury Your Gays:
    • The victim of the first murder is Mendel Shpilman, a gay mafia prince and avid chess player.
    • Possibly also Naomi Landsman, who appears butch but is ostensibly straight.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Bina Gelbfish. She even has a conversation about it with Meyer, adding, "I believe in the book."
  • Ambiguously Gay: Gender-Inverted. The tomboyish Naomi Landsman is often mistaken for a butch lesbian, but claims that she's lesbian "in every way but sexual preference."
  • Camp Straight: Gender-Inverted with the tomboyish Naomi Landsman, who could be called "Butch Straight." She is often mistaken for a butch lesbian, but claims that she's lesbian "in every way but sexual preference."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Chess in general, to the extent that Caissa the goddess of chess is name-checked. Landsman's troubled relationship with the game comes up frequently, and he finally solves the central mystery when he thinks critically about the position of the pieces on the chessboard at the crime scene.
  • The Chessmaster: Itzik Zimbalist and Hertz Shemets (literally and figuratively). They carry out a complex plot to end the Jewish control of Alaska and return the Jews to Israel and also literally enjoy playing chess.
  • Chess Motifs: The opening murder takes place with an unfinished chess board next to the victim's body. Analyzing the board state allows Landsman to discover that Herts Shemets murdered Mendel.
  • The Consigliere: Baronshteyn to Rebbe Shpilman. He's even a lawyer.
  • Cowboy Cop: Landsman is a foul-tempered alcoholic who roughs up suspects and fights with his partners. Gelbfish often calls him out on this.
  • Crapsack World: Maybe not for everyone, but for Jews specifically, a lot has gone wrong. Israel lost the 1948 war, resulting in Alaska becoming the Jewish homeland. However, after sixty years, the US government is forcing most of the Jewish population out, leaving them with nowhere to go. An overall air of despair hangs over most of the Jewish characters. The bleakness of Alaska doesn't help, either.
  • 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.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The "Yiddish Policemen's Union" (i.e. the police union whose card Landsman carries) is largely irrelevant to the plot of the book, which is at least partially about the union (or more accurately reunion) between Landsman and his ex-wife, both Yiddish police officers.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: What Landsman's doing at the beginning of the novel.
  • Dysfunction Junction: By the time the events of the novel, a considerable percentage of the remaining inhabitants of Sitka appear to be alcoholics or drug-addicts, criminals, religious fanatics, lunatics, messed-up loners and losers, suicidal death-seekers, the poor and desperate or some combination thereof. Possibly justified, as the novel takes place mere months before Sitka will no longer exist in its current form and those who could probably made arrangements to be elsewhere long before it happened, which would presumably include most of the sane, well-adjusted people. And those who couldn't, even if they weren't particularly dysfunctional before, certainly have reason to be now.
  • Enter Stage Window: Landsman and his ex-wife Bina end up recreating their childhood courting via this trope—however they're not as young as they used to be, so after he's scaled the wall to her house, foreplay begins with her cleaning his bloody shins.
  • Evil Plan: The US president enacts the Reversion of Sitka to force the Jews to go back to Israel to bring about the coming of the Messiah. This includes the bombing of the Dome of the Rock so the Temple can be rebuilt in its place.
  • Fantastic Slur: The Jewish residents of Alaska are often called "Yids" by opponents of the resettlement plan. It's sometimes an Appropriated Appellation, too. Sitka also sometimes is called "Jewlaska."
  • Fat Bastard: Rabbi Shpilman is a huge criminal in both senses of the term.
  • Food Porn: Chabon's description of Filipino-style Chinese donuts (which Sitka is apparently famous for) comes off like this.
  • For Want Of A Nail: The early death of Anthony Dimond, the Alaska Territory delegate to Congress and the one who blocked the Slattery Report in OTL, is what allowed the establishment of the Sitka refuge in the first place.
  • The Fundamentalist: The unnamed American president has shades of this, as his goal for the Reversion of Sitka is having the Jews reclaim Israel, as a precursor to the Second Coming of Christ.
  • 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 called "Icebergers" by American Jews, referencing the icy climate of Alaska and the "-berg" suffix common in Ashkenazi Jewish names.
    • Sitka Jews call American Jews "Mexicans" because they live South of the border (the Canadian border, that is).
  • Gentle Giant: Berko is a large and imposing Tlngit man, but he's a sweetheart and a converted Religious Bruiser who wants a peaceful solution to the conflict.
  • 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.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The United States has apparently fallen under the sway of a Fundamentalist Christian government that's involved in military operations to force Muslims out of Jerusalem. But although they're covertly supporting Litvak and Shpilman in their plans, they're kept in the background, and the story never takes place in America proper.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Berko has a Tlingit-Indian mother and Jewish father, and the fact that he looks pure Tlingit but identifies more with his Jewish heritage (to the extent that he is never seen without his kippah on) does not help things given the longstanding antipathy between Jews and the native inhabitants.
  • 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 most striking examples of this come up within the police force (it may be that these are merely the cases we see a lot of, seeing as the novel centers on a policeman and nearly all his close contacts are on the force): in the opening scene of the book, the coroner/forensics expert called in to look at the crime scene tells Landsman that he's leaving for permanent residence in Canada the very next day, barely and haphazardly completing his report at the end of this last shift, while the chief of Sitka police simply disappears without announcing it, leading to his replacement (Landsman's ex-wife, of all things) outright instructing the detectives to drop most open cases. No one besides Landsman actually cares about solving the mystery of Shpilman's murder, with most policemen believing it makes absolutely no difference. Given that only a minuscule fraction of Jews will receive US citizenship, and of those few lucky ones on the force, only one character is mentioned to have some chance of transitioning to the Alaskan Police after reversion, the feeling is understandable: after all, the police itself, the citizens they are supposed to protect and the criminals they are supposed to fight will all equally be made essentially homeless and irrelevant in a few months from the timeline of the book.
  • Karma Houdini: Alter Litvak slips through Bina and Landsman's hands before they can bring him in, and his ultimate fate is uncertain.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Naomi Landsman was murdered to cover up the plot to move the Alaskan Jews to Israel.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Landsman is well aware that most of the Jews will soon be expelled from Alaska and that his work will be pointless when that happens. Despite this, he's determined to do a good job and solve Mendel's murder before this happens.
  • 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.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Naomi Landsman's plane crash was actually a deliberate murder by a Christian Zionist organization.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Mendel Shpilman may indeed be the coming of the Messiah, born with wondrous abilities to lead the Jewish people back to their promised land and bring in the new era. Or he may simply be a very charismatic and insightful individual about whom has arisen a lot of coincidences and exaggerated stories by very desperate and very religious people eager to believe in any sign of salvation.
  • 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, although there is also a Tlingit cop named Willie Dick, whose love-hate relationship with Landsmann and especially Berko indicates at least some of the other characters take this as a nomen omen).
  • 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.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Murder is about the uppermost possible limit of a "minor" crime, but compared to blowing up the al-Aqsa mosque, aka the current third-holiest site in Islam on the site of the former Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, as the first step of a plot to overthrow alternate-history Palestine, it's not so bad after all. It turns out it wasn't even the perpetrators of the plot who actually shot him, either; it was the victim (who was publicly thought to be a candidate for this generation's Messiah) trying to duck out of it via assisted suicide.
  • Mundane Wish: Rather than kill Landsman 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!"
  • The Napoleon: Willie Dick, the 4'7" tall Tlingit 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."
  • 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, if indeed it is someone we would recognise.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Willie Dick is a Tlingit cop with anti-Semitic views, but 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. Some of the little tidbits that can be pieced together from hints that appear:
    • The Soviet Union collapsed after a successful Nazi invasion, leading (eventually) to a Third Russian Republic.
    • A major war was fought between the United States and Cuba, and appears to have been this world's equivalent to The Vietnam War.
    • Marilyn Monroe married President Kennedy (presumably John, although it's never actually stated) and became First Lady.
  • Nuke 'em: The dropping of an atomic bomb still ended World War II, although it was a year later and it fell on Berlin instead of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
  • Odd Couple: Meyer and Berko. One is an eternally sarcastic alcoholic wreck whose marriage fell apart, and the other is a pious family man and a devoted husband. In spite of their obvious differences in personality, they get along surprisingly well, and they have each other's backs through thick and thin. They're also cousins.
  • Ominous Fog: Alaska in November is constantly foggy, lending the novel a suitable moody noir atmosphere.
  • Only Sane Man: Naomi was this for the Landsman family; Bina also qualifies.
  • Parental Abandonment: A lot of Landsman's issues with guilt, religion, cynicism and even chess can be traced back to the suicide of his father, a chess prodigy and Holocaust survivor. Since Landsman's father took his life the day after Landsman wrote him a letter begging him not to force Landsman to play chess, a game which Landsman hated but which was one of the few ways his father tried to connect with him, Landsman blamed himself as a child with numerous psychological issues resulting. Ironically, as an adult Landsman would later find that letter unopened in his father's possessions, meaning his father never actually read it and Landsman actually had nothing to do with it.
  • Pillow Silencer: Hertz Shemets shot Mendel Shpilman through a pillow to muffle the sound. When Meyer is shown the body, kicking off the plot of the novel, he notices that the pillow is missing.
  • Present Tense Narrative: Used.
    "Landsman lives in 505, with a view of the neon sign across Max Nordau Street." (from the first page)
  • Reconstruction: Reconstructs traditional Film Noir and Hardboiled Detective stories by giving it a fresh setting — an Alternate History version of America where a thriving Yiddish culture exists on the Alaskan frontier.
  • Rummage Fail: Bina's purse full of random stuff.
  • 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.
    • Another character refers to a cartoon "about the wolf who's always chasing the blue rooster"; the character is presumably misidentifying the exact species of Wile E Coyote And The Roadrunner.
  • Sinister Minister: The Verbover crime syndicate is also an Orthodox religious sect, lead by the powerful Rebbe Shpilman.
  • 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.
    • Journalist Dennis Brennan's spoken dialogue verges on overly florid Purple Prose in places, because he's an American journalist who's learned to speak Yiddish in a way that makes him sound as if he had swollowed a dictionary but never actually heard two native speakers talk together.
  • Suicide, Not Murder: It never occurs to anyone that Mendel's death was (assisted) suicide until the very end.
  • Tour Guide Detective: An investigation of a murder case is used to explore the alternate history setting.
  • 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 untranslated. 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.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds:
    • Landsman and Berko Shemets share plenty of snark but are clearly each other's best friend beyond being cousins. Played with regarding Berko and Willie Dick, who are described in terms of being mortal enemies who hate each other so much that they weirdly seem closer than most actual best friends.
    • 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.
  • The Voiceless: Alter Litvak, whose voice box was crushed in an auto accident, and must communicate by written messages.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Played for drama with Berko Shemets after he discovers his father Hertz was behind the bombing that incited the riot that caused his mother's death. He rips off the tallit he's wearing under his clothes and forces it over his father's head. Moments later Hertz tries to shoot himself, so his son rushes him to the hospital despite loudly proclaiming that he doesn't care if his father dies.
    “I never asked you to observe the religion,” the old man says, not looking up. “I don’t think I ever put any kind of—”
    “It has nothing to do with religion,” Berko says. “It has everything to do, God damn it, with fathers.”
  • Wild Hair: Bina's hair is always getting in her face; all efforts to restrain it fail miserably.
  • Working with the Ex: Da Chief that Landsman reports to is his ex-wife.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Although the characters are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, there are a number of Yiddish and Hebrew words that are used as slang that appear untranslated, such as "sholem" for "gun." Ironically, the text sometimes states that Sitka residents use "American" (i.e. English language) curse words.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Berko gives Landsman an incredulous look when he realises that his apathetic partner hasn't made even the slightest effort to line up another job.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: A non-lethal version with Hertz Shemets. After working for forty years with the FBI to sabotage every Zionist organisation, he fails to foresee his own organisation backstabbing him under orders of the US President, who wants the Jews to go back to Israel for religious reasons. Dennis Brennan is also Reassigned to Antarctica (or Alaska in this case) after his expose on Shemets.
  • 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. It should be noted that such toys really did exist.