This post contains spoilers through the first 12 chapters of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Next week, I’m off for Thanksgiving, but for the Friday after that, let’s read through Chapter 25.
One of the things that’s fascinating about alternate histories is which events and impulses the authors think would stay the same. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the United States went to war with Cuba, but the conflict produced a rash of heroin addictions, much as the Vietnam War did. The Israel Lobby may be dedicated to an Alaskan homeland, run by a Jewish COINTELPRO agent who “diverted up to half his operating budget to corrupt the people who had authorized it. He bought senators, baited congressional honeypots, and above all romanced rich American Jews whose influence he saw as critical to his plan,” but it still exists. Six decades in Sitka haven’t undone the Jewish fear of annihilation — as Landsman’s colleague tells him of the tunnel under his hotel “When the greeners got here after the war. The ones who had been in the ghetto at Warsaw. At Bialystock. The ex-partisans. I guess some of them didn’t trust the Americans very much. So they dug tunnels. Just in case they had to fight again. That’s the real reason it’s called the Untershtat.” Hasidic Jews are still ridiculously well-organized, even if they’re turning their talents to crime in Sitka. Sectarian differences still matter. Landsman knows, when he and Berko go visiting, that “He is on their turf. He goes clean-shaven and does not tremble before God. He is not a Verbover Jew and therefore is not really a Jew at all. And if he is not a Jew, then he is nothing.” And while Jews may have swapped Palestinians for American Indians, the specter of violent conflict still looms, whether in a synagogue bombing, or in Berko Shmets’ hammer.
Concerns about guilt and expulsion are woven throughout our early introduction to Meyer Landsman. Tenenboym, Landsman’s former addict hotel manager informs him that he’s received a letter, heavy with legalese, that throws the future of the hotel in question. “Maybe. Maybe not. Nobody’s status is clear. But it’s not out of the question that you might have to move out.” It’s the question of Reversion and expulsion writ small and personal. Landsman may have “paid very little attention to the controversies and rumors, to the most important question in his local universe,” but it seems that question may find him anyway. And there’s the question of responsibility—we learn that Landsman believed he killed his father by rejecting chess, only to eventually learn that his father never even read the letter in which he asked if he could stop playing. The lives of Jews in Sitka may not have much control of their lives, but perhaps the compensation is that they’ve got some proof of higher powers, be they “Arab strongmen and Muslim partisans, Persians and Egyptians, socialists and nationalists and monarchists, pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists, traditionalists and the Party of Ali,” or the divine.
It’s an interesting question, how you keep faith alive even in the harshest climes, in an exile that doesn’t live up to its most exciting promises: “No polar bears. No igloos. No reindeer. Mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog, and rain, and half a century of a sense of mistakeneness so keen, worked so deep into the systems for the Jews, that it emerges everywhere, even on their children’s pajamas.” Orthodox Jews, both in reality and in Chabon’s alternate universe, keep pushing settlements out into territory that isn’t there. Others preach resistance. Some hold onto the chessboard, a tonic against the disappointments not just of exile, but as Landsman observes, to the gulf between men. None of these options are good. But insomniac alcoholism or violent death in the Zamenhof hotel don’t seem so wonderful either.