This post contains spoilers through Chapter 25 of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. For next Friday, let’s read through Chapter 35.
The theme of this week’s reading, entirely incidentally, turns out to be how different Jews — and by extension, different kinds of people — handle the brokenness of the world, the impossibility of perfect observance. The Law, it turns out, is not something you can game to get the perfect results: the rebbe’s diet doesn’t prevent him from turning into a human mountain, Mendle Shpilman’s arranged marriage cannot erase his homosexuality, and the Verbovers need the boundary maven to compromise for them so they can live with themselves. Inherent in observance is, as Landsman observed “a typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker.”
What makes Mendel Shpilman seem like the Messiah isn’t necessarily just his ability to confer blessing, but his ability to bridge the gap between desire and ability so smoothly: “Fear, doubt, lust, dishonesty, broken vows, murder and love, uncertainty about the intentions of God and men, little Mendel say all of that not only in the Aramaic abstract but when it appeared in his father’s study, clothed in the dark serge and juicy mother tongue of everyday life…He had the kind of mind that could hold and consider contradictory propositions without losing its balance.” Other people have other solutions. Bina has her miraculous purse — she may not be able to bridge the gaps in the human soul, but she’s able to make almost any other circumstances bearable: “If you go to a concert, Bina has opera glasses. If you need to sit on the grass, she whips out a towel. Ant traps, a corkscrew, candles and matches, a dog muzzle, a penknife, a tiny aerosol can of freon, a magnifying glass—Landsman has seen everything come out of that overstuffed cowhide at one time or another.”
But there’s always a cost to smoothing over those cracks, generally the smoother. For the Verbovers, Zimbalist is “a wizard, a juju man, with his fingers on the strings that ring the District, and his palms cupping the brackish water of their souls every Sabbath. Perched at the tops of the boundary maven’s poles, his crews can see into every window, they can listen in on every telephone call. Or at least that his what these men have heard.” If you can’t hide your own flaws yourself, someone else will know that you have them. Even God makes deals, Landsman explains when he asks Berko about the end of the Jewish sojourn in Alaska: “And Palestine? When Messiah comes, all the Jews move back there? To the promised land? Fur hats and all?” Berko says the wrangling goes even further than Landsman knows: “I heard the Messiah cut a deal with the beavers,” Berko says. “No more fur.”
And sometimes that’s not even enough: Mendle’s mother explains, there are some flaws too huge for the people who see most clearly to accept. She may have been able to accept the flaws in her marriage:
There was always a shortfall, wasn’t there? Between the match that the Holy One, blessed be He, envisioned and the reality of the situation under the chuppah. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called that shortfall ‘the world.’ Only when the Messiah came would the breach be closed, all separations, distinctions, and distances collapsed. Until then, thanks be unto His Name, sparks, bright sparks, might leap across the gap, as between electric poles. And we must be grateful for their momentary light.
But her son cannot. There are some laws even healers of brokenness can’t bring themselves to violate.