‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ Open Thread: Swashbucklers and Linguistic Purists

This post contains spoilers through Chapter 35 of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. For next week, let’s finish the novel.

In these chapters, there were two things that stood out to me: the women in Landsman’s life, and the trauma of Reversion, what it means to face the impending loss of a land that may not be the one that was promised, but has turned out to have soil fertile enough to sink roots in anyway.

Michael Chabon’s women have a tendency to assume a sort of mystical quality, an unfathomability. It’s not so much that his men are dumb, but that woman operate by a set of separate laws than men, and that only sometimes do they overlap. There’s the moment of recognition between Sam and his mother over the subject of Tracy Bacon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or the observation that unites Landsman and Mrs. Shpilman, her memory that “It has been many years. But as I recall, politeness was not a great strength of that Jewess.” What makes Naomi’s loss so particularly painful to Landsman is, of course, that she’s his sister, but that they lived by a similar set of laws, “close enough for everything Landsman did or said to constitute a mark that must be surpassed or a theory to disprove…She had the Errol Flynn style of keeping a straight face only when she was joking, and grinning like a jackpot winner whenever things got rough. Slap a pencil mustache on the jewess, and you could have sent her swinging form the rigging of a three-master, sword in hand.” And now her brother needs to follow in her path, to summon up that swashbuckling tendency without ending up plastered on the side of a mountain, without creating a hole in someone else’s life.

And these are particularly difficult times to thread that needle. “I respect your keeness,” Landsman tells a doctor who is concerned about his drinking, “but tell me, please, if the country of India were being canceled, and in two months, along with everyone you loved, you were going to be tossed into the jaws of the wolf with nowhere to go and no one to give a fuck, and half the world had just spent the past thousand years trying to kill Hindus, don’t you think you might take up drinking?” Belief is powerful in the best of times, giving rise, in Landsman’s account, to the fata morgana, and in these, to the particular disappointments of Berko’s father. And so it makes a certain amount of demented sense that a school of thought that “Some people say Messiah will tarry until the Temple is rebuilt. Until altar worship gets restored. Blood sacrifices, a priesthood, the whole song and dance.”

But with that clarity of intent comes a narrowness, in everything from language to dinner tables. In Peril Strait, Landsman hears a spoken form of Hebrew that “sounded to him like the Hebrew brought over by the Zionists after 1948. Those hard desert Jews tried fiercely to hold on to it in their exile, but as with the German Jews before them, got overwhelmed by the teeming tumult of Yiddish, and by the painful association of their language with recent failure and disaster.” Failure, of course, that leads to violent determination to erase those associations. And as Reversion approaches, the pluralism of Hertz’s table as fallen away from the time when it was “a lively region, the only table in these divided islands at which Indians and Jews regularly sat down together to eat good food without rancor. There was California wine to drink and be expatiated upon by the old man. Silent types, hard cases, and the odd special agent or lobbyist from Washington mingled with totem carvers, chess bums, and Native fishermen.” If only that could be the dream, rather than a harsh and unobtainable purity.