‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ Open Thread: The Price of Transformation

This post contains spoilers through the end of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

At the end of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, we’re left with two terrible choices. Should Jews continue to pursue their ancestral homeland and transformation into a different kind of people, even if the cost is terrible? Or should they choose assimilation at the price of its being temporary, of the violence and upheaval of relocation.

There’s some suggestion that Israel is a cruel joke, that the transformation Jews will undergo should they possess it will be not to their liking. “This is the paper that God left the Jews holding,” Landsman thinks at one point, “the promise that we have been banging Him a kettle about ever since. The rook that attends the king at the endgame of the world.” But what happens when the process of banging the kettle becomes an objective in and of itself? What would it mean, specifically, for Jews to achieve security, a question posed almost accidentally by Landsman’s forgotten gym flyer: “The Jew to the right is lean, tanned, and trim-beareded, relaxed, self-confident. He looks a lot like one of Litvak’s young men. The Jew of the future, Landsman thinks. The unlikely claim is made by the postcard that the left-hand Jew and the Jew on the right are one and the same person.” The suggestion is that something won’t survive the transformation.

And that confidence may give rise to something terrible, at least in the transition. Ester-Malke, Berko’s wife, foresees something terrible:

All these people rioting on the television in Syria, Baghdad, Egypt? In London? Burning cars. Setting fires to embassies. Up in Yakovy, did you see what happened, they were dancing, those fucking maniacs,t hey were so happy about all this craziness, the whole floor collapsed right onto the apartment underneath. A couple of little girls sleeping in their beds, they got crushed to death. That’s the kind of shit we have to look forward to now. Burning cars and homicidal dancing.

And even if her vision isn’t inevitable, it seems certain that the destruction of the Dome of the Rock will bring out at least a crass commercialization of religious fervor: “Some hustler, inevitably, will work the thing up as a full-size poster, two feet by three. The hilltop in Jerusalem, crowded with alleys and houses. The broad empty mesa of paving stone. The jagged jawbone of burnt teeth. The magnificent plume of black smoke. And at the bottom of the legend, in blue letters, AT LAST! These posters will sell at the stationers’ fro between ten dollars and $12.95.” Capitalism is a force at least as strong as faith, and maybe stronger, since the latter provides some many opportunities for the former to feed.


But what if you give up the dream of a permanent and impregnable home? Hertz’s attempts to carve out an alternative gave rise to a monstrous lie, and lead to the murder of his own wife, an act so terrible that when it’s revealed, Berko (at least temporarily) rejects his faith, and forces Hertz to “speaks then, or rather the wind emerges from his lungs through the gates of his teeth in a way that resembles human speech. He looks down at his lap and makes the sound again, and Landsman realizes that he’s saying he’s sorry. Speaking a language in which he has never been schooled.” And even if Jews aren’t committing bombings and blaming them on the people who were there first, there are dangers in settling in. “Some of them just got comfortable here,” Bina tells Landsman. “They started to forget a little bit. They felt at home.” “I guess that’s how it always goes,” Landsman tells her in return. “Egypt. Spain. Germany.” But his wife is correct, in a sense: “They weakened. It’s human to weaken. They had their lives.” So does it make more sense to actually have a life wherever you are instead of dreaming towards an alternative possibility? Should we set what is, in some ways, a much harder goal of making the whole world safe for Jews instead of trying to construct a fortress state?

The question is unanswerable, or at least unresolvable. Jews may change, but it’s hard to believe we or any other denomination will ever shed our fractiousness.