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The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Waffle House. There’s something suspect about a restaurant that has the exact same floor plan no matter where you go. The more I think about it the more I wonder if that shouldn’t be comforting. Maybe it’s the guy in the booth under the two-way mirror giving me the stink-eye and working a set of yellowed false teeth in and out of his mouth like a perverse cuckoo clock that throws me off. I don’t know but they can scatter, smother, and cover a mean hash brown.

I sit down at the far end of the waffle-bar and finish off a glorious conspiracy of grease, meat, and cheese that labels itself a ‘melt.’ Whether that claim is a description of what it is or what it does to my digestive track, I choose not to think about. When I’m done, I exhaust a small mountain of napkins to clean the grease off my fingers. I slide the plate out of the way, pull out a dog-eared book, and read while I wait for Marge, or Madge, or some other hallowed name out of that long lineage of waitresshood, to refill my sweet tea and slap the check onto the bar.

I get lost in the book. It’s a good one. For a few minutes I’m not in the Waffle House, I’m in Sitka, Alaska.  It’s cold there, and raining. There’s a black and green bruise of a cloud over the city and a dead messiah in the room down the hall. There’s a detective, a drinking problem, an ex-wife, and a murder to solve.

“What ya reading, hon?”

I’m back in the Waffle House. Madge is standing over me with one hand propped on a crooked-out hip and the other dangling an aluminum pitcher of sweet tea. My check is laying in front of me, stuck to the bar by a spot of grease that’s already soaked through the paper turning it pale and translucent. I’m not happy about the interruption so my answer is flat and humorless.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”

She doesn’t get the hint. Instead she works the wrinkles of her face into a question mark and asks, “Yiddish? What’s that?”

“It’s like Jewish,” I tell her, hoping she’ll top off my tea and go find an order to take. She doesn’t do either. Her face unwrinkles itself to some extent and her tweezed eyebrows crawl an inch up her forehead in recognition.

“Ah, so it’s one of the classics!”

I stare at her and wonder what to do with this proclamation. The possibilities are endless and entertaining but I settle on agreeing with her and ask for some more tea.

“Sure, hon.”

Then she’s yelling at the short kid in front of the griddle with the silver spatula and the soul patch and I’m free to go back to Alaska.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is not the type of book that I’m normally drawn to. I’m not a fan of mysteries, or hard-boiled detectives, or the Jewish classics for that matter. I’m a huge fan of great books, though. I knew Chabon’s name from things like Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay but thanks to the million and one other books I’m trying to mark off my list, I’d never gotten around to reading anything of his. When it came time to pick up a new book a couple of weeks ago, I happened to hear that his newest one had won the Hugo award for Science-Fiction. That threw me for a bit of a loop. It didn’t sound like science-fiction to me. Were these Yiddish policeman on Mars? Did they use the Force?

I know, I know, that’s not what defines sci-fi. I’m kidding. But my interest was piqued enough that I bought the book. I’ve been eating it up ever since. It speculates an alternative history in which the U.S. opened a district of Alaska as a temporary sanctuary for Jewish refugees during WWII, an idea that is rooted in an actual proposal voted down by congress. Fast forward to the present day, Israel doesn’t exist, the district of Sitka is a decaying metropolis on the verge of its reversion to the Alaskan Indians and millions of Jews are facing a new exile. Detective Meyer Landsman, divorced, depressed, and alcoholic is just waiting for the end but there’s a dead body in the room down the hall and it’s a case that won’t leave him alone.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is exactly what it sounds like: a gritty, noir, murder mystery with all the usual suspects—only it’s a great deal more. For starters, it’s Yiddish. It’s bizarre and more fascinating the more you think about it. It even has a Yiddish glossary to guide the reader through it’s idiomatic slang (such as sholem which normally means “peace” but has been corrupted to mean “piece” or “gun” as in “packing a sholem”). He’s created a believable city, an underworld and culture of decay and hoped-for renewal that’s unmistakably Jewish, both foreign and familiar.

Chabon’s writing is sharp and sarcastic and his characters are as broken and fading as Sitka itself. He’s filled the city and the people in it with a sense of decline and hopelessness that’s matched by the stubbornness with which they refuse to simply surrender. When I finished the book, I wanted the story to go on. It’s a world so real you want it to exist even when your window into it has closed.

Throughout the entire book, I kept thinking to myself, this would make a fantastic Coen Brothers movie and it turns out that they are in fact adapting it as you read this (you can’t see me but I’m doing the happy dance). Think of it as a mixture of Fargo and Miller’s Crossing and something like L.A. Confidential—only Yiddish. Awesome, no? Do yourself a favor—don’t wait for the movie. Read the book. I’ve got it on the best authority that it’s a Jewish classic.


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