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Coen Brothers Set to Bring Chabon’s ‘sitka’ to the Screen

In some ways, it’s a most natural shidduch.

There’s Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose best-selling 2007 book, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” marked a turning point in the author’s growing exploration of Jewish themes in his fiction.

And Joel and Ethan Coen, the maverick filmmakers whose Jewish sensibility has been evident in countless of their movies, but who have yet to fully actualize their Semitic humor in a full-blown Jewish film.

Until now.

Late last week, the Guardian revealed that the Coens had agreed to write and direct the film adaptation of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”

“Naturally, I am over the moon about this,” Chabon wrote in an e-mail to JTA. “They are heroes of mine.”

And to many others.The Coen brothers have developed a cult of fanatic followers that have sustained their unique brand of filmmaking despite generally modest returns at the box office. Their biggest success to date, last year’s “No Country for Old Men,” was nominated for eight Oscars, but the brothers, sons of a pair of Minnesota professors, have only rarely been embraced by mainstream audiences.

Just as “Munich” generated excitement over the coming together of a beloved Jewish filmmaker (Steven Spielberg) and a renowned Jewish writer (Tony Kushner) to make a film of Jewish interest, the Coen-Chabon collaboration is sure to stoke the imaginations of Yiddishists and Jewish film buffs alike. And also like “Munich,” it’s sure to engender some controversy, too.

Set in Sitka, a fictional Yiddish semi-state in Alaska created to shelter Jewish refugees after Israel’s lost war of independence, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a noirish crime novel in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. Sitka is a place filled with Yiddish pimps and prostitutes, drug addicts and degenerates. Where the Chasidic kingmakers are the scheming villains, and the hard-living detectives turn out to have hearts of gold.

The plot turns on the murder of the wayward son of a Chasidic rebbe, a drug-addled chess prodigy found dead in his room at a seedy hotel. Meyer Landsman, the hard-boiled homicide detective investigating the murder, gets more than he bargained for — as noir detectives always do — when he uncovers a plot by Jewish zealots to ignite a war in the Middle East and retake Jerusalem.

Richly conceived and phenomenally detailed, Chabon’s Sitka is home to just the sort of improbable characters that populate Coen brothers films. It is the Coen brothers, after all, who gave the world The Dude, the hero of their 1998 film “The Big Lebowski,” a blissed-out stoner and bowling devotee who finds himself negotiating the return of a bimbo wife from her supposed kidnappers.

And their love of genre films, particularly screwball comedies and film noir, seems perfectly suited to a novel that contains distinct elements of both.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” was released to critical acclaim in 2007. But among some Jewish writers, the book created a sense of unease, and even barely suppressed outrage, some of which is sure to resurface when the film is released.

Claiming Chabon was sending a clear anti-Zionist message, Ruth Wisse, a noted Yiddish scholar at Harvard University, demolished the novel in a withering essay in Commentary magazine, calling it a “sustained act of provocation,” among other denigrations; Commentary’s editor-in-waiting John Podhoretz and journalist Samuel Freedman offered similar criticisms of the novel. A decidedly less scholarly view was expressed in a New York Post story, headlined “Novelist’s Ugly View of Jews.”

One can only imagine what these critics will have to say once the Coen brothers, with their Jewish fluency and twisted sense of humor, get their hands on Chabon’s prose.

The upcoming film is being produced by Scott Rudin, who reportedly bought the rights to the book five years ago, before it was even completed, and the film is not expected before mid-2009. But industry skeptics are rightly wary. The film version of one of Chabon’s earlier novels, the award-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” has been reported to be in the works for years, with direction by another famous Jewish filmmaker, Sydney Pollack.

But regardless of whether the film version of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” ever sees the light of day, the news alone has been enough to set the blogosphere on fire with overheated speculation.

“This is the greatest fit ever,” one Israel-based blogger heaved. “I can’t picture any other director tackling this book and doing it right. What a great fit. Yiddish Noir!!!”

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