Solving Jewish History


In the epigraph to his Pulitzer-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Michael Chabon quotes Will Eisner, the innovator of the serious graphic novel, regarding the history of the Jews: “We have this history of impossible solutions for insoluble problems.” In that novel, about young men escaping the poverty of Brooklyn and the ruins of the Holocaust, the “insoluble problem” was the powerlessness of the diaspora experience, and the “impossible solution” a retreat into art, the precarious redemption of unexpected love, and the luck of history. In 2004, with his unnerving novella “The Final Solution,” Chabon took this issue of “problem solving” Jewish history even further by bringing together an elderly Sherlock Holmes with a mysterious boy whose experience in Nazi Germany the great detective could not untangle. In his new novel, the spectacular “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” a fantasy about Jews having gone to Alaska instead of Israel, Chabon uses a chess game, the ultimate puzzle, as a metaphor for the Jewish condition.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a meditation on Jewish history, free will, morality and power wrapped up inside a detective story. It explores the lives of a million Jews living in the ghetto of Sitka, Alaska, an American protectorate where Jews, fleeing the Nazis and a failed 1948 Israeli war of independence, still find themselves 60 years later. Their frozen little oasis, however, is about to be returned to Alaska, and a police detective, Meyer Landsman, attempts to solve one last murder before he and the rest of the Jews are thrown back into history.

It is a testament to Chabon’s prodigious historical and linguistic imagination that he has been able to create an arctic Jewish homeland, powered by Yiddish and dreams of permanence, that feels both completely absurd and absolutely true. One of the achievements of this book is its ability to compress an entire cycle of Jewish boom and bust, of entrance into a new territory and ejection from it, in 60 years. It is the story of Jewish history in miniature.

Chabon’s most recent books could be said to comprise a trilogy focused on the “Jewish problem” in the 20th century, with the Holocaust lurking in the background like a dybbuk. His exploration of the Holocaust in the first two books was innovative and provocative, introducing a supernatural golem in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and inducing the breakdown of rational thinking, represented by Sherlock Holmes’ utter failure to understand the crime of the Holocaust, in “The Final Solution.”

But in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Chabon re-imagines Jewish history more radically. For instance, the Holocaust took place, although “only” one million Jews were slaughtered, and Israel was indeed driven into the sea. Some responses to the book have been very angry. One reader posted his pungent analysis on “Let’s not forget that Chabon wrote a detective novel with the ominous title ‘The Final Solution.’ What can you do after that but create your own version of that solution.”

Although I find this reader’s response too coarse to be useful, his connection between the Holocaust and Israel is one Jews constantly make, mostly by interpreting the destruction of European Jewry as the raison d’etre for a Jewish state in Palestine. But what if Jewish history, with or without the presence of God, is not so obvious?

Chabon’s larger point in these books is that if there is a “solution” to Jewish history it is not organized religion or Zionism, but an act of imagination, a personal, idiosyncratic fashioning of Jewish identity that is connected with, but not strictly bound to, a community of Jews. And so in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” we have a hero who is not a religious Jew, not a rabbi, not a warrior or politician or intellectual, but an alcoholic policeman, a kind of Jewish everyman, trying to understand how the mystery of Jewish history relates to the particulars of his own life. Chabon’s fantasy of Jewish life is dark, even darker than Philip Roth’s recent, similarly counter-factual historical fiction, “The Plot Against America,” which at least ends with the re-election of FDR and the successful American Jewish future that is now our past. By contrast, Meyer Landsman, at the end of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” offers a description of Jewish life in Alaska that stands in for his summary of the diaspora: The Jews, ever on the move, “would found a colony, import livestock, pen a manifesto. And then the climate, the markets, and the streak of doom that marbled Jewish life would work their charm. The dream farm would languish and fail.”

Just as “The Plot Against America” drew strength from the book’s appearance during a presidential administration allergic to civil rights, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” gains traction because of the nagging fear, still mostly unexpressed, that the real Jewish state is a “dream farm” that might indeed “languish and fail.”

Imagining a world without Israel, without even significant Jewish presence in America, might seem a cruel act of imagination. But one might ask: Did God not do what Chabon now attempts, turning Jewish history into an impossible chess problem, then asking the Jews to try and solve it?

Daniel Schifrin, a writer and editor in Berkeley, Calif., is a visiting scholar at Stanford University.