The Big Schlep: Chabon’s Alaskan Lantzmen

Other pleasures echo Rich Cohen’s Tough Jews. American Ashkenazim today are, by and large, so middle-class and well educated that there’s a giddy humor in thinking of Jews as shtarkers and thugs. (I assume Mr. Chabon named Meyer Landsman after the gangster Meyer Lansky; and you’ve got to love that the toughest guys on Brooklyn’s streets were once “Buggsy” Goldstein, “Pretty” Levine and Mendy Weiss.) It’s just funny for Landsman to call his “chopped Smith & Wesson Model 39” his sholem; for a cop to be called a shammes, normally the word for the caretaker of a synagogue; for the rookie cops to be named Tabatchnik and, of all things, Karpas, the green vegetable on the Seder plate.

In a wonderful moment of sacrilege, Mendel Shpilman uses the leather straps of his tefillin to tie off when he shoots up. Bina carries a huge tote bag, filled with everything a person could need in case of emergency. The narrator remarks, “A mere redrawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.” This is partly funny because it’s absurd; but as a Jewess who wouldn’t leave the house without a stash of Tylenol, safety pins and mints, I can tell you he’s also absolutely correct.

At a deeper level, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union asks serious questions about Jewish identity. At every turn, Mr. Chabon explores what it means to be part of the Diaspora, to try to understand other people’s beliefs and practices. Berko—whose mother was the Indian, which means that by Orthodox standards he isn’t Jewish—wears tzitzit, but admits that he does this to earn the approval of his deadbeat father, who is himself unobservant. Landsman, like many unaffiliated Jews, feels complex emotions toward the Orthodox: “The truth is, black-hat Jews make Landsman angry, and they always have. He finds that it is a pleasurable anger, rich with layers of envy, condescension, resentment, and pity.”

Much of the plot hinges on the arcane knowledge of Itzik Zimbalist, “the boundary maven” who patrols Sitka’s eruvim. (An eruv is what Mr. Chabon calls, balls out, “a typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker”: a string tied around a neighborhood, defining it metaphorically as one interior space, so that people can carry things around on Shabbat. Manhattan has an eruv around the entire Upper West Side.) All this Yiddishkeit is immensely interesting, and its complexity deepens as the book progresses. By the novel’s end, Mr. Chabon is questioning both Zionism and what it means for an individual Jew to stand under a chuppah, with such a wealth of plot and character behind him that these questions may make even the most jaded reader of detective fiction kvell.

As I was preparing to write this review, the sad news came that Kurt Vonnegut had died. Like many writers and readers, I idolized him in my youth, and I think Michael Chabon may have, too—his syncretic imagination seems indebted to the universe of Kilgore Trout and Rabo Karabekian. How fitting, then, for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to appear now, to carry forward the torch of loopy-but-serious genre-bending. And I’m grateful that Mr. Chabon has drawn the line from hardboiled detective fiction to the Seder table; for me, at least, it’s opened up a new appreciation for both the genre and the eggs.

Emily Barton’s novel Brookland was recently published in paperback by Picador.