Michael Chabon’s Imaginary Jews

Originally published in the Sewanee Review 116 (Fall 2008): 572–88

After winning the Pulitzer Prize for 2001 and finding himself arrayed among the masters of modern Jewish literature, Michael Chabon took seven years and several false starts to produce a follow-up work to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his extravagantly praised third novel. When it finally appeared, The Yiddish Policemen's Union proved (if nothing else) that Chabon's midcareer decision to reinvent himself as a Jewish novelist was no fluke. With the earlier novel he had fully intended to squeeze himself into the modern Jewish tradition of multilingual code-switching, intramural debate, and communal self-questioning—a literary tradition starting with the nineteenth-century Yiddish writers Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem and including Chabon’s towering American predecessors Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick. That his latest novel should raise questions about whether Chabon has actually assimilated himself to this tradition or merely decked out his writing with bright Jewish feathers—should raise, in fact, questions about his seriousness—typifies the artistic and critical challenges faced by this immensely talented writer.


Chabon is just now entering his mid-forties, about the age at which Henry James was writing The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima. At the same point in his career James had nine novels behind him. With four on the shelf, plus a 500-page children’s book, a novella, and a serialized adventure yarn, Chabon is not far behind. The son of a prominent physician, Chabon was born in May 1963 in Washington, D.C., and raised in Columbia, Maryland, the planned community outside Baltimore, where his father was on the staff of the town's first hospital. When the Chabons moved there two years after it opened in 1967, Columbia was still an "imaginary city"; he and his family were “immigrants” [End Page 572] to a new land that as yet existed mostly on paper." In the title essay of Maps and Legends, Chabon describes how he tacked up the long-range plan of Columbia in which the names “referred to locations that did not exist.” In time it was joined on his bedroom wall by a realm of his “own devising” called Davoria. Growing up in such a place with its early training in imagining a world—and his parents’ divorce when he was eleven, which introduced him to the perishability of worlds—“made me into the writer that I am,” he testifies.

Chabon attended the University of Pittsburgh and was graduated in 1984. There he studied under Chuck Kinder, best known for Honeymooners (2001), a fictionalized account of his decades-long friendship with Raymond Carver. Like most young writers with literary ambitions who are unsure how to attain them, Chabon applied straightaway to a graduate writers’ workshop. In his case the stratagem paid off. Fretting about all the talented people he was going to be surrounded by, he plunged into writing a novel in the short months before he enrolled at the University of California, Irvine. The completed manuscript, which he submitted as his master’s thesis, greatly impressed his adviser, the novelist MacDonald Harris. Without Chabon's knowledge, Harris sent “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” to his own New York agent, who peddled it for $155,000 against royalties, reportedly the largest advance ever paid for a first novel, with a guaranteed paperback income of at least another $100,000 and sales to thirteen countries. Chabon was twenty-five-years old.

“The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter,” Scott Fitzgerald wrote, looking back upon the best seller that he had published at twenty-four. “In the best sense one stays young.” Chabon’s first novel not only established his reputation for romanticized excursions into homosexuality, but also laid down the pattern of his literary convictions for over a decade. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a coming-of-age novel as a coming-out story. In “that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer” after graduation from college, Art Bechstein loves and copulates by turns with a woman and a man, discovering in the closing pages of the novel that while he is capable of falling “quite completely in love” with another man, the "trace a woman leaves . . . is better than a man's." Newsweek immediately installed Chabon among [End Page 573] the ranks of the leading gay novelists, a biographical error that troubled him, he said at the time, only because he was afraid that gays would think he was misrepresenting himself to sell books. Seventeen years later, after successfully getting himself reclassified as a Jewish writer, he acknowledged in a New York Review of Books essay that Art Bechstein's sexual passage had also been his own: "I had slept with one man whom I loved, and learned to love another man so much that it would never have occurred to me to want to sleep with him." The error had not been to mislabel him a gay novelist, nor to rely upon labels at all (a vulgarism that Chabon deplores, telling an interviewer that "if Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about anything in terms of human sexuality and identity, it's that people can't be put into categories all that easily"); the error had been to assume that the mere givens of a novelist's personal life, the clumsy and scandalous facts of his biography, are the right basis for labeling his work.

A better procedure might be to classify a writer according to his values and beliefs. What really matters to Chabon is not sexual identity but self-discovery through sexual experimentation. He shares the common opinion of the literary intelligentsia that the sexual act is a peak experience, the peak of peaks; and not only that, but is also potentially the defining moment of a person's life. Homosexuality as such is significant primarily as another means to self-exploration. While Art Bechstein passes through homosexual experience on the way to a deeper knowledge of self and world, James Leer in Wonder Boys and Sammy Clay in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay end their long narrative voyages by accepting that they are gay. Each of Chabon's first three novels assumes the form of a coming-out story. Almost invariably the central action involves a man on the periphery, a fugitive from middle-class respectability, what is called in Yiddish a luftmentsh, a man who gains readmission to human society by ceasing to struggle against himself. This is why unconventional family groupings—a circle of college friends, a writers' workshop commune, a partnership-cum-love triangle—dominate Chabon's novels. The freakish yearns to be normalized. Even Grady Tripp, the marijuana-addled narrator of Wonder Boys, traces a similar progress. On the morning the novel opens he learns that his lover, Sara Gaskell, is pregnant and that his wife, Emily, has left [End Page 574] him. After entertaining the possibilities of abortion and marital reconciliation, Tripp ends the novel by acknowledging Sara's son as his own, kicking the marijuana habit, and starting life over as a responsible adult. That he "comes out" as a heterosexual married man—that the shooting of his lover's dog, the theft of Marilyn Monroe's wedding jacket, and James Leer's own coming out are twists along the way to Tripp's self-affirmation—does not alter the romanticism of the basic story.

Chabon has confessed that he is rather "careless and sloppy" in plotting his novels. Again and again he falls back upon the same basic story, because a serviceable and ready outline is needed to channel his improvisational energies just as a cleaning frenzy demands soaps and brushes and floors to scrub. The spontaneous verbal performance, which occasionally sweeps the narrative away before it, is the real driving force behind his writing. It is proof of his instinct for prose, but it is also the symptom of a young writer's uncertainty. When he allows Grady Tripp to describe fiction writing as "the midnight disease," Chabon concedes as much. Rumored to be modeled upon Chuck Kinder, who struggled with the manuscript of Honeymooners for two decades as it ballooned to nearly 3,000 pages, Tripp has been writing his fourth novel, also called "Wonder Boys," for nearly as long. He has reached 2,611 pages and is nowhere near the end. His problem is not writer's block, which he does not believe in. The problem is that he has "too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again." Such writing is not really an art, not an independent method for disposing and arranging untidy material, but a circumstance beyond the writer's control. Tripp is the creature of his own writing; he experiences it rather than generating it: "The typical protagonist of your work . . . at first reflected but in time came to determine your life's very course." And ultimately the only wisdom Tripp has to offer his creative-writing students, those "wonder boys whose hearts are filled with the dread and mystery of the books they believe themselves destined to write," is that fiction is an "incurable disease that leads all good writers to suffer, [End Page 575] inevitably, the quintessential fate of their characters." This is the confession of a young writer drifting anxiously upon the winds of his talent, uncertain where he might be borne next.


Chabon might easily have been a case of arrested literary development, his sheer verbal gifts combining with negligent plotting to keep him young in the worst possible sense. He had hit upon a successful formula—Wonder Boys was optioned for a price in "the low six figures," and its filming began in January 1999 with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire in the leading roles—and he might have gone on repeating himself for larger or smaller amounts. His third novel arrived like a conversion. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was a decisive break with Chabon's first two efforts. Both The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys were written in the first person, a narrative strategy that confined them to self-regard, and neither fiction ventured much beyond the city limits of Pittsburgh—nor very far off campus. Kavalier & Clay roams the globe. It opens in "the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York," to emphasize the central theme of escape: within a dozen pages it is in Central Europe and eventually strays as far as Antarctica. Nor is the book's author interested in the decanting of a voluble self not far different from the author's. Its very title announces that the narrative will develop through multiple perspectives. Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay are Jewish cousins who form a partnership to create the Escapist ("he roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny's chains!"), a hugely successful comic-book superhero.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys were not merely contemporary novels set in the familiar present, but were also short in span. The former was absorbed with a single summer; the latter, with a two-day writers' conference. Kavalier & Clay aspires to be the portrait of an era. The novel coincides with the so-called Golden Age of Comics, beginning just a little over a year after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two second-generation Jews from Cleveland, had introduced Superman in 1938, and ending [End Page 576] in 1954 after the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent by the German-born psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose accusation that comic books corrupt children had provoked Estes Kefauver's Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency to convene hearings on the question. The dates are not arbitrary. Sammy Clay and Josef Kavalier launch their collaboration in October 1939, after the nineteen-year-old Josef alights in Brooklyn, having escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague (but also after Superman had created an opening for their own superhero), and dissolve the partnership fifteen years later after Sammy is humiliated in the Kefauver hearings—outed, to use a word not in currency in 1954—by Senator Robert C. Hendrickson (R–N.J.), who insinuates that the superhero-and-boy-sidekick "pairings" common in his comics were just a way for Sammy to "disseminate" his own homosexual "proclivities."

The most striking thing about Kavalier & Clay is its Jewish content. Chabon had never tried to conceal that he and some of the characters in his first two novels are Jews. In The Mysteries of Pittsburgh the narrator dropped knowing references to his bar mitsvah (putting on a tallis, being called to the Torah) before diving into a multicultural milieu in which a gay man and an Arab haul him off to a party at an Iranian girl's house. In Wonder Boys Chabon hands over sixty-five pages of the novel to a wacky Passover seder, a comic set piece with the same function that seders have always served in middlebrow fiction—a marker of ethnic difference that is so familiar it smudges any real difference. He tried to freshen up the convention by transforming the seder into a multiethnic feast (Tripp's in-laws, who host it, are Reform Jews who have adopted three Korean children from overseas, and this mixed family sits down to break matsah with "a converted Baptist, a badly lapsed Methodist, and a Catholic of questionable but tormented stripe"). Despite a smattering of Hebrew and some platitudes about Jewish law, what resulted was a celebration of modern liberal inclusiveness. It is not surprising that his narrator was the lapsed Methodist, because Chabon's loyalties in this book lay outside Jewish tradition. On his feast days the liberal expects what Philip Roth calls a "moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity," and though Chabon did not ban the funny foods—he wanted them for the fun they provided—his [End Page 577] guest list betrayed a nervousness about Jewish religious exclusivity. A nervousness about Jewish exclusivity, however, is a nervousness about Jewishness as such, because the exclusion of non-Jews from the Jewish religion is what constitutes the Jews as a people. Chabon's first two novels were more committed to evoking a common humanity, even if that meant excluding Jews as Jews.

In Kavalier & Clay Chabon makes his bid to enter the tradition. Not only is the novel thick with Jewish characters and references—"You have an awful lot of Jewish stuff in here," Sammy says at one point. What is more, the novel builds a case for the stuff's inclusion. Thus Chabon suggests that comic books are a subgenre of modern Jewish literature: "They're all Jewish superheroes," Sammy Clay remarks. "Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself." A Jewish magazine writer has chortled that Jews invented the comic-book industry, but Chabon's claim is more radical—more profoundly Jewish—than that. He proposes that comic-book superheroes, created largely by Jewish teams like Shuster and Siegel, Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, or Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, are modern American reincarnations of the Golem, the legendary man of clay brought to life through magic by the sixteenth-century Rabbi Judah Löw of Prague. Chabon makes the common mistake of assuming that the Golem was first created to defend the Jews from their enemies, although this crusading mission is a modern distortion of the legend. At all events, when the conceit of the superhero is first explained to him, Josef Kavalier replies, "To me, this Superman is . . . maybe . . . only an American Golem." Thereafter Chabon, in narrative voice, uses the word golem instead of superhero for Kavalier and Clay's creation. Josef's career is tied to the Golem, because he was smuggled out of Prague in a casket containing the giant's corpse; the Jews did not want their ancient champion to fall into Nazi hands. They become separated in transit; but, once he is [End Page 578] safe in America, Josef revives the Golem—by creating a superhero who battles the latest enemies of the Jews. The first issue of Radio Comics displays the Escapist on the front cover, punching Hitler in the jaw. In subsequent issues the Escapist earns a reputation, as an article in the Saturday Evening Post phrases it, for "Fighting Fascism in His Underwear." After the war Josef labors for five years on a graphic novel entitled The Golem. He cannot shake the subject: "The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws."

In a word the Golem represents the zeal for art. But art, here, is of a specific kind. In essays and interviews Chabon has alluded repeatedly to his preference for fantasy, adventure, science fiction, horror. The question is whether this is the art that James sums up in the word romance, relating experience liberated from social conditions and even the physical realities that drag upon it, offering a freedom which therefore is false; or the art that abides by what G. K. Chesterton calls the "ethics of elfland," where the citizens slip free of physical laws only because they observe a different law.

At novel's end, the day after its publisher "kills" the Escapist after a fifteen-year run, the crate containing the Golem is finally delivered to Long Island. When Josef pries open the lid he finds that the box is filled with a powdery dust. He recognizes it as the Moldau River clay out of which Rabbi Löw had shaped the Golem: "The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from the shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade," Chabon says, "had been proved correct." Their legendary defender perished along with six million Jews in the Holocaust; it was powerless to save them. Neither Rabbi Löw's Golem nor Josef's escapes the entangling chains of reality. But is Chabon serious about the analogy? The Golem of Prague symbolizes the fate of the Jews; as he fingers the river silt, Josef ponders whether [End Page 579] "there could be more than one lost soul embodied in all that dust, weighing it down so heavily." His own golem, the Escapist, falls victim to declining sales and accusations of depravity. Meanwhile Sammy Clay, finding that he has "no choice but to set himself free" after his humiliation before the Kefauver committee, abandons his wife and son to lead the life of an open homosexual, closing the book on the creative partnership. Golems and golem-making are destroyed by being "removed" from a self-contained world, a lesser creation—European Jewish culture, the closeted life of art—and being subjected to the cruelties of the greater creation. Does Chabon mean to suggest that American markets and Senate "witch hunts" are somehow equivalent to exterminationist anti Semitism? That comic-book art is as precious and perishable as the "golden tradition" of East European Jewry? Or is it simply that he can devise no other way to express the infinite sadness of the failure to acknowledge the comics' artistic greatness than by exciting a secondhand frisson at the Nazi destruction? These unanswered questions point to a fundamental incoherence at the heart of his conception, but that fact did not seem to trouble the Pulitzer Prize jury, which awarded Chabon its fiction prize in April 2001; nor did it trouble a panel of experts appointed by the National Yiddish Book Center, which eight months later boosted The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay even higher, naming it to a place among the "one hundred greatest works of modern Jewish literature."


Like Graham Greene, Chabon divides his labors into two categories—"literary fiction" (his preferred term) and entertainments that he calls "unabashed fantasies." These include Summerland, his next book after Kavalier & Clay, and Gentlemen of the Road, his most recent. The former is a young-adult novel that draws upon American mythology and legend for a saga about Little League baseball. Although he claims to have been influenced by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander's five-volume Chronicles of Prydain, and The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, I believe the more immediate influence was J. K. Rowling. Just as in the Harry [End Page 580] Potter series, Summerland is set in a magical region where an awkward eleven-year-old who has lost his parents discovers himself to be the secret champion, the one chosen to confront a nefarious antagonist, with the help of two friends, a girl and another boy. Hogwarts becomes the Tree of Worlds, from which the four dimensions of reality—Summerlands, Winterlands, Gleaming, and Middling (our world)—branch; witchcraft and wizardry give way to baseball; Harry's wand is transformed into "Splinter," the bat with which Ethan Feld (Chabon's Harry) wins the game that saves the universe. Chabon has the better prose—at least it is more aware of itself as prose—but Summerland is the lesser work, because he lacks two qualities that Rowling has. There is no real sense of evil or sin in Chabon, only ill-treatment; and no transcendence, no grace, or, as Tolkien might have put it, no joy beyond the walls of this "Middling" world of ours. There is only prose: a fluent running describing prose, peppered with adjectives, which strains to summon meaning and ends up with its ersatz. In an interview with Salon, Chabon explains that he wanted to "get at baseball" through this novel, but he fails because for him baseball is merely an occasion for lyricism. He quotes a sentence from Summerland that his daughter pronounced "nice" when he read it aloud: "A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day." No, it isn't, any more than cream cheese is a ready smooth device for measuring the contours of a bagel.

Gentlemen of the Road, to take the novels out of order, is even worse. It was published five months after The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s latest "literary fiction," although it was serialized in the New York Times Magazine earlier in the year. The novel reads as if Allan Quatermain were rewritten by a beginner who badly wants to sound like Nabokov, or at least Charles Kinbote. The Zu-Vendi, the white race that Quatermain discovers in Central Africa, are replaced by the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria at the end of the first millennium, but otherwise Chabon's narrative intention is much the same as Rider Haggard’s: plenty of bloodshed and thwacking with axe and sword in an exotic locale. The trouble is that, despite its Jewish theme, Gentlemen of the Road is a regression to his worst habits. Chabon has given himself too much to describe: too many characters to hang with strange names, too many fine steeds to lavish [End Page 581] epithets upon, too much tack and gear and food and wine and oil. The story wobbles to a rest under the weight of the style. As he says of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, "Lushness of prose counterbalances aridity of setting; digression and indirection have not yet ceded the narrative to the dictates of the [plot]; and the Gothic impulse"—in Chabon's case, the mandarin impulse—"vies fiercely with the call to adventure." He means this as praise. To his mind such methods "permit" a writer like McCarthy, a "literary writer," to engage in "brilliant genre work" with little risk to his "literary reputation." In this conception, a genre—not a traditional kind of writing, but a publisher's or bookseller's category, grouping together books that attract readers who are looking for similar books—is "combined" with an elaborate prose style ("densely foliated sentences," as Chabon characterizes McCarthy's, "teeming with allusion and inhabited by exotic nouns and rare adjectives"). Rather than seeking an established form for what he has to say, Chabon sets out to endow a lower class of writing with the prestige of literary fiction. The goal is not the formulation of ideas at all, but, as he puts it elsewhere, "genre-bending and stylistic play."


His plan for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, then—to map the "Yiddish sensibility" onto "hard-boiled fiction," as he told the Guardian—is in keeping with Chabon's larger goals. He had already visited the detective genre once earlier with some success. The Final Solution tried to combine Sherlock Holmes with a Holocaust narrative; and, if passionate readers of Doyle were unable to recognize literature's most famous detective from what passed for his reasoning, the Paris Review was impressed, awarding the novella its Aga Khan Prize for Fiction; and reviewers were too—by and large. One exception was Melvin Jules Bukiet, a ten-years-older American novelist, himself an author of Holocaust narratives, who noted that "although the language is often luscious enough to lap up, it leaves a bad taste because Chabon uses a background of genocide for what is essentially a young adult novel or a mystery story." Bukiet was right about the novella's effect, although its source is not Chabon's impiety toward the Holocaust. [End Page 582] Tova Reich, another Jewish novelist, recently published an irreverent look at "Holocaust obsessiveness" (My Holocaust, 2007) that respects the event by puncturing the false pieties surrounding its remembrance. If his novella was inappropriate the reason is that Chabon had never given a moment's thought to the question of appropriateness, and not much more to what he was trying to say. His conceptions of genre and style were too rigid to allow for much beyond genre-bending and stylistic play.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union adopts the conventions of hard-boiled fiction, but it bends them to Jewish ends and plays them in tough-guy Yiddish. An unknown "yid" is found murdered in the SRO hotel where Meyer Landsman rents a room. Landsman is a police detective, but otherwise fits the profile of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. He is divorced; he is a lone wolf with a habit of insubordination; he eats little, sleeps badly, and "drinks to medicate himself." His name is ironic; in Yiddish to call someone a landsman is to say what Brett Ashley said: "I told you he was one of us." Landsman isn't. He is a cynical irreligious Jew for whom "heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery." In the course of his investigation, he learns that the murdered man is Mendel Shpilman, the miracle-working son of the Verbover rebbe, a prodigy in the study of Jewish law, next in line to head the Hasidic dynasty, and perhaps the long-awaited "tzaddik ha-dor"—the leading holy man of his generation. Mendel turns out to be gay (naturally: this is a Chabon novel, after all) and a drug addict who "ties off" with his leather prayer straps.

There is a further twist. As Raymond Chandler explains in "The Simple Art of Murder," the world of hard-boiled fiction is "a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities." In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union the city is Jewish and the gangsters who rule it are the Verbovers. If their name sounds like the Bobover Hasidim, the nineteenth-century Galician dynasty largely destroyed in the Holocaust and resurrected in Borough Park, the similarity is no accident. Every ethnic enclave, or so Chabon's comic-routine sociology seems to go, has its "sacred gang." Hasidic dynasties are to the Jews what mafia crime families are to Italians. If the Verbovers "started out, back in the Ukraine, black hats like all the other black hats, scorning and keeping their distance from the trash and hoo-hah of the secular world," then crime is the [End Page 583] logic carried to its logical end—not merely "a way to remake the old-style black-hat detachment" in the new world, but to squeeze a profit from infidel "beings so flawed, corrupted, and hopeless of redemption that only cosmic courtesy led the Verbovers even to consider them human at all." On the mean streets of a Jewish city the unsusceptible Hasidim would reign supreme.

The premise of a Yiddish-speaking enclave came to Chabon from a pocket-sized travelers’ phrasebook published by Dover: Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich's Say It in Yiddish ("answers all travel needs instantly," the cover promises). Chabon found the title in a California bookstore. He was saddened and bemused by it. In what country would he do well to have a copy in his pocket? In a controversial essay first published in the Library of Congress magazine Civilization (June/July 1997), he wrote, "I've never been there. . . . I don't believe that anyone has." He could not puzzle out the practical purpose behind the book. What were its authors thinking? he asked:

At what time in the history of the world was there a place of the kind that the Weinreichs imply, a place where not only the doctors and waiters and trolley conductors spoke Yiddish, but also the airline clerks, travel agents, ferry captains, and casino employees? . . . [If the book was first published] in 1958, a full ten years after the founding of the country that turned its back once and for all on the Yiddish language, condemning it to watch the last of its native speakers die one by one in a headlong race for extinction with the twentieth century itself, then the tragic dimension of the joke looms larger, and makes the Weinreichs' intention even harder to divine. It seems an entirely futile effort on the part of its authors, a gesture of embittered hope, of valedictory daydreaming, of a utopian impulse turned cruel and ironic.In drubbing Israel for "turn[ing] its back . . . on the Yiddish language," Chabon revealed his true loyalties—and his ignorance of history. As Ruth R. Wisse points out in her penetrating recent study of Jews and Power, "just as they had all along adjusted to [End Page 584] local tongues, Jews in the Land of Israel now adjusted to a unifying Hebrew. Yiddish and other Diaspora languages yielded to Hebrew not simply because . . . the state of Israel insisted on it, but on account of the political adaptation that required bringing Hebrew back into everyday use." Chabon might have learned the real reasons that Israel adopted Hebrew as its official language. Instead he set about to imagine an "alternate history" in which the country that rejected Yiddish has ceased to exist. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union there is no Jewish state, because the Arabs overran it three months after its birth in 1948. The U.S. has established a protectorate for Jewish refugees on the 1,500 square-mile island of Sitka, Alaska, where they have carved out a Yiddish-speaking canton.

Chabon might also have learned the answers to his questions about the phrasebook Say It in Yiddish. For the authors’ intentions can be divined. In a May 29, 1965, letter to the New York Times, objecting to an editorial that questioned whether the Yiddish language would survive the destruction of Yiddish communities and culture, Uriel Weinreich writes that "editorial references" to "extinction" were "exaggerated." And whether Yiddish can survive is the wrong question:

Surely there is a connection between the underdeveloped creative impulses of contemporary Jewish culture in America and its monumental ignorance of the Yiddish past. The proper question, therefore, would seem to be: can the American humanities continue to develop much longer without authoritative access to the Yiddish strain in our heritage?Weinreich himself, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia, would die of cancer at the age of forty just two years later. But, four decades after these words were penned, Chabon ironically proved him right. The young novelist who found Say It in Yiddish so absurd and tragic had responded to the little book exactly as Weinreich had hoped he would. It had provoked him to improve his own creative efforts by revitalizing the Yiddish strain in his heritage. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Chabon sets about to imagine the country in which Say It in Yiddish would prove useful to a traveler.

But Chabon's access to Yiddish is less than authoritative. Although Chabon seeks to create a world that is linguistically intact—Yiddishland in Alaska—his style slips repeatedly, and he just gets things wrong. Consider his reliance upon the words yid [End Page 585] and yids. He has taken some heat for it, but the usage might have been defended as fitting. Yid is simply the Yiddish word for Jew. Why not the correct Yiddish plural yidn, then, instead of its anglicized double? The usage begins to inch uncomfortably closer to a slur once it becomes obvious that Chabon alternates between Jew and yid with no apparent system. At one point, for example, some Verbover strongmen are characterized in narrative voice as "big young yids in suits." Just twelve sentences later they are called "twenty young healthy Jews." The stylistic inconsistency suggests either intellectual confusion or bad faith.

Similarly Chabon confounds a talmid hakhem a scholar of Jewish law, who is often a child prodigy, with a zaddik, the mature leader of a Hasidic community who is distinguished less by scholarship than piety. He alternates between the terms tzaddik ha-dor and messiah as if they were interchangeable (they are not); he arranges a Hasidic wedding on the Sabbath; he places customers in a kosher restaurant at adjoining tables, eating corned beef and cheese blintzes. Although he is on safe linguistic turf in rendering shamus, underworld slang for a detective, as shammes, Yiddish for a synagogue watchman—Wentworth and Flexner give the Jewish word as the American's probable origin in their Dictionary of American Slang—his most distinctive Yiddishisms are bad translations of an American idiom. Thus pie hats, a term he had invented in Kavalier & Clay for beat cops, become latkes (pancakes); a piece, that common detective-story slang for a gun, becomes sholem (peace)—a homonym that exists in English but not in Yiddish. Perhaps Chabon wished to avoid the associations of the actual Yiddish word for piece (shtik) or perhaps he hoped to allude slyly to the Colt Peacemaker, the .45-caliber pistol first manufactured in 1873. Whatever the case, his Yiddish is entirely imaginary. If the French novelist Henri Raczymow is right that a "few words of Yiddish do not constitute a legacy, but merely a remnant, the 'next-to-nothing' that remains of what was lost," then what about a few words of synthetic Yiddish? The only access they provide is to the strain of Chabon's imagination, and the loss is not even registered.

Some of this might be chalked up to mere sloppiness, but the slips and errors are significant because they betray the novel's true point of view. Chabon's Sitka is not described from within [End Page 586] by an inhabitant of the district who knows nothing—who cannot possibly know anything—about the existing state of Israel, for instance. Yet the thrill aroused by the solution of the novel's mystery depends upon just such knowledge. Landsman discovers that Mendel Shpilman was murdered because he threatened to expose a U.S. government-backed plot to funnel armaments through evangelical Christians to religion-crazed Jews who want to blow up the Dome of the Rock, rebuild the Temple, restore the sacrificial service, and seize Palestine from the Arabs. Even if Israel did not exist, that is, Zionists would resort to violence against Palestinian Arabs, motivated by a biblical sense of entitlement. "I don't care what is written," Landsman reacts when he uncovers the plot:

I don't care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag.Landsman's words are delivered from a particular ideological perspective. In this view Zionism represents a betrayal of Jewish history and exile is the proper Jewish condition. Chabon has confessed his own nostalgia for exile. "Because Yiddish was the language of exile," he told an interviewer, and because he does not speak it, "I was exiled from exile itself." But how is it that Landsman, who lives in exile, shares this longing for it? The perspective is not really his but someone else's. Whose, though? If Chabon's narrator—the book is told in third person—is an outside observer who does not belong to Sitka, spying upon those who dwell in a parallel Jewish universe where Israel has ceased to exist, then the world of the novel is not one in which Israel has ceased to exist, because the narrator (who belongs to the novel if not to Sitka) knows full well that it lives and thrives. The reader is expected to shudder in recognition: even if Jewish history had turned out differently, you see, the results would have been the same. But such recognition is possible only from a vantage point that is entirely impossible from within the "alternate history." In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Chabon has not created a linguistically intact world where Jews yak away happily again in Yiddish, but only a polemical contraption for slashing at the cruelties and inevitable failures of the world he calls the greater Creation. [End Page 587]


"What interests me is the drama of the Jews, rather than deciding in my novels whether Israel or any other homeland is necessary for us," Chabon said in the Guardian. By eliminating Israel from the equation, however, he removes the most interesting scene of the drama. Since 1948 every serious Jew living in the diaspora has had to decide whether to emigrate to Israel. If not he must answer how then he will be a Jew. Because American Jews do not live in a world of their own with a unique language and customs, anyone like Chabon who goes out of his way to affirm I am a Jew must devise some strategy for adjusting to a culture that can never claim his undivided allegiance. The Jewish religion provides one strategy, but Chabon is no more drawn to it than to Zionism. His characters are strangers to the synagogue, and it no longer even occurs to them to wonder if there is any warmth to be found inside. What Chabon devises instead are Jewish superheroes, magical Little Leaguers with Jewish names, a fantasy Jewish kingdom in a faraway place, and a Yiddish language he never spoke and has small desire to learn.

For a Jew who turns his back on Jewish religion and the state of Israel, what remains but to invent a cultural alternative? After the Holocaust, Judaism offers him little but suffering, and he himself does not suffer. The French critic Alain Finkielkraut has given a name to such men: imaginary Jews. "They have taken up residence in fiction," Finkielkraut writes. "The Judaism they invoke enraptures and transports them magically to a setting in which they are exalted and sanctified." But it is an imaginary Judaism, which they have created out of nothing. Chabon's fiction is a monument, not to the drama of the Jews, but to their absence from his pages.