reading Chabon

So having finished Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, I’m now reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemans’ Union and loving it.

Once upon a time there was an ad campaign, maybe only on billboards in the New York City subways, featuring a very diverse collection of people saying “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread”. I think probably you do have to be Jewish to love  The Yiddish Policemans’ Union. I’d like to hear reports about it from people who aren’t Jewish, to see.

The premise of the book is based on the historical fact that around the beginning of World War II there was a proposal to open part of Alaska to settlement by Jewish refugees from Europe. The proposal didn’t go anywhere. The book is a fantasy, what if it had, and if Isreal had never gotten off the ground. Then the book goes on to try to recreate a sort of 1940s noir murder mystery story — maybe something that Dashiell Hammett would have written if his parents had spoken Yiddish, set in the present time in that alternate Sitka, Alaska. Of course the book is in English, except for a few words here and there, but the characters are supposed to be speaking Yiddish except for when it says “…, Berko said in American.” Besides the few words here and there (for instance, when anyone wants to smoke, which of course for the ’40s atmosphere they do all the time, they light up a papiros) the overall cadence of the language feels as if it just got off the boat — as if it was translated right out of Yiddish, or could be translated right into it, without missing a beat. A lot of the book is very funny, along the lines of Garrison Keillior’s Guy Noir but maybe more so and maybe less silly but with every bit as much colorful description and outrageous metaphor. It all reminds me of riding the Sea Beach Express subway to visit my grandparents in Brooklyn in the ’60s and seeing everyone reading Yiddish newspapers.

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