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 "These are strange times to be a Jew."

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an Alternate History detective novel by Michael Chabon published in 2007. It received the Hugo Award for best novel, as well as other awards.

The year is 2007 and nobody in the Federal District of Sitka knows what the future will be made of. The rain-soaked territory in the Alaska Panhandle became the last refuge of the Jews after the state of Israel was stillborn in 1948, and the United States is going to reclaim it in a few months. Meanwhile, hard-boiled and chronically depressed detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has a murder case on his hands. In the very rathole of a hotel where he has washed up, a man with a false identity has been executed, contract-style.

Teaming up with his long-time partner Berko Shemets, a Tlingit Native American and convert to Judaism, Meyer tries to elucidate the case before the deadline of Reversion, when the entire district will cease to exist and he'll likely be out of a job. The investigation takes him into the reclusive world of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, where word had it that the murder victim might have been the Messiah of prophecy...

A film adaptation by The Coen Brothers was planned, but was cancelled around 2012.


Contains examples of:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: Landsman spends much of the novel trying to figure out how the perp entered the victim's hotel without being seen, and ultimately concludes that he entered through some underground tunnels. It turns out that the perp simply walked through the front door and, when presented with the accusation, has no idea what Landsman's talking about.
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Sitka society is almost entirely based on Ashkenazi culture, to the point that Yiddish is the common language. This is justified by other Jewish cultures such as the Separdim, Mizrahim, Habashim, etc. remaining in their home countries after Israel was crushed. Having won the war, the countries had no need to expel the remaining Jews.
  • Alternate History: This is a world in which Germany was nuked in 1946 and Israel didn't make it as country. And, of course, there's a massive temporary Jewish settlement in Alaska. Other minor examplex include the fact that Orson Welles made his film of Heart of Darkness.
  • Always Night: Justified - Alaska in December.
  • Anti-Hero: Landsman, big time.
  • Arc Words: "Strange times to be a Jew."
  • Badass Grandpa: Alter Litvak, a broken down old man with a long history of wetwork. He's still got enough spunk to help orchestrate an attempt to retake Israel and bring about the Messianic Age.
  • Badass Israeli: Transfered onto Sitka due to Israel being crushed while still a few months old. Sitka seems to be almost entirely populated by gangster-scholars, chessmasters, retired spooks, information traffickers, cowboy cops, giants and the odd super-genius.
  • Bag of Holding: Bina's bag contains the necessary items in any given situation.
  • The Consigliere: Baronshteyn to Rebbe Shpilman. He's even a lawyer.
  • Beard of Evil: Aryeh Baronshteyn's long Orthodox beard with a fake Skunk Stripe to give the impression he's Older and Wiser than he is
  • Broken Masquerade
  • Bury Your Gays: Mendel Shpilman
  • By-The-Book Cop: Bina Gelbfish. She even has a conversation about it with Meyer, adding, "I believe in the book."
  • Chekhov's Gun: the Tunnels, the Red Heifer.
  • Chess in general, to the extent that Caissa the goddess of chess is name-checked.
  • The Chessmaster: Itzik Zimbalist and Hertz Shemetz (literally and figuratively).
  • Chess Motifs
  • Cowboy Cop: Landsman.
  • Da Chief: To make matters even worse for Landsman, his superior happens to be his ex-wife.
  • Dead Man Writing: Landsman is thrown into a cell, and chillingly finds a snarky comment written by his dead sister carved on the wall.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Landsman. In his case, it's a coping mechanism.
  • Defective Detective: Landsman is an alcoholic mess with massive issues about family, guilt, religion, and chess.
  • Determinator: Landsman is shot, gets the crap beaten out of him multiple times, chased through the snow in his underpants, and faces a lot of emotional and political turmoil on a case he shouldn't even be investigating.
  • The Don: Reb Shpilman, the patriarch of the Verbover crime syndicate/religious sect.
  • Drop the Hammer: Berko's warhammer, a homemade replica of a tribal Tlingit weapon.

  "He carries in his right hand the uncanniest hammer any Jew or gentile is ever likely to see. It's a replica of the one that Chief Katlian is reported to have swung during the Russian-Tlingit war of 1804, which the Russians lost... The head is a thirty-five-pound block of meteorite iron..."

  • Drowning My Sorrows: What Landsman's doing at the beginning of the novel.
  • Enter Stage Window
  • Film Noir
  • Future Slang: Alternate History slang, more accurately. Chabon invents a few terms and creates new idiomatic meanings for several Yiddish words/phrases:
    • "Sholem," literally meaning peace, is Sitka slang for a gun, derived from the slang "piece" for gun in English as well as the name "peacemaker."
    • Also, mobile phones are called "shofars," after the traditional ram horns used to announce holidays.
    • Beat cops are called "latkes" because their flat-topped caps resemble pancakes.
  • Gentle Giant: Berko.
  • "Glad to Be Alive" Sex
  • Godwin's Law of Time Travel: A rare inversion. In this world's timeline, Hitler's defeat was actually worse than it was in our world. Among other changes, Germany was nuked in 1946 and the Holocaust killed only a third as many Jews as it did in Real Life. The book explores how these events (coupled with the collapse of Israel) complicate the lives of surviving Jews.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted; although Bina doesn't appear to be psychologically damaged by the difficult decision she and Landsman made, it was the impetus for their divorce. In fact, Landsman feels far more guilty about it than Bina.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Alter Litvak's body is a horrorshow of scars from his many decades as a brutal spook.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Bina Gelbfish
  • Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade Naomi Landsman
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Landsman.
  • Knowledge Broker: Landsman meets one to get some info.
  • Large and In Charge: Rabbi Shpilman, the leader of the Verbover crime syndicate/sect, is grotesquely overweight, apparently due to a health disorder rather than overeating.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Naomi Landsman's plane crash
  • The Messiah: Mendel Shpilman.
  • The Men in Black: Justified Subversion. Cashdollar and his men fit the trope, but they're not Badass in a Nice Suit, they wear thick sweaters, occasionally with a tacky penguin motif. The subversion is justified as it's Alaska in December.
  • Mundane Wish: Rather than kill Landsmen and his friends because You Know Too Much, Cashdollar offers to buy their silence instead. All Landsman wants is his gun and badge back. When he's duly reinstated as a detective he says: "I should have asked for a million dollars. They'd have given it to me!"
  • Mysterious Informant
  • The Napoleon: Willie Dick, the 4'7" tall Tlinglit cop, rides a 2/3 scale motorcycle and is generally described in terms that qualify him as a Badass of tall-tale proportions. Berko even Lampshades this, calling Dick "the emperor of the French."
  • Never Suicide: Inverted. It never occurs to anyone that Mendel's death was (assisted) suicide until the very end.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Unusually for an Alternate History story the incumbent President of the United States is not named, nor is any description given. The reader is left to make up their own mind which conservative politician or Christian fundamentalist religious figure is behind it all.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Willie Dick, though he claims to hate everyone equally.
  • Noodle Incident: A lot of the details of the Alternate History the novel is set in are alluded to, but not actually described.
  • N-Word Privileges: Since almost everyone in Sitka is Jewish, the slur "yid" has become commonplace. Willie Dick, though a gentile, is also granted privileges due to growing up with Berko.
  • Oh Crap: Jewish terrorists blow up the Dome of the Rock, setting in motion a massive religious war.
  • Ominous Fog: Justified - Alaska in December
  • Only Sane Man: Naomi was this for the Landsman family; Bina also qualifies.
  • Rummage Fail: Bina's purse full of random stuff.
  • Runaway Groom: Mendel Shpilman.
  • Shout-Out: In one scene, Berko's son watches an unnamed Yiddish-dubbed cartoon that's clearly meant to be Dragon Tales.
  • Sinister Minister: The Verbover crime syndicate is also an Orthodox religious sect, lead by the powerful Rebbe Shpilman.
  • Smart People Play Chess: a Discussed Trope
  • Stylistic Suck: Alter Litvak's written messages are light on punctuation and feature the occasional grammatical error, because they're hastily jotted down while in conversation.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Flingler and Dr. Roboy
  • Title Drop
  • Translation Convention: Most characters are actually speaking Yiddish, which is translated into English. For this reason, certain word choices sound odd, such as referring to perfect strangers as "darling" and "sweetness." [1] Slang Yiddish words, however, are presented unstranslated. When a character swears, it's usually noted as spoken in "American."
  • Turn in Your Badge: Landsman, as a predictable consequence of his being a Cowboy Cop.
  • The Voiceless: Alter Litvak, whose voice box was crushed in an auto accident, and must communicate by written messages.
  • The War on Terror: Although an Alternate History, it's very strongly a post-9/11 commentary.
  • Wild Hair: Bina's hair is always getting in her face; all efforts to restrain it fail miserably.
  • With Friends Like These...: Seen when Willie Dick, Berko Shemets and Meyer Landsman are in the same room together. There's a lot of antagonism due to personal and historical reasons, but it's obvious their work as policemen gives them a stronger bond than anyone.
  • Working with the Ex
  • World Half Empty: So it feels to the Jews in the story.
  • Xanatos Gambit: The plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Inverted into Yiddish as a Primary Language. In a true flip of the trope, they use "American" phrases and curses. There's a handy Yiddish glossary in the novel, particularly helpful with the Sitka slang.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters
  • Zeppelins from Another World: No actual Zeppelins appear, but early in the novel Landsman finds "a windup zeppelin" amongst other junk in a basement, in keeping with the Alternate History setting.

Notes

  1. Translated from the common Yiddish word "bubeleh"
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