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Chabon's Choice: Best-Selling Work Fantasizes About World Without Israel

July 26, 2007 By:
Samuel Freedman
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In her contribution to the essay collection The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt, novelist Ayelet Waldman tells the story of her found and lost love for Israel.

She was born there to a father who had fought in the War of Independence, and raised in Canada and America amid his insistence that no nation in the Diaspora could ever be a Jew's true home.

Following the paternal example, Waldman spent one year of high school on a kibbutz in the Galilee, and one year of college at Hebrew University before making aliyah and joining the Israel Defense Force. Three months later, feeling herself improbably alien, she returned to America.

But that's not where her essay or its lesson ends. Jumping forward 20 years to the present, Waldman writes: "Ask me now, and I will tell you that the Zionist dream, the very notion of Eretz Yisrael, the idea and the ideal for which I expected and was prepared to fight, has turned bitter in my mouth."

Waldman recounts pulling her daughter out of a day school the girl enjoyed because "I could not stand to see her waving her handmade, construction-paper, blue-and-white flag while Ariel Sharon was prime minister." She goes on, "I try to raise my four children with strong Jewish identities that have nothing at all to do with Israel."

The essay, pungently titled "Land of My Father," serves these days as a sort of unacknowledged introduction to a different book, Michael Chabon's acclaimed novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Chabon is Waldman's husband, and he dedicated the book to her, so it's hardly a stretch to believe that his work of fiction ratifies a worldview the couple shares.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a dazzling work -- richly imagined, deftly written, slyly hilarious. It is also, by the way, a love letter to exile and dispossession. Its satire has the effect, intended or not, of treating Israel as something simultaneously fanatical and ridiculous.

Chabon's book functions partly as a work of alternative history and partly as an homage to the detective novels of Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane. He sets the action in the present-day in the Sitka District, a portion of Alaska that had been set aside by Franklin D. Roosevelt as a sanctuary for Jews fleeing the Nazis and then the Arab armies that overran newborn Israel in 1948. The plot follows a dissolute, down-on-his-luck cop, Meyer Landsman, as he investigates the murder of the estranged, drug-addicted son of a Chasidic rebbe.

Chabon creates this imaginary world, and unspools its events with tremendous skill and brio. Speaking personally, I read the book with so much pleasure that only after the fact did I begin to struggle with its seeming message. No writer's creativity should be censored for political reasons, and literary fiction of Chabon's high caliber can and should resist being pinned to the corkboard of real-life parallels.

Unlike the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner film "Munich," which portrayed and interpreted actual events to deliver a clearly anti-Zionist moral, The Yiddish Policemen's Union traffics in fancy.

Yet the fancy has an undeniable point of view. One of the running gags of the novel is the absurdity of shtetl life transplanted into Alaska. The unspoken inference is that it is just as unnatural for Jews to have plopped themselves down in a Middle Eastern desert. And when Chabon refers to the Sitka Jews having pushed out the indigenous Tlingit Indians, his metaphor needs no footnote to be understood.

In a capacious novel, Chabon has little to say about the individual or collective memory of the Sitka Jews, and the omission seems to me significant. Hardly anyone speaks of the experience of having fled Europe or escaped the defeated Israel. Though the novel takes place as the American government is dissolving the Sitka District, leaving its 2 million Jews no home in the world, the most sympathetic characters, like Landsman and his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish, exude not the slightest fear or anxiety. If anything, Chabon appears to find landlessness and eternal wandering romantic.

The closest thing to Zionists in the novel are its villains, the invented Chasidic sect that Chabon calls the Verbovers. (Forget that Chasidim are on religious grounds non-Zionist or anti-Zionist.) The Verbovers scheme was to bring the Messiah by blowing up the Dome of the Rock and breeding a red heifer without blemish for sacrifice. The murdered young man, Mendel Shpilman, was their putative Moshiach.

Here, Chabon's choice of inspiration is instructive. He draws on two actual examples -- the violent extremism of the Jewish underground and the theological hallucinations of the Temple Mount Faithful -- to create his bad guys. The Promised Land is for Chabon more like original sin.

To say so is his right, and he has said so with great artistry. The debate as to whether Jewish identity depends on Israel's existence and on whether Diaspora Jewry is inherently deficient offer powerful themes for literature. Which is exactly why, as I read through The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I kept thinking about Philip Roth and Anne Roiphe.

Roth in Operation Shylock and The Counterlife, and Roiphe in Lovingkindness, drew powerful and often critical portraits of Israel's place (or lack thereof) in the existence of American Jews. Yet as writers of a certain generation, they did not need to eradicate Israel, or at the minimum treat it as a communal embarrassment, in order to depict something vital in the Diaspora experience. Roughly two generations younger -- apparently imbued with the belief that Israel is a colonial, imperialistic oppressor -- Chabon has found joy in, at least on paper, making it cease to exist.

Samuel Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

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