The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a noir detective novel that takes place in an alternative history setting. The novel’s protagonist, Meyer Landsman, is a detective who

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has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker.

Unfortunately, these are difficult times to be a Jew. In Landsman’s world, America provided the Jews with a temporary settlement in Sitka, Alaska, in 1940. (Jews settled in Israel after World War Two, but lost the Arab-Israeli War.) In two months, Landsman and all the other Jews will face Reversion, when the United States retakes control of Sitka. Everyone will have to find a new homeland, which, unlike everyone else, Landsman has not even begun trying to do. As he reflects, his homeland is in his “ex-wife’s totebag.”

At the start of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Landsman has been divorced from his wife, Bina Gelbfish, for several years. The bachelor’s life does not suit Landsman, who now stays at the dilapidated Hotel Zamenhof. He stays up all night drinking at his table, wearing an undershirt, underpants, and his “sholem.” (A glossary of Yiddish terms at the end of the novel explains that a sholem is a gun, a pun on the Yiddish word for “peace” and the American slang for gun, “piece.”) The night manager of Hotel Zamenhof, Tenenboym, wakes Landsman up in the middle of the night because one of the hotel’s guests has been murdered. As Landsman prepares to investigate, Tenenboym explains that he has touched nothing in the crime scene but the cash and jewelry.

Landsman can tell that the crime scene appears to be a mob hit. A man who looks like a junkie is lying face down on his bed. He has been shot in the back of the head. It appears that the murderer used a pillow to silence the shot. There is a chessboard in the middle of the room, and the pieces are arranged in an intricate problem. A book of famous chess games is nearby as well. Landsman is not a talented chess player, but he is familiar with the game and can read the board. Even after further investigation, Landsman learns little. No one saw anyone come or go. Landsman goes all the way to the basement of the hotel in spite of his fear of the dark. He sees a tunnel that might be connected to a maze of underground tunnels, which people call “Warsaw Tunnels.” However, Landsman cannot see how someone would have been able to close the trapdoor behind them and dismisses the tunnel as a point of entry. It looks like a difficult case, but Landsman calls his precinct and asks to be assigned as the primary detective on the case.

That night he calls his partner, Berko Shemets, to explain that he has opened a new homicide case. Berko Shemets is half Jewish and half Tlingit Indian. The next morning, they discover that the investigation is not going to proceed as usual. Landsman’s ex-wife, Bina, has been promoted and is now Landsman’s commanding officer. Bina is strong willed, bold, and an intelligent investigator. She is armed with a gun but also carries a large bag in which she seems to be able to find anything she needs. In preparation for Reversion, the precinct is preparing to close as many cases as they can. Cold cases are closed first, and Bina closes Landsman’s case from the night before. Sitka is going to hand over a clean house when Reversion comes.

Landsman continues investigating anyway. Following a lead on the chess game, he finds a community of Jewish players and learns that the homicide victim was Mendel Shpilman, who used to play chess for money that he could spend on heroin. He was the son of the Verbover Rebbe. The Verbovers are Hasidic Jews—and they are Sitka’s most powerful criminal organization. When Landsman pays a tense visit to the crime lord, he learns that many expected Mendel Shpilman to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, or “the righteous one of his generation.” Mendel was thought to be a potential messiah, and many people have stories of how unusual he was. His body temperature was higher than normal, and one time he apparently cured a woman of cancer with only his blessing.

Before Meyer can pursue this lead any further, he gets a lead on another cold case. He goes to investigate alone and ends up in a firefight. The next thing he knows, Landsman’s ex-wife has suspended him with pay. She has little choice in the matter because the orders came from higher up. Landsman no longer has a badge or a gun, but he continues to investigate Mendel Shpilman’s murder.

Landsman follows a lead to a bakery and finds himself speaking with the baker’s daughter. He explains that although he does not have a badge, he is indeed a policeman—he is part of the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The girl explains her encounter with Mendel Shpilman and admits that she was very attracted to him. However, he refused to sleep with her because he turned to heroin for pleasure. However, he did offer the girl his blessing. The girl’s information gives Landsman another lead to follow, and he realizes that this one seems to involve his sister, Naomi, who was murdered several years ago. Naomi was a pilot.

She flew Mendel to a mysterious clinic outside of Sitka territory. The Sitka Jews often have difficult relations with the Tlingit Indians, but Landsman calls in a favor so he can fly to the facility to investigate. It appears to be a rehabilitation clinic controlled by Jews. However, these Jews have guns and take Landsman prisoner. In the cell, Landsman sees a message that reads:

this detainment cell courtesy of the generosity of Neal and Risa Nudelman Short Hills New Jersey.

Landsman recognizes Naomi’s “droll alphabet” and realizes that this is where his sister was killed. Landsman escapes the detainment cell and the clinic but does not get far on foot outside. He is nearly caught again, but Willie Dick, a Tlingit policeman, rescues him.

Dick now puts Landsman in prison. Before long, Landsman is released again, this time into the care of his partner, Berko Shemets. The three men look into the Jewish settlement outside of Sitka, and they see a red heifer that appears to have been painted to disguise its pure red color. Jews armed with assault rifles seem to be protecting the heifer. It seems as though Landsman and Shemets, in their attempt to solve Shpilman’s murder, have uncovered a plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock, rebuild the Temple, and return the Jews to Jerusalem. These people are trying to arrange events to fulfill prophecy. Mendel Shpilman was to play the role of Messiah.

When Landsman returns to Sitka, he immediately tells Bina. She passes Landsman’s conspiracy theory along the chain of command. However, an American named Spade almost immediately enters the office and tells them to back off of the case. Spade is in charge of overseeing the Reversion. Soon the phone rings and Bina’s superiors pass along the same order to stop investigating the conspiracy. Undaunted, Bina and Landsman set out to find a new lead, Alter Litvak. Litvak cannot speak, so he communicates with a pen and paper. He explains that there was a plot and that the American government was part of it. Along the way, he made a great deal of money. During the investigation, the Dome of the Rock is bombed, and the American government is calling for intervention. Unfortunately, the only part of the plan that has not worked out is Mendel Shpilman. He did not kill Naomi. However, before Bina can arrest Litvak, he escapes.

In the aftermath of these discoveries, Mendel Shpilman’s murder remains unsolved. Spade takes Bina and Landsman into custody, and he explains to Landsman that his predecessor killed Naomi. Bina and Landsman are soon released after they agree to cooperate. They reunite and make love again for the first time in years. Afterward, Landsman lies awake in the middle of the night, turning over the details of the Shpilman case in his mind. When he concentrates on the chess problem, he realizes that it might have been a game between two people, or there may have been a second person in the room who was trying to solve the chess problem with Mendel.

Landsman suddenly has the answer. The murderer was Berko Shemets’s father, a former secret agent and chess enthusiast. When confronted, the senior Shemets admits that he killed Mendel Shpilman. He explains that Shpilman was tired of being used; he could not find a way to serve his purpose, nor could he find satisfaction in serving another’s purpose. Like his chess problem, he seemed to have no move that would not lead to a checkmate. Consequently, he asked Shemets to kill him.

Bina and Landsman have solved their case. Although neither has specific plans for what will happen after Reversion, they know that they will face what comes together. It seems that the international plot they have uncovered will be carried through, but as the novel ends, Landsman calls Dennis Brennan, the chief of the Sitka office of a major American daily newspaper. As the novel ends, Landsman says, “I have a story for you.”

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