For the past few days, there’s been a running argument over at io9 over whether or not Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, is really scifi. My response: Nu, of course it’s scifi. (As much as any other alt-history novel is scifi, that is.)
What I find fascinating about the awards and all of the other attention the book has garnered is that it has received so much notice. I loved the book when I read it; I put it on my Official Perton.com Best of 2007 list. But when I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think, “great book, but who the heck besides me is actually going to read the thing?” I mean, the genre of Jewish World War II alt-history novels consists of all of two books (the other, of course, being Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America“). It’s not exactly a thriving subculture like general WWII alt-history, Civil War alt-history, or even Revolutionary War alt-history.
Add in the Chandleresque writing, the Yiddish-soaked patois (the finest scifi street slang since Burgess’ Nadsat), and references to red heifers, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, and a dead junkie who may just be the Messiah, and you’ve got a book that would seem to be written solely for Jewish sci-fi/noir fans with more than a passing knowledge of the cultures of both black-hat orthodoxy and pre-war secular Yiddish culture, and a taste for the two Isaacs (Bashevis Singer and Babel). Sure, that’s me. But I had no idea it was also a sizeable portion of the American reading public. Looks like I was wrong.
And that’s a good thing. Because “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” isn’t just another sci-fi/noir/alt-history novel, and it deserves its wide audience. It’s a meditation on longing. The longing of its Jews for a real home; the longing of its protagonist, the aptly named Meyer Landsman, for justice, for love, and, yes, for a country where he belongs. Mostly, though, it seems to represent Chabon’s longing for the lost Jewish world that was obliterated by the Holocaust. The book’s precursor, Chabon’s 1997 essay, "Say It In Yiddish," imagines a world in which Yiddish is still widely spoken, a world in which
"the millions of Jews who were never killed produced grand-children, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. The countryside retains large pockets of country people whose first language is still Yiddish, and in the cities there are many more for whom Yiddish is the language of kitchen and family, of theater and poetry and scholarship. A surprisingly large number of these people are my relations. I can go visit them, the way Irish Americans I know are always visiting second and third cousins in Galway or Cork, sleeping in their strange beds, eating their strange food, and looking just like them. Imagine."
I, too, long for that world. But short of the magic of alt-history, it’s one I’ll never see. So, yes, it’s scifi. Unfortunately.