The Yiddish Policemen's Union
The brilliantly original new novel from Michael Chabon, author of THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY and WONDER BOYS.
What if, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed, Alaska - and not Israel - had become the homeland for the Jews after the Second World War? In Michael Chabon's Yiddish-speaking 'Alyeska', Orthodox…
Why read it?
6 authors picked The Yiddish Policemen's Union as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?
I adore Michael Chabon and have read almost all of his books, but I was surprised I hadn’t gotten to this novel until 2022.
I have Jewish roots, and I love any opportunity to see Yiddish in print, so it was fascinating for me to get involved in the world of this novel, which is part detective novel, part speculative fiction, and part cultural exploration. I had so much empathy for the characters. They felt like the people I’d grown up with.
I’ve read this book so many times that I had to buy a hardcover edition to replace the paperback I wore out.
Michael Chabon creates an alternative world where the Jewish people didn’t last long in Israel after World War Two. They wound up in the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska, with a lease for the land from the U.S. government, but now the lease is up, and they have to move. Somewhere. Almost anywhere.
Good story if it ends there, right?
But wait, this one doesn’t.
In the middle of this political conundrum, homicide detective Meyer Landsman finds a…
I’ll read anything Chabon writes but this novel has the distinction of being the first book I ever read to my oldest (he was a baby! It was for the words). The Nebula award judges described it as a cross between science-fiction and alternate history but I feel it’s more of a Sam Spade-style crime noir story crossed with alternate history more similar to Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Through the lens of a hard-boiled detective, we encounter a world that might’ve been had the US followed through with the real-historical possibility of settling World War II’s Jewish refugees in Sitka…
Start with the supposition that a district in the Alaskan panhandle was put aside to receive Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution, and that those refugees created their own Yiddish society—one that is now being dissolved as their rights to live there come to an end. The novel’s protagonist, a homicide detective living in a seedy hotel, must also contend with a murder that is being covered up by social and political forces. This is a fascinating traditional noir mystery set in an alternative historical environment; it introduced me to Michael Chabon’s writing and I’ve never looked back.
In putting together this list I determined not to include any books where the Nazis win World War Two and not to include any series that last ridiculously long. We’ll see if I can keep to that. This book is brilliant. Playful. Fun. And Serious. Imagine that the Jewish homeland had not been established in Israel, after World War Two, but in a part of Alaska. Then throw in a detective story based around a murder. And mobsters. And intrigue. And plenty of plot twists. And the lease on this Jewish homeland running out. And maybe even a messiah figure.…
This Hugo Award-winning novel takes place in an imagined reality where the Jews settled in a patch of Alaska and Israel was never founded. While it’s more alternate history than sci-fi—and one of the very best alternate history stories, in my opinion—at its core it’s a classic detective story told in brilliant prose that pays homage to noir writers such as Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald, but funnier and much stranger.
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