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Samuel Freedman on Michael Chabon’s ‘Love Letter to Exile and Dispossession’

By Daniel Treiman

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Michael Chabon

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s latest novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” set in an imagined Jewish homeland in Alaska, has drawn critical raves. But it also elicited a widely discussed New York Post item provocatively titled, “NOVELIST’S UGLY VIEW OF JEWS.”

Barbs flung by the wildly sensationalistic Post are easy to laugh off, and Chabon did just that, telling the rival Daily News: “My mother, when she saw this item in the Post, she was kvelling. She said, ‘Now you know you’ve arrived as a Jewish-American writer. When you’ve been condemned by other Jews as an anti-Semite, you know you’ve made it.’”

Now, however, comes a biting critique from a more reputable corner: Columbia journalism professor and New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Freedman calls Chabon’s book “a love letter to exile and dispossession. Its satire has the effect, intended or not, of treating Israel as something simultaneously fanatical and ridiculous.”

Freedman writes:

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. Yiddish-language newspapers, slivovitz toasts, a hotel named for Einstein and a street for Nordau — all are meant to laughably underscore how inorganic, how extrinsic Jews are to this land. 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 conclusion, Freedman throws down the gauntlet, contrasting Chabon’s satirical take on the Jewish predicament unfavorably with those of Philip Roth and Anne Roiphe and suggesting that Chabon is “apparently imbued with the belief that Israel is a colonial, imperialistic oppressor.”

Freedman suggests that Chabon’s views on Israel may have been influenced by his wife and fellow literary eminence Ayelet Waldman, who in her youth made aliyah to Israel, and even briefly served in the IDF, before becoming disillusioned and returning to the United States. She has written, “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.”

Freedman’s full article is here.



Comments
tarshisha Fri. Jul 20, 2007

I love this Yidn, like Freedman. They know what is author wants to say, and why not. Exactly as my mekhatuneste. The kosher khazir fisl of fanatical Zionism sticks out from the article.

Shriber Fri. Jul 20, 2007

"Barbs flung by the wildly sensationalistic Post are easy to laugh off, and Chabon did just that, telling the rival Daily News: “My mother, when she saw this item in the Post, she was kvelling. She said, ‘Now you know you’ve arrived as a Jewish-American writer. When you’ve been condemned by other Jews as an anti-Semite, you know you’ve made it.’”" For starters, Chabon and his mother are wrong the author of the NY Post article isn't Jewish. The comment then tells me that Chabon (and hid mother wanted to see themselves as the victims of "conservative" Jewish vitriol. Nothing pleases Chabon more than being compared to Philip Roth and other secular Jewish writers who incurred the anger of the "Jewish elders." Unfortunately for him “the Jewish elders” don’t care nor do most people. The reason is that fiction doesn’t have the importance in social life it once had. More importantly, though, and I love satirical novels as well as many novels critical of aspects of Jewish life including Israeli life and politics. Philip Roth, A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz’ novels are among my favorite reading. However, when it comes to Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union I agree with the author of the NY Post article as well as with Samuel Freedman. I would go even further and say that I found the novel to be thoroughly antisemitic and not just anti-Zionist. While reading it I kept asking myself if a non Jew had written the novel would any reader would see it as a comic detective novel? The author uses disparaging language about Jews which make on cringe. Terms such as Yid as insult are on every other page. His view of Orthodox Jews as gangsters comes straight out of the pages of Julius Streicher’s Nazi German paper Der Sturmer. And this in a story which is supposed to take place a few years after the Holocaust. I won’t comment on the literary quality of this so called detective novel. However, anti-Zionist theme in the novel is poorly developed. He seems to hate the Hebrew language as much as he hates Orthodox Jews. This book has turned me completely off to Chabon’s other fiction, which may be unfair, but after this disgusting performance it will be many years before I think about picking up another one of his books. There are too many great writers out there, both Jewish and non Jewish, contemporary as well as classical, for me to bother with such a tendentious scribbler.

Shriber Fri. Jul 20, 2007

"I love this Yidn, like Freedman. They know what is author wants to say, and why not. Exactly as my mekhatuneste. The kosher khazir fisl of fanatical Zionism sticks out from the article." tarshisha This word salad sounds like it was written by someone with bi-polar problems, or is it meant as a parody of Chabon's writing style?

Shriber Fri. Jul 20, 2007

Finally, the well known Yiddish scholar Ruth R. Wisse has written an excellent review of the book “The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.” You can read it here, Slap Shtick

Shriber Fri. Jul 20, 2007

Btw: Ruth R. Wisse has written a knowing review of the book “The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.” You can read it here, The link didn't work, try this: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/cm/main/viewArticle.html?id=10906

Yehuda Sat. Jul 21, 2007

I think that the greater story behind Chabon's new novel is beyond his anti-Zionist positions. The real question is why wouldn't an American Jewish novelist write a story that is a reflection of the true Jewish experience of today's America. Chabon's novel presents a totally imaginary reality of Yiddish autonomy. A short story such as "The Conversion of the Jews" by Roth presents the Jew as very uncomfortable with his Jewishness. A Potok novel, such as his wonderful "The Chosen", shows a less than typical American Jewish reality of the haredi world. The classical "Exodus" by Leon Uris or the "Source" by Mitchener are of course focused in the drama in Eretz Yisrael. How about reading a novel that talks about Jewish life in America - taking place in your local JCC, or in the Friday night synagogue setting, or in the Ramah summer camp, etc. Shalom Aleichem could talk about your "poshet Yid" (simple Jew) such as Tevye the milkman raising his daughters, or about Menachem Mendel and his wife corresponding about his latest ideas of how to become rich without working - and the literature is not only lovely, but it is also a picture of real Jewish life at a certain time and place. Unfortunately, Jewish life in America simply isn't so interesting. Perhaps one should say that Jewishness is not the central aspect of the Jewish experience in America, hence the novels seem to concentrate on something else or somewhere else.

Shriber Sat. Jul 21, 2007

Yehuda said: “I think that the greater story behind Chabon's new novel is beyond his anti-Zionist positions. The real question is why wouldn't an American Jewish novelist write a story that is a reflection of the true Jewish experience of today's America.” Yehuda, this is true today of most novelists. Realism is not the preferred type of writing for serious writers, unfortunately. Still, some writers do try to write in the mode and have produced some decent work. Nathan Englander for one is such a writer. I expect better work from him in the future but his stories and even his last novel have much to recommend them. Chabon is a different kind of writer. He is limited by his use of detective fiction as his primary mode of presenting reality. This is a drawback as some of the most interesting and important human truths do not present themselves as mysteries or even as hidden facts that need uncovering. Bellow at his best in Herzog, for example, wasn’t interested in hidden truth. “Chabon's novel presents a totally imaginary reality of Yiddish autonomy. A short story such as "The Conversion of the Jews" by Roth presents the Jew as very uncomfortable with his Jewishness.” Yehuda Yes but Roth also wrote many novels dealing with Jewish life in this country that are first rate. I would recommend to you “American Pastoral” and “I Married a Communist.” Then there is Bernard Malamud who is not much read today but deserves to be read for his “realistic” treatment of Jewish subjects. “Unfortunately, Jewish life in America simply isn't so interesting. Perhaps one should say that Jewishness is not the central aspect of the Jewish experience in America, hence the novels seem to concentrate on something else or somewhere else.” Yehuda I obviously don’t agree with this view. There is lots of good Jewish fiction out there which deals with Jewish American life. You got to look for it. Btw: I love many of the writers you mentioned: Mendele Mocher Sforim’s work in both Yiddish and Hebrew is terrific and so is of course Sholem Aleichem. Have you read the stories of Edgar Keret the modern Israeli Hebrew writer? I think you will like them. He writes in the tradition of Sholem Aleichem and other Yiddish writers. Chabon's latest novel is of course a waste of time.

Shriber Sat. Jul 21, 2007

Yehuda, I forgot to mention the novelist Henry Roth who wrote one of the most beatiful Jewish novels ever with his "Call It Sleep." His later cris de coeur is also worth reading. The there is the early Jewish American woman writer Anzia Yezierskia whose "Bread Givers" has also won many admirers.

Yehuda Sun. Jul 22, 2007

Shriber, thanks for your well-informed and detailed response! However, I would like to emphasize that the abandonment of Yiddish and its replacement by American English has changed the intensity of the Jewish experience. Jewishness, typically, is no longer one's core identity. Jews are much more at home in American (non-Jewish) culture, and Jewish references are not at all self-evident (i.e. one cannot assume that the American Jewish reader has ever studied Tanakh, for example). For Sholom Aleichem, it was clear that his audience sees the world through Jewish eyes and through the Jewish historic experience. Moreover, even the Jewish neighborhood of the 1930's-1940's no longer exists, and so the experience of a Jewish society cannot be presented beyond the confines of the haredi world. Hence, Chabon has to invent an imaginary Jewish world for his detective story. There is no Jewish society in America - as there had been a Jewish society in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe (the shtetl) or as there is a Jewish society today in Israel. In order to write an American Jewish novel in which a non-haredi Jewish society is presented in the USA, it has to be an alternative-history type novel. The real life Jewish community of synagogue attendance on the High Holidays or Hebrew lessons on Tuesday afternoons is not really exciting enough for writing poetry or novels.

Shriber Sun. Jul 22, 2007

Yehuda" Shriber, thanks for your well-informed and detailed response! However, I would like to emphasize that the abandonment of Yiddish and its replacement by American English has changed the intensity of the Jewish experience." Yes, Yehuda, (beautiful name, It's one of my sibling's name) I agree with much of what you said. I heartily with that we Jews would build schools in which Hebrew is taught as a second language, this practice would awaken Jews to their culture and history. This could be done in a non religious, non ideological setting. It need be part of the Zionist project of moving to Israel, although students would naturally identify with this Hebrew speaking country. It would also not put emphasis on the religious side of Jeiwhs identity though students would naturally have an understanding of, and many would no doubt identify with this religion. ( I am an agnostic, btw.) Such a school system would go a long way in creating a multi-cultural Jewish population literate in at least two cultures: American and Jewish. Of all the imagery in Chabon's book that I disliked the one I hated the most was his vitriolic attack on the Hebrew language as a source of conspiracies. This is the source of all antisemitic themes in the literature and in the world outside literature.

Yehuda Sun. Jul 22, 2007

Shriber - It's really painful that the Chabon novel comes out against Hebrew. It really is the source of Jewish culture. All the great writers of Yiddish like Y.L. Peretz, Mendele Moycher Seforim and Sholom Aleichem were also Hebrew writers, and they understood that Hebrew is the very "soul" of Yiddish. Chabon's Yiddish-speaking society is the creation of one for whom Yiddish is not really his culture or his point of reference. Those Jews whose central identity is the Jewish heritage understand that Hebrew is simply part of being Jewish. I agree with you that Hebrew achievement is essential in American Jewry. Unfortunately, Hebrew education will continue to be a failure, because Jewish identity is at best a secondary identity in American Jewry.

Shriber Sun. Jul 22, 2007

Yehuda: "Unfortunately, Hebrew education will continue to be a failure, because Jewish identity is at best a secondary identity in American Jewry." This is true today, though it need not stay this way always. I hope there is a change soon.

Yehuda Mon. Jul 23, 2007

Shriber - I'm impressed by your sense of optimism that a change for the better will be "soon". I wish that I could be optimistic as well. However, Hebrew achievements are simply not a priority in the Jewish community. Even those children who go to Jewish day schools cannot read a Hebrew book after 12 years of schooling - in opposition to school systems the world over whose graduates can read a book in an acquired language. Hebrew remains the domain only of professionals (university scholars, rabbis, etc). I find it particularly sad that the Israeli universities are not flooded with American Jewish students. The schools in Israel are excellent and cost only a fraction of the cost of an American school. The graduate will be qualified in whatever field of study he would choose AND he would be fluent in Hebrew. However, it is simply not an issue in American Jewry. Language is understood as an expression of identity, and that is the reason that Yiddish was abandoned so readily - and that is the reason that Hebrew is so unimportant. Jewish identity has never been the central issue in American Jewry.

BILL GAYNOR Tue. Jun 17, 2008

Shriber's description of Chabon as scribbler is a cheap shot akin to describing Einstein as a dabbler.

Griewrize Sat. Apr 11, 2009

Hello ! http://www.sportscolumn.com/archives/000222.html jony We're gonna need a few more people cheering for us. I'll tell you why

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