The Imaginary Jew
American Jewish experience is not what it used to be, and neither is American Jewish fiction. During the three decades after World War II, American Jews were still making the trek from city to suburb, working to middle class, immigration to assimilation. The old country was still fresh in memory, its accents and attitudes still potent in their hold over feeling and expression. Anti-Semitism was still pervasive, the Holocaust a recent event, Israel a source of unmitigated pride. The American Jewish writers who emerged during those years gave form to those experiences (and to those of a still earlier time, the prewar decades during which they had grown up) with a power and virtuosity that brought them to the front rank of American letters: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick and, in authorized translation, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
But over the past three decades, the dense particularity of American Jewish life has, outside the Orthodox community, largely disappeared. No one speaks Yiddish anymore, or even English that sounds like Yiddish. There may be suburbs with a lot of Jews, but there are no Jewish suburbs as there were once Jewish neighborhoods. With Jews as senators and governors and Ivy League presidents, the wounding, binding sense of exclusion has melted away. Communal institutions remain strong, traditions are still cherished, but American Jewish experience is now, by and large, simply American experience. Jewish mothers don't say "Ess, ess" anymore; they say, "Do you want me to call Sophia's mom to make a playdate?"
While there are young Jewish writers aplenty, no important voice has emerged to speak about contemporary Jewish life. Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, perhaps the finest recent novel by a young Jewish writer, is not about being Jewish at all; it's about the quintessentially American subject of race. But there have always been Jewish writers who have chosen to speak about things other than being Jewish (most notably, in the Bellow-Roth generation, Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger). What's really telling about the current state of Jewish fiction is that even those prominent young writers who do speak about Jewish experience don't speak about contemporary experience.
In other words, they don't speak about their own experience. The most celebrated of these authors are probably the two under review here and Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer's Everything Is Illuminated reaches back to the Holocaust and the grandparental generation (as does Daniel Mendelsohn's acclaimed recent memoir The Lost). Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is set in New York and Prague during the war; his new novel, a work of counterfactual history like Roth's The Plot Against America, in an imaginary Jewish autonomous region in the Alaskan panhandle. About half the stories in Nathan Englander's PEN/Malamud Award-winning For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are set in the Orthodox world of his youth, but the two strongest are allegorical tales of European persecution, and his new novel takes place in Argentina during the "dirty war" of the late 1970s.
There's nothing wrong with any of this, but the phenomenon does cry out for explanation. It's hard enough giving reasons why someone chooses to write something, let alone why he chooses not to, but Chabon's work offers a clue. The narrator-protagonist of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, is the son of a Jewish gangster. The narrator-protagonist of his second novel, Wonder Boys, is a gentile married to a Jew, and his account of her family's Passover Seder draws its brilliance and wicked humor from his outsider's defamiliarizing gaze. Chabon's detective novella The Final Solution centers on the relationship between a young German-Jewish refugee and Sherlock Holmes. Gentlemen of the Road, the tale just serialized in The New York Times Magazine, follows a group of adventurers in the tenth-century Jewish kingdom of the Khazars. It's safe to say that Chabon likes his Jews exotic or, more to the point, wants to recharge Judaism with a sense of the exotic, a sense that the horizon of Jewish experience is wider than the boundaries of middle-class American life. As for Englander, who grew up on Long Island, he recently quipped in an interview about his new work that "in terms of personal experience, my only other option was to set this novel at the Roosevelt Field mall."
My own experience tells me that American Judaism has long been beset by a deep sense of banality and inauthenticity. To the usual self-contempt of the liberal middle class is added the feeling that genuine Jewish life is always elsewhere: in Israel or the shtetl, among the immigrant generation or the ultra-Orthodox. Jewish culture as lived by the non-Orthodox tends to feel bland and thin even to its practitioners--the last, worn coins of a princely inheritance. (To those who have fled Orthodox backgrounds, like Englander and myself, that very different milieu tends to feel, for all its traditionalism, spiritually dead.) The most visible of the current generation of self-consciously Jewish novelists appear to be avoiding their own experience because their own experience just seems too boring. What is there to say about it? Better to write about a time or place where there was more at stake.
That's certainly what Chabon does in his remarkable new novel. The Yiddish Policemen's Union invents an entire world out of whole cloth, one almost comparable in scope to the Republic of Costaguana in Conrad's Nostromo, though Chabon's models were more likely the science fiction he's talked about having loved since he was a kid. The district of Sitka, we're given to understand, was set up in 1940 as a refuge for Jews fleeing Hitler. Since then, it's maintained uneasy relationships with the Alaska Natives, with American Jews and with the American government itself, since the settlement was only ever intended to be provisional. But with Israel, in this universe, having lost its war of independence, the Sitka Jews, forbidden from entering the United States proper, have nowhere else to go. In their sixty years of existence, they've built up a complete Yiddish-speaking society on their narrow strip of gloomy coast. Since this is a hard-boiled detective story, we tend to see that society's underside: cops, gangsters, hookers and junkies; historical events like the Shavuos Massacre and the Synagogue Riots; Sholem-Aleykhem Park and Max Nordau Street; the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria and Bronfman U.
Reading the novel is like wandering through a dream where the State of Israel has been crossbred with Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles and 1930s Warsaw. We encounter the familiar Jewish sociology of Yekkes vs. Galitzers (Jews from Germany vs. those from Polish Galicia), the religious semiology of needlework yarmulkes vs. velvet yarmulkes vs. black hats. A cop is a "shammes" (watchman), a detective a "noz" (nose), a cellphone a "Shoyfer." The slang for "fellow" is "yid."
The wit and brio of Chabon's inventiveness are unfailingly delightful, but he's also playing a deeper game. Sitka is Chabon's laboratory for creating something that never had a chance to exist in the real world: a modern Jewish society that embodies the spirit of traditional European Jewish life--its language, its mentality, its ways. Israel was founded as a historical break with Diaspora (hence, among other things, the revival of Hebrew as an alternative to Yiddish), and its establishment as a haven and beacon created a discontinuity of experience within the Diaspora itself. Even the Diaspora is no longer the Diaspora. But in Sitka, it is. Chabon's model world is an arena for exploring the Jewish psyche under conditions of purity and pressure that don't exist in real life.
For Sitka's Jews aren't just ghettoized and concentrated; they are also on the verge of expulsion. The novel is set on the eve of "Reversion," when the district will go back to Alaskan control and its 2 million Jews will be left scrambling to find the next land of exile. The story begins in classic hard-boiled fashion, when a dead body is discovered in the flophouse where Detective Meyer Landsman, our embittered but oddly noble antihero, has been making love to a bottle of slivovitz since splitting with his wife. But as Landsman starts to pull on that one thread, the whole story of Sitka and Reversion begins to unravel. The anonymous corpse turns out to be connected to a sect of ultra-Orthodox gangsters, in turn connected to a series of shady operators and shadowy figures intent on finding a Messiah to lead the Jewish people out of Alaska and into the Promised Land.