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THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION
Michael Chabon

This spoiler was sent in by KXL who says, “The first few chapters were only so-so, but it picks up quickly and every chapter has some piece of wit or humor that make it worthwhile.”


The past:
In 1948 Israel was attacked and destroyed by Arab armies. Many Jews were relocated to a new homeland in the frozen wastes of Sitka, Alaska. The resettlement was never meant to be permanent, and now, 60 years later, the Reversion of the land back to the control of the U.S. government is about to take place. Some residents will be allowed to stay, but many will have to leave. Not knowing if they will be among the lucky, many have already left.

The present:
Meyer Landsman is a hard-boiled detective with the Sitka Police Department. He wakes up one morning to learn that another resident of his flea-bag hotel has been murdered. Emmanuel Lasker has been shot in the head. Lasker had many chess books in his room and there is half-played game set up.

Meyer picks up his partner, Berko Shemets, who is half-Jew, half-Tlingit Indian. Landsman is divorced, but Berko has a wife and kids (and another on the way). This plays a role throughout the story because even though Meyer doesn’t have much to lose, his friend needs his job and a clean record in order to get to stay after the Reversion.

Bina Gelbfish, Meyer’s ex-wife, is the new chief of Sitka Central police, and it’s her job to see that all open cases are closed by the time of the Reversion – about two months.

Meyer’s father was a chess expert, so he knows the local chess hangout: the Café Einstein. They go to investigate. “Lasker” was a pseudonym (taken from a famous chess master) used by the dead man. At the café he was known as “Frank,” a whiz who would do things like play five games at once . . . all to hustle money for his heroine addiction. While the two detectives are there, in comes Alter Litvak, a man with no voice, known to be a power in town. He has heard a little of the case.

The detectives go to see Zimbalist, the eruv maven (An eruv is a way of getting around the Sabbath restriction on carrying anything outside your home. The maven puts up string around town and ta-da! String is walls, the whole town is your home, and you go anywhere and carry anything on the Sabbath.). He recognizes the picture of “Frank.” He was really Mendel Shpilman, son of most powerful force (legal and illegal) in Sitka: the chief rabbi. And more . . .

In every generation is born a Tzaddik Ha-Door, the potential messiah the Jews have awaited for thousands of years. Many thought Mendel was it. As a young man many years ago, he knew things that no one could know, and he had a reputation for performing small miracles – including curing cancer.

The detectives go to see the rabbi and tell him that his son is dead and to ask if he had any enemies. The rabbi says that his son was dead to him many years ago. He was a junkie and they had not talked in decades. He wants nothing to do with anything having to do with Mendel. But a few days later a newspaper article announcing Mendel’s death notes that after a promising start he disappeared from public life 23 years ago on the eve of his wedding. The article also says that his father will preside at the funeral. Berko’s wife suggests that Mendel’s mother made his father change his attitude.

Meyer attends the funeral from a distance and sneaks aboard Mrs. Shpilman (Mr. and Mrs. Shpilman rarely see each other and travel apart) limo. She and her bodyguards were expecting him and she tells Meyer about how people came from all around for Mendel’s miracles. It got to be a burden. On the night before his arranged marriage Mendel disappeared, but, disguised as a woman, snuck back to see his mother to try (unsuccessfully) to explain to her that he could no longer be who everyone thought he was (What exactly he meant by that is unclear. Does he mean the Messiah? It is also hinted at that he was gay.) He then left, though he contacted his mother every so often over the years. Usually to ask for money.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the professional organization Meyer belongs to. After being suspended and losing his badge for fighting, he flashes his YPU membership card to the daughter of the man who makes the pies near the local airport. She knows everyone, and she recognizes the picture of Mendel. She helped him find a place to stay (Meyer’s bldg) when he was flown into town about two years ago by Naomi – Meyer’s sister, who was a small-time pilot until she died in a mysterious crash . . . about two years ago.

Where was Mendel coming from? Inquiries into Naomi’s flight plan for that day turn up nothing. The plan has been removed from the official files. Only someone very high-up in the government could have done that. Did someone also cause her crash to keep everything secret?

Meyer learns from one of Naomi’s friends that she flew to Peril Strait, where some sort of facility – no one knows what – has been established. He gets a lift up there. The people in charge tell Meyer that it’s a rehab center (there’s dorms, an exercise ground), but when he gets too nosy, he gets knocked out and put in a detention center where he sees graffiti in Naomi’s handwriting. Meyer escapes and meets up with a lawman from that area, Willie Dick, who tells him that the folks who own most of the land there are running a farm. Berko joins them and the three sneak up to the farm where they see . . . cows. One is an odd-looking red cow with white spots painted on.

Berko knows what’s up: According to prophecy, when the temple of Jerusalem (which was destroyed thousands of years ago) is finally rebuilt on its original spot and a pure red heifer (extremely rare! Someone must have spend millions trying to breed one) is sacrificed, then the Messiah will come. The white spots are a disguise on such a perfect red heifer.

Meyer and Berko go see Meyer’s Uncle Hertz, who’s up on all the local politics. He’s also a chess player and has a game going by his bed. He says that there’s only one thing wrong with this Red Heifer Project (my term for it): the Dome of the Rock – the third holiest site in Islam – sits where the Temple is supposed to be rebuilt. He tells them that Alter Litvak is a demolitions expert. The plan is obvious: train commandos in Peril Strait, blow up the Dome, and ship the red heifer to Jerusalem as a way to bring about the Messiah and the End Times.

On t.v. they see that Dome has just been destroyed. Our heroes leave, only to get involved in a shootout with forces from the commando center . . . only to be rescued by the U.S. government.

They are interrogated and told that if they keep their mouths shut, they’ll keep their jobs and get to stay after the Reversion. Meyer knows that the American President is a hard-core evangelical Christian and Meyer suspects the government has financed the RHP. He wonders if the deal was that some of the Jews up there would get to move into Jerusalem once the Moslems get moved out. The President has already announced that he would be happy to send troops to Jerusalem to stabilize the area.

Freed, Meyer spends time with Bina, but he keeps thinking about the chess game set up in Mendel’s room. He realizes it wasn’t part of an actual game, but a chess problem. That’s why there was a Vick’s inhaler standing in for a missing knight piece.

Uncle Hertz used a Vicks inhaler in the game by his bed.

The two detectives go to see Hertz. He explains that Mendel invited him to his hotel room. Mendel said he was in a no-win situation, and he used the chess board (borrowing Hertz’ inhaler) to illustrate. He didn’t want to be what he wasn’t (The Messiah? A junkie? Gay?), but he didn’t know how to stop being what he was. Any move he made would lead to his defeat, and yet it was his move. He had to do something. Every move was, in a sense, suicide. Mendel wanted Hertz to kill him. Why Hertz? Because Mendel could sense how badly Hertz hated Litvak’s plan. Hertz waited until Mendel was high and then shot him.

Meyer and Bina decide to get back together and Meyer calls an American newspaperman he knows in order to tell him the whole story.