Pining for the West

Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon | December 30, 2009

Every now and again I like to read something quite different from my usual diet and this one fitted the bill.

It’s an alternative history which has Sitka, Alaska as the Jewish homeland instead of Israel. The lease on the land is running out and with possibly as few as 1 in 5 of the inhabitants being allowed to stay on there, they are all having to apply for permission.

The book is a murder mystery which follows the tried and trusted formula of the hard drinking detective, with a failed marriage in the background.

I would have liked a glossary as there were lots of Jewish/Yiddish words bandied around and I sometimes had to guess at their meanings. I suspect some of them were made up. I used to know a lot of Jewish words as I read a lot of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Potok and such as a youngster, but I’ve forgotten a lot. They always had a glossary.

There were characters called ‘boundary mavens’ who rigged up poles and strings along the neighbourhoods so that Jews worried about breaking the Sabbath when they carried things or walked their dogs could get around the Jewish rules. This strikes me as being so typical of the religious zealots who always seem to spend a lot of time bending rules to fit their consciences. Well, I found it funny.

The novel got rave reviews, which is a bit of a mystery to me. It was entertaining but it wouldn’t be on my – one to read again list.

I quite enjoyed this book except for the odd bit of – what can I say?



  1. I’m listening to the novel right now (after having read it last year). The Yiddish words were not made up, but what they meant is very interesting. Gun is ‘sholem’ which means ‘peace’. Detective is ‘shames’ which means ‘a sexton’ (someone who takes care of things in a synagogue), etc. – i don’t remember the rest off the top of my head. If you have any other Yiddish meaning questions, you can contact me at yelenele at hotmail dot com.

    Comment by Y. — December 30, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    • Thank-you for your very interesting comment. It seems to me that if you can understand Yiddish then it would give you a completely different perspective of this book. I do remember the word ‘schnappish’ appeared in the book a few times but now I can’t find it. Is it a photograph, or was it a photograph of a dog? I hope schnappish means – dog. I know quite a few schnappish dogs.

      Comment by piningforthewest — December 30, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

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