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Francis at six months

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionThe Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On page 99 a word jumped out at me. A strange word. An evocative word. One that shaped my reading of the entire rest of the novel. That word was "tohubohu."

The tohu vohu is the formless void at the beginning of Genesis 1. In other words, what existed before the Creation, before God's word was uttered. It is chaos. And in the Hebrew Scriptures there is this fear that chaos will re-emerge (the Deluge is one instance of this). Jewish monotheism denied the chaos any power, agency, or divinity (she is no Tiamat the dragon). Instead, God's sovereign power and mercy and the order of the creation keep chaos restrained (though Job indicates that God delights in playing with the forces of chaos like Behemoth and Leviathan).

Never had I encountered this Hebrew phrase as a single word used in English writing. Did Chabon create this use of it?

It appears on page 99 when he is introducing the Verbovers -- the Hasidic sect which runs the mafia in Sitka. But first, some background.

In 1940 Harold Ickes suggested that the Jews of Europe, threatened by the Nazis, be allowed to settle in Alaska. Chabon cleverly joins the group of novelists writing in counterfactual worlds (Fatherland, The Plot Against America, etc.) by imagining what might have happened had this scenario played out. No Holocaust. No modern state of Israel. Instead a Jewish homeland in Alaska.

This novel is sent in the early 21st century. It is the eve of Reversion, when this Jewish enclave will revert to the State of Alaska and all the Jews living therein must either gain permanent residency in the US (which is limiting how many can) or relocate elsewhere. America has also elected an evangelical president who isn't interested in granting permanent status to the Sitka Jews; he has other plans.

In the midst of this context, there is a murder in the fleabag motel where Detective Meyer Landsman now lives after his divorce and subsequent personal and professional decline. Much like a classic detective story, he pursues the threads of evidence and explores all the seedy and corrupt sides of the world he inhabits.

Which leads him to the enclave of the Verbovers (the Hasidic mafia), where Chabon uses this intriguing word. We read, "He [the Verbover rebbe] built a criminal empire that profited on the meaningless tohubohu beyond the theoretical walls, on beings so flawed, corrupted, and hopeless of redemption that only cosmic courtesy led the Verbovers even to consider them human at all."

I believe one theme of this novel is the struggle to keep chaos -- the formless void, the tohubohu -- at bay.

This was affirmed on pages 356-7 when, near the climax, Berko Shemets, Landsman's partner and half-Jew, half-Indian cousin, is described as follows, "He seems to have something important that he wants to express, a name, a spell, an equation that can bend time or unknit the strings of the world. Or maybe he's trying to keep from coming unknit himself."

Chabon has taken a clever conceit, used it to tell a good (but not great) story, all the while actually inviting us to consider this most profound set of questions. A set of questions that arise from one of the most basic stories of the Western tradition--the Creation. Those questions include: Is God in control? Will chaos defeat order and structure? Does history fulfill any purpose? Do our lives have meaning? Does meaning even exist? Is all for naught? Can we redeem our lives? Can we even hold them together in some coherence? How should we, then, live?

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