Planet of the Jews: Eruvim, Geography, and Jewish Identity in Michael Chabon's the Yiddish Policemen's Union

By Anderson, Daniel | Shofar, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Planet of the Jews: Eruvim, Geography, and Jewish Identity in Michael Chabon's the Yiddish Policemen's Union


Anderson, Daniel, Shofar


ABSTRACT

This paper argues that Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, participates in a long and contentious conversation about the role of Israel in Jewish identity. By examining the role that eruvim play in creating and contesting Jewishness in Chabon's 2007 postmodern detective novel, the paper suggests that Chabon crafts a world in which geographic space complicates, rather than simplifies, Jewish identity in diaspora and postmodernity. The Jewish Alaska of Chabon's imagination therefore has a profound connection to his controversial statements about the modern geopolitical state of Israel.

Michael Chabon loves maps. For him, they serve as entryways into imaginary worlds in which reality, popular culture, and literature intertwine, forging a space in which both the possible and impossible are given life. In an essay entitled "Maps and Legends," Chabon recounts how, when his family moved to the planned community of Columbia, Maryland (designed by an entity called "The Working Group"), he was given a map, "a large, foldout map, detailed and colorful, of the Working Group's dream" (18). Chabon credits this event, what he terms "that unfinished, ongoing act of imagination," as determining the course of his life (16). The Working Group's map, filled with details of this still unconstructed city, depicted a liminal space that existed simultaneously in reality and in the imaginations of Columbia's creators. Columbia was a real-world space upon which The Working Group could inscribe values and ideals straight out of its imagination.

This act, of course, also describes much of Chabon's career. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay uses the European landscape of the Holocaust and the American landscape of uneasy sanctuary as a canvas upon which Chabon paints a loving ode to his comic book idols. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection explores similar territory (though replacing America with Great Britain) as it pays tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, Chabon's work repeatedly acknowledges the simul- taneously real and imaginary nature of the landscapes it represents. The Yiddish Policemen's Union also performs this postmodern balancing act as it depicts a gritty, urban landscape that is both familiar and fantastic, in the realm of Sitka, Alaska.

In Chabon's 2007 novel, the complicated nature of space is central to the narrative and is crucial to the exploration of Jewish identity in a postmodern, fabricated world. One of the ways in which the novel explores issues of identity is through its representation of how spaces are constructed in a shifting, uncertain ethnic landscape, like that of the home of the novel's Hasidic gangsters, Verbov Island. In particular, this essay will focus on the eruv of Verbov Island and explore how its symbolic manipulation of space illustrates an inherent tension between physical and social space. The eruv is simultaneously imaginary and real. While occupying real physical space, it divides that same social space along ideological lines and, subsequently, it becomes a space of multiple meanings. In addition, it is also a terrain that is both public and private, and it therefore complicates standard conceptions of civic space. I will argue that the Verbover eruv complicates stable, homogenous readings of the city and indeed creates a site where space is contingent upon ideological perspective. In addition, the eruv's manipulation of public space illustrates how culture and identity are commodified and become a powerful force in the shaping of the urban landscape. The Verbover eruv co-opts publicly organized space and privatizes it, thereby reconstructing it as a culturally distinct space that mirrors the Verbovers own Orthodox identity and the cultural values that that identity implies. Ultimately, in constructing a narrative in which geographic space complicates Jewish identity more than it provides shelter for it, Chabon's novel enthusiastically participates in a long and contentious conversation about Zionism, diaspora, and Jewishness, giving the novel an intense political subtext. …

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