Strange times to be a Jew

21 Sep

I just finished reading Michael Chabon's excellent The Yiddish Policeman's Union (for which there are total spoilers below the fold, by the way). A very interesting read, having just visited Israel recently. For those who are not familiar, the novel deals with an alternate timeline in which the United States offered a large tract of land in Alaska as a safe haven for European Jews fleeing the Holocaust (a plan that was proposed in real life, but killed in committee in the Senate. In the book, the main detractor of the plan is killed in a car accident). Incidentally, or perhaps because there were not enough refugees to populate the then-fledging State of Israel, the independence war of 1948 is lost to the Arabs (in real life, it was won) and Israel collapses. Only a few die-hards remain in Jerusalem, which is otherwise entirely under Arab control.
Meanwhile, back in Sitka, Alaska the Jews have a built a gritty but vibrant Yiddish-speaking society of about three million. The novel is basically a detective story set in this fictional Yiddish-land. In real life, Yiddish is now used only in highly insular Hasidic communities in Brooklyn (perhaps in Israel too, although I've been led to believe there are taboos against most non-Hebrew Jewish languages).

One of the more difficult things for me to deal with in trying to feel affection for present-day Israeli society is how thoroughly and efficiently they have dismantled the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi culture that many of the European refugees brought with them. It is understandable that the early Zionists wanted to develop a “pan-Judaic” language that would be acceptable to not just the Ashkenazim, but all other Jewish ethnic groups which came to settle in Israel. Still, though, it's disappointing to think that a very vibrant Yiddish culture, just after being nearly destroyed by Nazis, was much more effectively destroyed by integration into the Hebrew-speaking society of the newly-formed Israel.

Personally, I feel more connected to the Ashkenazi culture than the Israeli one. The latter is pretty obviously constructed, centrally planned, for political and religious purposes, whereas the former was quite organic and represented remarkable centuries of continuous development. And after all, my ancestors were Ashkenazim who immigrated to New York in 1900… what connection do I really have to Israel?

So, in that respect, Chabon's fictional Yiddish-speaking enclave is fascinating, even titillating. It is not like the Yiddish societies of today, which are all strictly ultra-Orthodox and nothing else. The main character of Policeman's Union is a classic noir detective: skeptical, cynical, and certainly not given to religion, spirituality or sentimentality. Yet, he finds himself encountering all facets of the society, including the “black hats” (the Hasidim) and the down-and-out working class.

At the same time, though, Chabon paints a pretty dismal picture of the fate of the Jews in general. Although many fewer died in the Holocaust in his fictional world, there is no Jewish State as Herzl envisioned it. Sitka is instead a Jewish fiefdom, and it is subject to the whims of the U.S. government (which, like the real-life U.S. government, is heavily beholden to Evangelical Christians). The novel frequently refers to the imminent “Reversion” of Sitka back to the native Alaskans who claim it as their homeland. The future status of the Jews of Sitka is uncertain, and they are leaving in droves for fear that they will not be granted full-fledged American citizenship.

The denouement involves the erstwhile detective uncovering a fairly wide-reaching plot destroy the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple, sponsored by Hasidic gangsters from Sitka and the Evangelical government in Washington. So, yes, it got a little ridiculous at the end, but Chabon's idea that Evangelicals would fervently support Jewish sovereignty in Israel in hopes that it will hasten the return of Jesus was probably taken from the same real-life phenomenon (although he took it to its logical and frightening conclusion). Many right-wing Orthodox Jews in the U.S. are delighted to have Evangelical support. Most of the (non-Orthodox) Israelis I spoke to on Birthright found the whole notion hilarious and worthy of ridicule, although they're happy to take their money. I just find it extremely creepy.

In the end, I guess I'm grateful that we live in the world we do instead of Chabon's world. It's interesting to think about what would have happened if Yiddish secular culture had survived (and it did, even, in Manhattan up until the post-WWII era). But, I'd rather not sit here as a Jewish U.S. citizen contemplating the uncertain fate of all the other Jews in the world as they were about to kicked out of Alaska. People may talk about the imminent violence in Israel or the continual threat of assimilation in America, but still, I think we're doing okay.