Jewish Vulnerability: A Novel

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I finally started reading Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and so far, as virtually all the reviews indicated, it’s excellent.

The book takes place in an alternate reality in which the Jews lost the Israeli War of Independence and ended up with a temporary homeland in Alaska.

When I first heard about the book, I immediately thought of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Roth’s novel takes place in an alternate reality in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the United States and makes a pact with Hitler not to enter World War II.

It seemed notable that two of America’s most celebrated Jewish novelists had taken the two most intense moments in 20th century Jewish history and turned them on their heads. But reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, my initial thoughts about why this happened are changing a bit.

Much of Roth’s novel seemed to be a commentary on contemporary events. As I noted back when the book came out:

For Philip, Lindbergh’s presidency “assaulted as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.” These words are sure to resonate with every post-9/11 American. Next, we’re introduced to a president who is “misleading the country with promises of peace while secretly agitating and planning for our entry intro the armed struggle.”

So similarly, while Roth is neither a cheerleader nor a worrywart for American Jewry, in some ways, The Plot seemed to express a renewed anxiety about Jewish security and safety, reflecting the contemporary rise in anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel rhetoric worldwide.

My assumption, before starting Chabon’s book, was that his dire set-up — Jews living in Alaska because they were massacred in Palestine in 1948 — could be read as a similar projection of contemporary Jewish survival-anxiety.

But a hundred pages in I realize that there’s another option: Rather than being a display of contemporary Jewish vulnerability, these novels (or perhaps just one of them) is an expression of the opposite: Jewish security and power.

How so?

In the past, an artistic creation about Jewish suffering would likely be a work of realism. Artists didn’t need to create fantastical premises in order to forge an Oy Vey!-worthy setting.

Meaning: Perhaps the fact that Roth and Chabon had to create alternate realities in order to paint pictures of Jewish misfortune is a testament to the fortunate — relatively powerful, relatively wealthy, relatively safe — if still complicated, status of world Jewry.

Posted on August 22, 2007

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