The Yiddish

Michael Chabon
(Harper Audio)
When the Jews were driven out of Palestine in 1948, many of them settled in Sitka. In 1940, the United States government had established a small part of Alaska as a home for displaced persons. This was six years before the atomic bombing of Berlin, and the Third Republic of Russia.

This rewrite of history by Michael Chabon is only part of a somewhat screwy novel in the style of Raymond Chandler. Our bruised, slightly alcoholic, melancholic detective is Meyer Landsman. He elects to solve the mystery of the murder of a Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a man who might be the messiah, if the time were right. It's not, so this one --- Mendele --- becomes a junkie who uses his tefillin for a tourniquet and plays chess for enough money for a fix. I told you it was screwy.

I also want to tell you it is plain, down-home, up-against-the-wall, out-and-out, non-stop overwhelmingly fascinating, crammed with enough tricks to remind you of the best of Nabokov. (And, like Nabokov, chess plays a central role, including an end-game with --- impossible, almost --- three white knights). It is sour, bitter, funny, filled with word- and mind-games.

In the string-maker's jargon --- Zimbalist, the man who makes it possible for the faithful to evade the Sabbath --- their women "are born pregnant." A gun is a sholem, a peacemaker. in Sitka, there is a special frequency on the shoyfer --- the mobile phones --- for Jewish mothers "to call their sons home for lunch."

I was fortunate to hear this one before I read it. The ten-disk set has one unusual advantage over the novel.

    Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe's massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn't make any difference in what you see.

I heard this passage read before I went through the book and read it myself. The almost farcical detail goes by so quickly on disc so that you don't have time to react, to say, "Wait, stop it! Chabon. Chabon! This is too much."

The reading by Peter Riegert (understated, droll, a touch of the wiseguy) is as it should be. The only problem I found --- as I listened, each day, to the unfolding of a plot which could best be compared to a DNA molecule --- has to do with the music, the music that begins and ends each disc. It is totally inappropriate, bad space music with bad drumming.

Give us some Klezmer, please; Klezmer especially composed for those of us who now think of ourselves as the "frozen chosen."

--- Jeremy Bernstein
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