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Samuel Freedman on Michael Chabon’s ‘Love Letter to Exile and Dispossession’

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s latest novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” set in an imagined Jewish homeland in Alaska, has drawn critical raves. But it also elicited a widely discussed New York Post item provocatively titled, “NOVELIST’S UGLY VIEW OF JEWS.”

Barbs flung by the wildly sensationalistic Post are easy to laugh off, and Chabon did just that, telling the rival Daily News: “My mother, when she saw this item in the Post, she was kvelling. She said, ‘Now you know you’ve arrived as a Jewish-American writer. When you’ve been condemned by other Jews as an anti-Semite, you know you’ve made it.’”

Now, however, comes a biting critique from a more reputable corner: Columbia journalism professor and New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Freedman calls Chabon’s book “a love letter to exile and dispossession. Its satire has the effect, intended or not, of treating Israel as something simultaneously fanatical and ridiculous.”

Freedman writes:

Speaking personally, I read the book with so much pleasure that only after the fact did I begin to struggle with its seeming message. No writer’s creativity should be censored for political reasons, and literary fiction of Chabon’s high caliber can and should resist being pinned to the corkboard of real-life parallels. Unlike the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner film Munich, which portrayed and interpreted actual events to deliver a clearly anti-Zionist moral, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union traffics in fancy.

Yet the fancy has an undeniable point of view. One of the running gags of the novel is the absurdity of shtetl life transplanted into Alaska. Yiddish-language newspapers, slivovitz toasts, a hotel named for Einstein and a street for Nordau — all are meant to laughably underscore how inorganic, how extrinsic Jews are to this land. The unspoken inference is that it is just as unnatural for Jews to have plopped themselves down in a Middle Eastern desert. And when Chabon refers to the Sitka Jews having pushed out the indigenous Tlingit Indians, his metaphor needs no footnote to be understood.

In conclusion, Freedman throws down the gauntlet, contrasting Chabon’s satirical take on the Jewish predicament unfavorably with those of Philip Roth and Anne Roiphe and suggesting that Chabon is “apparently imbued with the belief that Israel is a colonial, imperialistic oppressor.”

Freedman suggests that Chabon’s views on Israel may have been influenced by his wife and fellow literary eminence Ayelet Waldman, who in her youth made aliyah to Israel, and even briefly served in the IDF, before becoming disillusioned and returning to the United States. She has written, “Ask me now and I will tell you that the Zionist dream, the very notion of Eretz Yisrael, the idea and the ideal for which I expected and was prepared to fight, has turned bitter in my mouth.”

Freedman’s full article is here.

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