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October 22, 2007

nostalgia, imagination, redemption

On plane rides last week, I very much enjoyed reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Chabon imagines that in 1941, a temporary refuge was created for European Jews around Sitka, Alaska. The piny islands filled with millions of Yiddish-speaking, urban "Yids" who created a kind of shtetl or Brooklyn of the North. Unfortunately, their lease ends around the present time, which is the time of the narration. Thus the whole district is threatened with "reversion"--which means a new diaspora for the population. In this context, a Raymond Chandleresque detective story unfolds.

Nostalgia and imagination are two keynotes of the Jewish experience. The religious are nostalgic for the ancient Kingdom; they imagine the Messiah. The secular are nostalgic for Poland ca. 1920 or Brooklyn ca. 1950. They are prone to imagine Marxist or Libertarian utopias; fictional narratives built out of nostalgia; or successful assimilation. At the personal level, nostalgia for youth and flights of imagination seem especially common among Jews, although maybe I'm just thinking about myself.

Michael Chabon imagines--with phantasmagoric clarity--a whole world of Sitka Jews. He threatens this world with closure, thereby making his main characters and his readers nostalgic for a completely imaginary past. The Sitka world itself is built on nostalgia and imagination: as in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the rabbi's house is an exact replica of his old home in Eastern Europe, but the inhabitants dream of Zion. Chabon is nostalgic, too, for hard-boiled detectives who live in flop-house hotels and walk noir streets. Out of that material, he imagines something completely original.

If nostalgia and imagination are two thematic centers in the book, a third is redemption. Chabon sets up a powerful contrast between religious redemption and the redemption that involves two human beings who forgive one another and decide to move forward together. Achieving that requires imagination and some suspension of nostalgia.

October 22, 2007 9:04 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


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