Chabon likes to talk about “the making of” this novel. And so we learn that one day he came across “Say it in Yiddish”, a phrase book for travelers, which he found very funny. And he invented a social and political system, in which Yiddish is spoken exclusively: Sitka, an island off the south-eastern coast of Alaska. According to Chabon, in the 1940s the American government actually came up with the plan to relocate the endangered Jews of Europe in Alaska. So in Chabonīs Yiddish cosmos,”the frozen chosen” find a safe haven in Sitka from 1942 to 2002, when “reversion” takes place, meaning, the land is given back to the Tlingits, the native Indians, and the Jews have to find another refuge. The State of Israel so far doesnīt exist.
Thatīs the background to the novel, but it begins like a true Raymond Chandler: a junkie is found murdered in a room of the rundown Zamendorf Hotel. Our hero, homicide detective Meyer Landsman, who lives in the same hotel, is confronted with the corpse and a chessboard next to him. Landsman is an alcoholic, not very law-abiding eccentric, who still craves for his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish, a colleague turned his superior.
But Chabon only plays with the idea of a crime story. Itīs more important for him to unfold this Yiddish society, in which the most orthodox “Black Hats”, the Verbover, are the mafia. And itīs the son of their boss Rebbe Shpilman, who got himself killed, because he no longer wanted to play the Verboverīs game. And now Chabon invents another twist in the plot. The victim, a gay chess prodigy and messiah-to-be, was meant to help with establishing a Yiddish state in Palestina. The Verbover forbid Landsman any further investigations, but he flies out to a mysterious rehab centre in the middle of nowhere and sees red cows on the pasture. Another twist? Most certainly, and it has to do with Jewish lore which foresees a red cow on the Temple Hill in the Holy Land. In the end, which is still far, the reader is totally exhausted and not sure, if it was worth it. At least itīs easy for Germans to understand the rather restricted Yiddish Chabon is capable of.