Michael Chabon, The Boundary Maven
November 4, 2011 at 11:30 am, by Timna Burston
“That book, you’re gonna love it!”
Distracted, I gaze up from the confines of my thought-bubble and survey the scene around me—a crowded subway: bored adolescents dwarfed by bright-red headphones, tourists doubting their guidebooks, harangued businesswomen expecting more from their light-soy-milk-lattes than perhaps anyone really can.
The man who has made this confident announcement is a large, bald, Florida type in a bright yellow floral shirt. I am pleasantly surprised, as it is very unlikely to be spoken to on a NYC subway. I say this with some confidence, as I am that girl who people always turn to in a store to ask where the Large is (though I have never worked in retail); I am the girl they choose to turn to conspiratorially and reveal a tidbit of their lives to when the bus is late. So when I moved to New York, I was surprised by the extent to which people set up boundaries between themselves and other tube-dwellers. This may make sense: headphones, indoor sunglasses, books, Kindles, laptops—they all limit interaction among passengers, making stinky, overcrowded trips tolerable.
A friend of mine once explained that it is not that New Yorkers are unfriendly, but rather that they see too many people each day, and are overwhelmed. My own personal shield of choice is library books: three a week on a good ride that transport me out of the stuffy, hurtling can of men into the expanses of an imagined universe. A firm believer in the myths sold by Reading Rainbow, I can lose myself in a book even under the direst of circumstances. When I am jolted back from this candy-colored world into the bleak, everyday life, I feel I have awoke from a dream only to discover I am again dreaming, a mundane and bleary nightmare. So, when the Floridian drew me out of the depths of my book, I was a little disoriented, and I had to realign the borders of my universe to include the outside world and this unexpected bookclub missionary. I thanked him, said I really liked it so far, and went on my way.
It was only later, as I continued to enjoy the book, that I realized the significance of this event. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a book that deals with many Jewish motifs, and I will not cover each of them here (especially the extensive question of the Messiah, as he is depicted in the book). However, one of the interesting ways Michael Chabon deals with Judaism, is the way he questions and redraws borders. Without revealing too much, I can say that the book changes the course of history so as to define the unlikely district of Sitka, Alaska, as a sort of sloppy-seconds Zion in the Diaspora.
In Chabon’s imagined universe, the Jews huddle in their cold new homeland, forging communities that seem familiar and yet are different from the real contemporary Jewish communities of both the Diaspora and Israel. Jewish life in all its quarrelsome shades flourishes, Yiddish is the language of the street, and, as in all ghettos, the fear of the Paritz (the non-Jewish government that holds the fate of the Jews in its hands) looms over the town. Indeed, one of the main themes of the story is the coming “Reversion,” the day when the Jewish autonomy of Sitka will be revoked and Jews will have to seek out a life elsewhere.
One of the most compelling descriptions in the book is that of an island populated by a group of extremely pious and infamously corrupt ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as the Verbovers. If you have ever walked down the streets of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, or indeed some of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, you would encounter a similar scene: the rule of Halakha (Jewish Law) ranks supreme within the confines of these neighborhoods, and it seems that the Israeli Supreme Court and the American police force have no jurisdiction here. Conflicts are resolved internally according to the edicts of rabbis, and investigations are met with an impenetrable wall of silence.
In Jerusalem, you will see women from these communities riding the bus in the back, so they cannot taint the minds of men with impure thoughts. In the name of modesty, women’s hair is usually shaved off and concealed in a hat or scarf, or if you are more risqué, a wig, sometimes made of human hair and marking a dramatic improvement over the original. In the name of piety, it is sometimes deemed vital to erase and gloss over imperfection.
Indeed, it is this impulse that becomes the crux of the mystery that unfolds in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The Verbovers have a multitude of skeletons in their closets, which they protect with a phalanx of lawyers and a team of ginger brutes that all bear the name of Rudashevsky. One only needs to look at the way ultra-Orthodox Jews interact with the law in Israel to see that this is indeed a plausible scenario. Just as in the existing Zion, these imaginary sects see themselves as the only “real” Jewish community and do not see the secular Jewish government as relevant unless it supports their interests.
So, the Verbovers draw a line within a line. This line is guarded by the liminal creature known as the “boundary maven.” Zimbalist, a sack of bones who seems to always lie on the brink between life and death, is responsible for the community “Eruv”. An eruv is in itself a kind of wig to cover the naked truth of life—a halakhic loophole through which communities can be formed and sanity preserved. On the Sabbath, Jews are commanded not to carry objects. But Jews love to carry things on the Sabbath: how would we ever get our kugel to the neighbor’s house for lunch, or take a walk in the park without worrying that our home would be vandalized by less observant evildoers?
Thus, the marvelous loophole of eruv was created—an elaborate system involving twine and boxes full of crusty-day old bread, that are supposed to turn the public sphere into an imagined extension of your home. Conceptually, this is a remarkable idea. Jews actually chose to turn acres of the public sphere into an imagined part of the private sphere, because, in a way, the Jewish community can be seen as a large, noisy, and somewhat dysfunctional extended family. The boundary maven, himself not a Verbover, but married to one, straddles the cusp between the pious Jewish community he lives in and the rest of the Jewish world. Indeed, he built his empire by spreading out his web of string and crumb in ever-growing concentric circles, that so more and more of Sitka can be deemed one big, happy, co-op.
So, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union we find two opposing approaches to the boundaries of the Jewish world: one that is exclusive, a community literally living on an island, cutting themselves off from all others except when it is necessary to exploit the outside world; and, on the other hand, the expansionist view that tries to find a way of existing in the world and seeks to find solutions that would bridge the gap between halakhic traditions and contemporary reality.
Which leads me back to the subway – about a week after the first encounter with the Floridian, I was on the train again, eagerly chugging toward the Brooklyn Aquarium, when a young black man, approached me timidly. As he was leaving the train, he said, “You know, I really loved that book.” I don’t know what it is about Chabon’s writing that causes people to reach out to each other. But perhaps, like the Boundary Maven’s web, his words act like an Eruv, and allow people who do not know each other to feel at home.