Profile: Michael Chabon
Judaism, Jewish life and exile—but not Israel—figure prominently in the award-winning fiction of this celebrated American author.
It’s Michael Chabon’s 44th birthday, and his cell phone keeps ringing with greetings from well-wishers. Despite the frequent calls, he keeps his attention focused on the subject of his literary career and questions about the book that has thrust him back in the spotlight of the literary world.
Six years after scoring the Pulitzer Prize for The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Picador), in which a couple of Jewish cousins fight Nazi Germany through the fantasy of their Golem-like comic book creation, Chabon has produced another profoundly Jewish tale.
In the reimagined history of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins), the Israel experiment has failed, landing 3.2 million Jews in Sitka, Alaska. The loaned territory is poised to revert to American control after 60 years of Jewish sovereignty, and Jewish lives again hang in the balance. In this way station of sleet and galoshes, where the sky exudes a variegated gray and the Jews skirmish with the Tlingits, indigenous Alaskans, Chabon creates a credible Jewish world replete with quirks and sects, characters and cuisine and social commentary on biblical prophecy, all at the intersection of a murder mystery and a love story.
On a brief stop during his book tour last spring, Chabon tucked himself into a corner of the ornate lounge of a Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. Wearing a paisley shirt sprayed with aquas and purples, he stood out amid the muted tones of the swish environs. But more arresting than the outfit—evoking artistic Berkeley, where he lives with his wife and four children—was his demeanor. In spite of his literary reputation, he was utterly unassuming.
“Every time [my book] gets a good review, I just feel like I dodged another bullet,” he said. Even in describing the strength of his marriage—now a notorious topic, but more on that later—he counted his blessings with a kenahara.
It’s as if, despite the seeming sturdiness of American Jewry and his own mammoth achievement, Chabon lives with keen sensitivity to the collective insecurity of generations of wandering Jews. And his recent works display a palpable sense of Jewish vertigo.
Take, for example, Kavalier & Clay, whose protagonists each try to wriggle free from a suffocating force. Or his novella, The Final Solution (Harper Perennial), which won the 2005 National Jewish Book Award and features an elderly Sherlock Holmes and echoes of the Holocaust.
The longing for a Jewish homeland emanates from both The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and his latest novel, Gentlemen of the Road (Del Rey), a story originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine that takes place in Khazaria, a medieval Jewish empire in Eastern Europe. While researching the latter book, Chabon said he was moved by a letter from an important 10th-century Jewish diplomat to a Khazar king stating he would give up all his power to live in a Jewish homeland.
It was “so poignant to me when I read that,” Chabon said. “The longing for a homeland, and not necessarily one in Palestine, [but] any place where you could be fully in control of your own destiny, is so powerful and has been so powerful for so long.”
But some see The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s omission of Israel as a direct statement.
“One of the running gags of the novel is the absurdity of shtetl life transplanted into Alaska,” wrote Samuel G. Freedman, Columbia University journalism professor and author of Jew vs. Jew (Simon & Schuster), in The Jerusalem Post. “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.”
So how does Chabon feel about Israel?
“The world already has Israel in it,” he said, suggesting the topic is moot. “I’m ambivalent about pretty much everything, [so there’s] no reason I should feel any different about Israel.” On the one hand, he explained, the pre-Israel diaspora offered a more diverse Judaism. On the other, Jewish life before Israel was fraught with insecurity, “always on the edge of the abyss,” he said, adding that “it’s hard to say that existence in Israel is truly secure.”
“[It’s a] meditation on home and identity and sense of place and dislocation,” said Courtney Hodell, editor of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. While Chabon does embrace some elements of Jewish identity, he can find others “sort of alarming,” she claimed. “All of this gets sort of mixed up in that incredibly nimble mind of his, [and] what you’re reading is the result of that…. In some ways, connection to a particular plot of land is illusory.”
But for an author whose work is steeped in Yiddishkeit, Judaism did not figure prominently into Chabon’s early life. Though he did have a bar mitzva, his family was secular and acculturated, far from religious.
“I had really more or less abandoned my Judaism for like my teens to my late twenties,” he said. But with the aging of his parents’ generation, he became “more acutely conscious of their legacy…. When something starts to disappear, that’s when you start to appreciate it more.”
During this time, in his late twenties, Chabon’s first marriage to Lollie Groth, a non-Jewish woman he wed at 24, fell apart. He had already begun to attend services, light candles on Friday nights and celebrate Jewish holidays when he met his current wife, Harvard-trained public defender-turned-author Ayelet Waldman.
“It was love at first sight,” he said, calling the match bashert.
The Israeli-born Waldman, who grew up in a family of secular Zionists, has also expressed ambivalence about the Jewish state in her writing, though both she and her husband are committed to Judaism. Their eldest child, Sophie, 12, is currently preparing for her bat mitzva (their other children are Zeke, 10, Ida Rose, 6, and Abraham, 4).
The couple writes together, back-to-back in their home office, collaborating and nudging each other to complete their work. Despite his disciplined writing schedule and busy family life, Chabon does make time for his various hobbies—reading, cooking, following the San Francisco Giants and drawing.
His marital success rests largely on an “equal partnership,” he said, where household chores and child rearing are evenly divided. It’s a lesson in responsibility that Chabon learned early by way of his parents’ divorce. As an adolescent in his family’s Columbia, Maryland, home, he was already tasked with cooking dinner once his parents separated. (Chabon has one brother, two half-brothers and two step-siblings).
In his marriage, he said he has adopted his wife’s “way of being in the world,” which is “to be very open about things and not hold things back.” In fact, Waldman’s frankness is widely known—and not without controversy.
Two years ago, The New York Times adapted an essay of hers for its “Modern Love” column. Waldman wrote that, unlike other mothers who are consumed with a love for their children that supplants their marital romance, her “torrid” sex life and passion for her husband remains unabated. The kicker: She loves him more than her kids. “If I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband,” she wrote.
The buzz surrounding the piece landed her on The Oprah Winfrey Show for a discussion on whether women sacrifice their relationships with their husbands for those with their children.
Chabon’s relationship with Waldman, who calls twice during the interview for his help with the computer, each time releasing his face into a canvas of comfort and joy, clearly inspired the feelings of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union protagonist for his love interest, who, like Waldman, has a tangle of red curls.
“To me, ultimately, the book is a love story between Meyer Landsman and his ex-wife,” he told a crowd of people at an Atlanta Barnes & Noble appearance the night of his birthday.
But the novel also gives life to genre fiction, a style ridiculed by literary critics that Chabon wants recognized as legitimate. Detective Meyer Landsman is styled after the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe, a creation of one of Chabon’s favorite writers, Raymond Chandler. “There’s nothing inherently inferior” about science fiction or mystery or romance novels, he added.
At the same time, Chabon is making a critical contribution to the canon of Jewish literature. Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, noted that Chabon is a leading talent among the pack of acclaimed young Jewish writers such as Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer and Dara Horn.
“They have that Jewish ta’am,” Hessel said, using the Hebrew word for taste. “They are redefining Jewish literary fiction today” in more creative and current terms.
Perhaps even more consistent than Chabon’s Jewish focus has been his use of gay characters. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the would-be messiah is gay, and Sammy Clay, half of the duo in Kavalier & Clay, is likewise gay. His first novel, the well-received The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Harper Perennial), his master’s thesis at the University of California, Irvine, is a coming-of-age story featuring a bisexual character.
Asked about his own sexuality, long a source of speculation more or less quashed by his marriage, Chabon only said he understands “what it feels like to fall in love with a man.”
Chabon followed the success of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh with Wonder Boys (Picador), in which a washed-up professor labors endlessly over a novel—a plot derived from Chabon’s own experience and brought to the screen in a movie featuring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. It was in Wonder Boys that Chabon first included a significant reference to Judaism, when a non-Jewish character observes a Passover Seder.
But these days, Chabon seems most deeply committed to the exploration of Jewish exile, however controversial his musings prove. In a pivotal monologue near the end of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Meyer Landsman proclaims his weariness with end-of-days ambitions, embracing life in exile:
“I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a harebrained idea. I don’t care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag.”
So what is the reader supposed to grasp from this love affair with a bulging tote bag, a hefty appendage of handy antidotes and tools and a symbol of the state of rootless readiness? There’s a lesson here about the redemptive power of love, and at least for Chabon, that’s enough to make one’s home on the road.
Rachel Pomerance is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist whose work appears in The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and the Atlanta Jewish Times.