Glad we Jews don’t dwell in Alaska. I for one have too much chicken fat clogging my hardened arteries from generations of Litvaks who gorged on the Jewish ambrosia preventing the warm flow of blood from my heart down to my toes.
But what if, instead of singing Ha Tikva, we were chanting Ha Sitka? In his new alternate reality novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon charts Alaska as the homeland for the Jews (“Sitka”) instead of Israel and the Chosen have chosen Yiddish as their vernacular.
Rather than winning the 1948 Arab-Israel war, we lost and are given a section of the 49th state. In a revamping of history, after 60 years up there, we now have to give it back in what’s termed a Reversion.
While the real artic is melting, imagining Israel’s defeat sent chills down my spine in the southerly direction of my cold feet. Call me a Zionist, but I’m really just a desert loving, warm and sandy, beach bum with a built in thermostat for Mediterranean temps over the cold Kodiak. (I could never bear watching Northern Exposure even though I liked Rob Morrow’s quirky, comedic style.)
Basking in the late heat of spring, I was cracking the new book open when, around the same time I came across a news item on the JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency) which equally got my heart beating, eliciting a reverb on my dangling Mogen David. The headline read, “Jews question flying Israeli flag” which details how a number of Jewish organizations, student groups and synagogues are questioning how appropriate it is to display the kahol and lavan.
According to Benj Kamm, a former Hillel Student President at Brown who got quoted in the wire story, “Most people, but not all agreed that the flag was an Israeli nationalist symbol, although people disagreed about to what extent we as a Jewish community were obligated to support Israel, and in what ways.”
Ostensibly, there’s a debate over whether it’s too potent and nationalistic a symbol in its appearance. Does it convey the same emblematic message it once did or are the six points a flashpoint and lightning rod for a hotly divisive issue even among Jews?
Having been a part of similar discussions, I was aware of the banter when it comes to banners. I’m one who favors the presence of the Israeli flag on the bimah. I grew up with it. Literally, looked up to it and cannot imagine what, in a Chabonian world, the Alaskan flag with its eight gold stars and North Star would be like to gaze on.
It’s that “what if” scenario and that altered state which his novel shakes up and dislodges, creating an avalanche of emotions that makes for a heated debate. By crossing the border of reality, I was made to think of what it would be like if there were no Israeli flag to discuss. What if there weren’t one to get wrapped up in and wrangle over? Maybe then, its absence would make our hearts look yonder?
The repeated refrain in the book reads, “These are strange times to be a Jew”; a universal statement transcending time that could be uttered now or at any point in our history. But as a Jew today and with a sense of Eretz Yisrael, such a tectonic shift forced me to reach out and grab hold of something to ground me. Absence of a flag and pole to base me, I’m off kilter. It’s world shattering to my sense of earthly balance.
Yiddish was the language of the Diaspora, a non-territorial lingo with a romantic lilt woven into it. Having practically vanished, it’s finding a revival stitching together diverse textures of Jewish culture throughout the globe. It’s something that, in its absence, paradoxically makes us long for it more.
For those who wish to remove the Israeli flag, perhaps truly imagining no flag is a terrain worth envisioning.