Pulitzer-prize-winning author Michael Chabon told a crowd of about 80 people Wednesday night that he doesn’t want to be another nice Jewish boy.
Chabon addressed this and other questions of identity in his lecture on “Imaginary Homelands” as part of the David & Goldie Blanksteen Lecture in Jewish Ethics. But Chabon did not linger on the subject of Jewish ethics for too long. In a lecture sprinkled with Yiddish, he discussed Jewish identity in America, the worth of “genre fiction” and the ire surrounding an essay he wrote on a Yiddish phrase book.
The audience responded with alternating laughter and sighs, questioning him about both his characters’ futures and some of the more controversial aspects of his work.
“I write from the place I live: exile,” Chabon said to begin his lecture, introducing a theme that would at least indirectly come up throughout his talk.
He chronicled his personal experiences as an American Jew, describing to the audience his wanderings through America, Israel and “the theme park in my brain.”
Chabon then gradually turned the lecture away from existential crises towards a Yiddish anomaly. “Say It in Yiddish,” written by Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich in 1958, inspired his novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” and his quotations from the book also provided comic relief for his otherwise pensive, nostalgic lecture.
“Over 1600 up-to-date practical entries,” Chabon said in an ironic description of the book, eliciting laughter from the audience. He said his personal favorite entry is “I need something for a tournaquet.”
“Just think about that,” he said, causing more laughter from his listeners.
Unable to think of a place where this book might be needed when he first read it in 1991, Chabon said he tried to imagine Alaska — the eventual setting of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” — as that place.
“I imagined it at the time as the Jewish Sweden,” he joked.
He said that, in reaction to how out-of-touch “Say It in Yiddish” is with everyday usage, he wrote an essay for Civilization magazine in June 1997. Chabon said some “Yiddishists” posted angry messages to the Mendele listserv, an online forum for Yiddish literature and language.
The audience laughed with him as he jokingly analyzed the diction of their posts.
Chabon then turned to his attempts to transgress boundaries of the English language in his writing, defending genres like science fiction and mystery, which he compared to the “transvestite cousin at a family Thanksgiving,” one included in the conversation though “his fabulous hat [is] ignored.”
He said “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” became a reaffirmation of the significance of both genre fiction and his Judaism, as he set the book in a land where the Weinreichs’ phrase book would be of any use — the fictionalized Sitka, Alaska.
“If I could outrage a few people with one little essay, how many could I piss off with a whole novel?” he asked to conclude his lecture.
During the question-and-answer session afterwards, he fielded questions about the future of his characters and his books.
When asked about the citizens of Sitka, Alaska, Chabon said, “That world is coming to an end. It’s never going to be the same again. That’s kind of a downer.”
Audience members pressed him for news on his upcoming books and which ones will be turned into movies. Chabon revealed that the Coen Brothers are writing a screenplay for “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which was followed by excited whispers and gasps from the audience.
Others asked him how well he succeeded in his attempts to “piss people off” or asked him to defend his portrayals of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in his book. Chabon said that some Jewish reviewers read his book as criticizing Israel, since it imagines a world without Israel.
He said he rejects this sort of criticism, since he did not intend to express any political message in his book. He noted that these reviews once led an Iranian national news agency to mistakenly cite him as a “well-known anti-Zionist,” a fact that caused some audience members to giggle.
After the talk, audience members said they found it easy to relate to Chabon in his lecture.
“I identify with him as a writer because I’m from a similar religious background and am possibly going to be an English major,” David Schlussel ’11 said.
“He spoke really well,” Rebecca Phillips DRA ’09 said. “He addressed themes that I think about all the time as a Jewish artist. It was better than most Rosh Hashannah services.”
The talk was followed by a reception at the Slifka Center, which sponsored the event.