Review – Cohen, “The Netanyahus”

Joshua Cohen, “The Netanyahus” (2021) (read aloud by the author) – Did you know that Benjamin Netanyahu lived in the US, mostly in Philadelphia and New York state, as a child with his family? I did but now have had it dramatized by Josh Cohen, one of the brighter young things out there in contemporary American letters, in this often-amusing novel. I don’t know if “bright young things” (he’s forty, I’m pretty sure, but hey, we live in a gerontocracy) want their books regarded as amusing, especially if they previously wrote what I’m told are great big difficult humdingers, but there it is. Supposedly, Cohen based this book on an anecdote told by the great old opinionmonger of American letters, Harold Bloom. Bloom loved getting in what passes for celeb gossip in wordy circles, and he liked to tell a story about hosting Benzion Netanyahu, his wife, and three preteen children, the middle of whom would grow up to be Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, for a disastrous job talk at a university.

Cohen’s narrator, historian of taxation Ruben Blum, doesn’t have Harold’s job or his mad self-mythologizing swagger. He’s a humbler sort, but doing pretty well for himself, holding a tenure track job at small upstate New York Corbin College, has a nice house, a wife, a high school aged daughter. But life isn’t necessarily so great for him. He speaks from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, but in the early 1960s, he has many of the insecurities of upwardly mobile, assimile American Jews (similar to those faced by writers Cohen admires, most notably Philip Roth): the general upper-middle-class malaise of the time, combined with uncertainty of how he really fit in to the culture. Blum is irked – but quiet, impotent – when his drunk WASP-y gladhandler department chair has him, the only Jew in the department, shepherd a Jew the department is considering hiring, one Benzion Netanyahu. Things only get worse when Benzion turns up on the Blum doorstep, during a snowstorm, with a wife, three pre-teen boys, and numerous ideas and eccentricities in tow. 

Cohen gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting ideas of what it is to be a Jew. Blum is the assimilationist midcentury Jew, a WWII veteran and supposedly successful assimilationist. His in-laws are upper-middle-class Manhattan German-descended Jews, and his parents reasonably well-off but less “classy” Bronx Ashkenazim, and we get minutely observed takes on both as they interact with Blum and his family. The Netanyahus represent an altogether different take on Jewishness. It’s not even so much the Jewishness of Zionism, in Cohen’s depiction – all the Jews in the book accept Zionism of some sort – as much as that of radical, revisionist Zionism… though, as someone who’s known a fair few Israelis, including little Israeli kids, in my day, the Netanyahu family in the book lived up to some cultural traits I’ve observed. They’re loud, blunt, bold. They’re a little more like the less-assimilated Blum grandparents, but with a different reaction to the fear and horrors Jews encountered in the twentieth century: straightforward aggression and truculence. The kids are funny, and there’s some slapstick as they tear-ass around the place, both more “childish” seeming and more knowing than American kids their age- that’s been my observation of Israeli kids, for what it’s worth. 

One question this brought up for me: stereotypes! Are they “good writing” if they’re used self-consciously, as they are here, by an in-group member? How about with “good intentions” by an out-group member? What makes in or out group members, anyway, for literary purposes? Where does exploring identity end and stereotype begin? Who’s to say? I wasn’t offended by any of it, but I wear my Jewishness pretty light. 

In any event, Benzion Netanyahu and his family pose challenges for the Blums, and not just logistical ones. Benzion’s work was notionally on the history of the Jews of Iberia, but really, it was about the Spanish Inquisition (unexpected, I know!). That Inquisition is weirder and creepier than most, because instead of persecuting heretics, it persecuted Christians. The Spanish Inquisition hunted Christians of Jewish descent, many of whom were in families that had been Christian for generations, from conversions made, mostly not at swordpoint, to Christianity after the Christians started conquering much of Spain and Portugal. If anything, the Inquisition undid what Christians supposedly wanted all this time: the conversion of the Jews. From this baffling situation of terror and violence, and from his immersion in the violent, tragic, fascist-leaning Revisionist Zionism of his master Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Benzion Netanyahu extracted the lesson that Jews and Christians would never live in peace together. Moreover, he came to think that the Jews were forced into history – away from a temporal order defined by scripture and myth – by the exterminationist violence of Gentiles. 

Needless to say, this is not a viewpoint which Corbin College was ready for, and one which rubs even an American Jew with as finely honed a sense of irony as our Ruben raw. Benzion irritates him, with his theories, his brusqeness, his occasional dishonesty (there’s a pretty funny bit where Benzion tries to get Ruben to lie to a rabbi about a borrowed car the Netanyahus fucked up), and his showing of Ruben’s ass. You don’t need to agree with Benzion’s Revisionism to think that maybe he has some points about the role of Jews in Western societies. Quite beyond shocking staid WASP academics and forcing Ruben into uncomfortable self-examination, the Netanyahus, Benzion’s brassy wife and half-wild children, introduce chaos into the Blum home. Ruben’s frustrated, overeducated/underemployed wife and deeply insecure daughter both wind up in the whirlwind, and publicly, in a way that scotches Benzion’s employment chances. 

All told, this was both psychologically involved – Ruben never accepts Benzion’s views or the impositions of his family, seeing them for the violent, uncouth, and disruptive forces that they are, though he can no more entirely reject Benzion’s critiques than he can boot his family into the snow they haven’t got the shoes for, until forced to – and narratively satisfying. It’s a tad “too cute” in places, in the way of literary writers who think they’re funny, but also gets some real laughs. David Duchovny is listed in the audiobook credits, for a sort of cameo he does as a rabbi who recommends Benzion (probably to get him off Philadelphia’s hands), but I’m not sure why they went with him for that? Anyway. All in all, decent. ****

Review – Cohen, “The Netanyahus”

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