The Netanyahus: An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, by Joshua Cohen, 240 pp, £12.99, Fitzcarraldo Editions, ISBN: 978-1913097608
In a recent interview with Jewish Renaissance, the American novelist Joshua Cohen argued that “most contemporary American Jewish writers are grappling with the question: what does Israel mean to me?” before adding, “I am not interested in what Israel means to me … I’m interested in what it means to people who have lost meaning in other parts of their lives.” Though practically all of Cohen’s writing deals with the experience of being Jewish (specifically, and most often, Jewish American), none of it addresses this idea surrounding a loss of meaning quite like his latest novel, The Netanyahus. This is significant because Cohen, who is forty, has amassed quite a body of work. By my count, he has published ten books, and if we look at the works of fiction alone ‑ six novels, two collections ‑ there are close to three thousand pages.
For those who have never encountered Cohen’s writing, he is perhaps most widely known for Book of Numbers (2015), the story of a writer named Joshua Cohen who is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a shadowy Silicon Valley tech mogul, also named Joshua Cohen. Before Book of Numbers ‑ which was published by Penguin Random House to much critical acclaim ‑ Cohen’s fiction had been published by significantly smaller, more obscure publishing houses. Since the (relative, literary) success of Book of Numbers, Cohen wrote another novel, Moving Kings (2017) and now his latest, The Netanyahus. It is also worth mentioning that between the two most recent novels, in a noteworthy instance of life imitating art, Cohen was drafted in, not quite as a ghostwriter but as an adviser, to give shape and form to the memoir of another figure renowned within the worlds of tech and global surveillance ‑ Edward Snowden, for his book Permanent Record (2019).
Cohen’s latest, the full title of which is The Netanyahus: An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, is quite different from his previous in that, despite its formal playfulness and its blending of fiction and non-fiction, it eschews (a lot but not all of the) autofiction and hysterical realism in favour of a more recognisably literary realism. The Netanyahus, as you may have guessed, is about Israel’s First Family ‑ but not about Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin. Rather, it concerns a man who was not so much written out of history as never quite written into it ‑ Benjamin’s real-life father, the family patriarch and unsung historian of the Jews, Ben-Zion Netanyahu. More specifically, it revolves around a fabricated moment in history in which Ben-Zion Netanyahu travelled to interview for a teaching position at (the fictional) Corbin College in not-quite Upstate New York in the winter of 1959/60. Corbin College, it is reasonable to assume, is a fictionalised and provincialised stand-in for Cornell University, at which the real-life Netanyahu actually taught in the 1970s, later becoming professor emeritus.
The novel is narrated by an elderly Ruben Blum, a professor of history at Corbin College, several decades after the events of the novel. Born in the Bronx to two Yiddish-speaking, Ukrainian Jews who worked cutting cloth in Manhattan’s garment district, Blum, after graduating from college and marrying his sweetheart, was sent off to Europe to fight for the Stars and Stripes following the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Blum ‑ like many working class, Jewish New Yorkers who found themselves still unwelcome within the gilded, WASPy halls of the Ivy League ‑ enrolled at New York’s City College, a relatively inexpensive public college, and there began a lifelong career in history.
Blum is the American success story. The child of working class immigrants who goes to school, gets a job, acculturates, and is able to enter into the comfortable ‑ if entirely staid ‑ world of the American middle classes. Even if his Old World parents were still a little suspicious of the New World, and the degree to which Jews were purportedly being accepted there, Ruben wasn’t. He had bought into the idea and ideals of America. Unlike the other historical homes in which Jews lived, here, in America, Blum felt, “No one was going to drag me and my family off to a camp or shove us together into an oven.” He grew up during a Golden Age when upward mobility was becoming possible for Jews and it was admirable to believe in “… a collective intelligence like the American people or the Jewish people, or of a singular superhuman intelligence like the president or God, the trigrammatron of FDR or the tetragrammatron of YHVH. [Yahweh]”
After a teaching position moves Blum and his family ‑ his wife, Edith, and his teenage daughter, Judy ‑ northwest of New York City to the fictional Corbindale, the Blums come face to face with church-going, flag-waving America. Goyim, in other words. Because of Ruben’s job at Corbin College, the fact that Edith works at the library, and that Judy is making friends and doing well at school, they are more or less welcomed into the community. Sure, there will be some pointed comments (a mechanic once asks Blum “When’s the last time you got your horns checked?”) but assimilation takes time ‑ and it’s worth it, isn’t it? Part of the allure of living in not quite-Upstate, not-quite New England is the hope of some quaint, Americana-drenched life where the Blums can bloom and fully assume that most elusive of all identities ‑ the American one.
All, however, is not well at home. Edith is bored, unfulfilled by her career in the library. Judy is angry, mostly at her nose (“too long, too big, too bumpy”). All of this is driven home by a visit from Edith’s parents ‑ descendants of German Jews, the kind of people who owned the cloth shops in which Ruben’s parents worked ‑ who come for the festival of Rosh Hashanah. As Ruben takes Edith’s mother, Sabina, on a tour of the house, Sabina takes every opportunity to berate Ruben, a son-in-law it seems she never wanted, for taking her daughter and granddaughter to the sticks. She worries that they are surrounded by “college-people who are unsophisticated and toothless and spend too much time with animals. I wonder, do they even know how to read?”
They also bring with them a gift ‑ a special nose cream for Judy procured in Chinatown ‑ which sets off a small and hilarious war within the home. Judy’s nose, like Chekhov’s gun, makes another, more memorable appearance, a few scenes later, when Ruben’s parents come to visit for Thanksgiving. Ruben’s father ‑ a comically dour Old World Jew, a survivor of pogroms, with his non-native speaker penchant for mixing verbs and objects in his sentences ‑ expounds on the benefits of attending cheder to Judy (to whom he refers as Judele). He also has some stern and ominous words for her on the idea of losing one’s ethnic identity in favour of submitting to the great American project of hyphenate multiculturalism.
Blum’s attempts at blending in are scuppered when he receives a request to meet with the chair of the history department, Dr Morse. They are hiring a new historian ‑ Dr Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a specialist on the Jews of medieval Iberia. They are wondering if Blum might be so kind as to act as a chaperone of sorts to Dr Netanyahu, who will be travelling up from Philadelphia, where he lives and teaches. When Blum points out that there are people more qualified than he (his specialty is the history of taxation and its influence on politics within the United States), Dr Morse rejects this and says what he had been trying to say through subtext: Dr Netanyahu is “one of your own”. Because of budget cuts, Dr Netanyahu will also teach a class on the Bible for the Religion Department, and as part of the hiring process, will give a Bible class followed by a lecture, open to the public, in his area of specialty.
At home, Blum tries to familiarise himself with Netanyahu’s work on the history of the Iberian Jews, the various inquisitions, conversions and expulsions. Netanyahu’s theory of the inquisitions ‑ which subsequently upended some basic assumptions within the field and would later become the basis of his book, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain ‑ rests on the revisionist assumption that, somewhere along the way, the Catholic institutions of the monarchy and the papacy decided that they no longer wanted Jews to convert and assimilate. That, in fact, “as long as the Catholics still required a people to hate, the Jews had to remain a people doomed to suffer”. Netanyahu stretches his theory, secularising and historicising the theological. Although it was believed that, historically, God decided the fate of the Jews, it had actually been goyim, not God, who made their reality. It had, after all, not been God but goyim who “passed laws about where the Jews could live (in ghettos), when they couldn’t go outside (after dark), what hats they had to wear (conical, pointy), and what occupations they could practice (money-lending), in addition to perpetrating on the Jews occasional autos-da-fe, blood-libel riots, and death-camps”.
To Blum, it seems as though Netanyahu is dressing up zealously moralistic beliefs ‑ beliefs which seemed to trace a through line from recent historical events (Germany) back to the Jews of antiquity (Egypt) ‑in order to have his theories taken seriously within academia. Even his lofty, self-appointed surname Ben-Zion (son of Zion) Netanyahu (God-given) confounds Blum. A letter of recommendation ‑ hardly glowing ‑ arrives at the college and tells us that Netanyahu was in fact born the much humbler Ben-Zion Mileikowsky in a Russian-empire ruled Poland in 1910. An outcast from Israeli academic life, he had been involved in Zionist movements in Mandatory Palestine. Most notably, he served as personal secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the real-life founder of Revisionist Zionism ‑ an ideology which put forward the idea of a militant, pro-settlement Israel, and which cemented a tradition of lobbying for American support. An ideology, it is worth pointing out ‑ particularly in the light of recent violence in the region ‑ which has played a significant role in shaping the politics and policies of today’s Likud, over which Netanyahu’s son, Benjamin, presides.
But Blum has little time to ponder any of this. In the midst of a heavy snowstorm, a car rolls up at his driveway and out jump not one but five Netanyahus ‑ Ben-Zion, his wife, Tzila, and their three young children, Jonathan (“Yoni”), Benjamin (“Bibi”) and Iddo (“Iddy”). There had been no mention of either wife or children, so Ruben and Edith fly into a panic, as the children (the Yahus, as Blum calls them) run rampant around the household, teasing and hitting one another, whilst Ben-Zion and Tzila bicker in Hebrew. Noticing a framed picture of Judy, Netanyahu, in a subtle nod to an earlier scene, insists on referring to her not as Judy, but by her Hebew name, “Yehudit”. The Netanyahus are cartoonishly exaggerated, but delightfully so.
With Edith keeping the wine flowing for Tzila, and the kids sedated with colour television, Blum and Netanyahu venture towards campus for the Bible class. Netanyahu is enraged that he has been asked to teach Bible classes. When Blum responds that it is probably because of his Hebrew, Netanyahu responds: “And even if it were just a linguistic issue, where I’m supposed to impart to the youth delinquents and future sheep breeders of New York State the language of Solomon, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Moses ‑ tell me, would you be qualified to teach a class on Shakespeare or Chaucer solely on the basis of your ability to read the traffic-signs?” Cohen’s Netanyahu alone warrants the price of admission.
In the auditorium, in front of an audience of nuns and undergrads, one can feel Cohen’s prose begin shifting gears. Netanyahu begins his class by picking apart his audience’s conception of the Bible and its relation to truth and history. The distinction here is an important one. For Netanyahu, Jewish existence is not marked by time and history, but by ritual and tradition. Before Israel and before America, the Jewish experience throughout history meant being a stranger in a strange land, with your history written by the enemy. With little to preserve but religious texts and customs, Jews turned instead to interpretation. A portion of Netanyahu’s speech is worth quoting at length here to capture some of the energy of the prose:
Interpretation was, in many ways, their only freedom. This interpretative capacity allowed them to remain outside history and dwell in myth, which instructed about morals and ethics and structured the calendar and community life. The Jewish preference for the instructive and aesthetic story over the accurately documented history was a direct outgrowth of the circumstances of the Diaspora, in which Jews were exiled and oppressed and denied the right of self-rule. In exile, where non-Jews made the history which Jews had to suffer, could the details matter? Why care about the facts, when you can’t create them? What would be the point of recording the name and coordinates of every city that kicked you out and the exact specific date of your every misery and slaughter? When it came to chronicling Jewish life, what difference could there be between Rome and Greece and Babylon? Weren’t they all just ultimately variations on Egyptian bondage, and all of their rulers essentially incarnations of the Pharaoh? Through this process of repeatedly relating the Bible to the present, history was negated; the more these stories were repeated ‑ every weekly recurrence of the Sabbath, every annual recurrence of a holiday ‑ the more the past was brought into the present, until the past and the present were essentially collapsed and each next year was rendered identical to the last, with all occurrences made contemporary.
Leaving aside Netanyahu’s political sophistry, Cohen’s artistry here is exceptional. The speech, one of two Netanyahu gives over the course of the evening, is one of the book’s greatest set pieces. It is these moments of tightrope ventriloquism, clauses exploding breathlessly into the next, spanning worlds Ancient, Old and New, opening out each sentence and pushing it almost until it can bear no more, these are the moments for which I enjoy reading Cohen ‑ and, I suspect, also the very reason some might not.
After the Bible class, an interview, a trip to the pub, and a boozy faculty dinner, Netanyahu (erroneously named as B.Z. Metayahu on the brochure ‑ wink wink) begins his much-anticipated lecture. Like another Jew born in the Russian empire whom Blum knows well, Netanyahu takes the opportunity to issue a caustic warning to Blum that, for all his comforts, somewhere along the way to becoming American he may have lost something important. If both Blum and Netanyahu have committed to their own respective projects ‑ Blum, America; Netanyahu, Israel ‑ Netanyahu wants to point out that his three sons will grow up in a world filled with far more meaning and consequence than Judy, fast becoming American, could ever imagine. There are many more surprises in The Netanyahus, with perhaps the most impressive being saved for the book’s epilogue, in which Cohen, after pulling off (what will be for me at least) one of the most memorable sleights of hand in fiction, walks us through how he did it.
Stylistically, and not to put too fine a point on it, Cohen’s writing veers ‑ in general ‑ towards the maximalist – that is a bombardment of information, ideas, historical and Judaic references, rendered in often entertaining, sometimes overwhelming, but very rarely boring run-on sentences which make liberal use of repetition-based literary techniques. His two largest books, books in which entire worlds are created, were tomes ‑ Book of Numbers ran to 580 pages and Witz (2010) to 800. But with The Netanyahus, and his previous work, Moving Kings, both embracing a more conventional realism and coming in around 250 pages, one can’t help but think that Cohen has found a way of doing more with less. Formally, and despite its comparative slimness, The Netanyahus is still a remarkably daring work of fiction ‑ it combines good-old fashioned first-person metafiction (“Let me tell you a story”) with the campus novel, the historical novel, the lecture, letters of recommendation, and even commentary on its genesis as a book. The Netanyahus is a comic masterpiece that is much greater than the sum of its manifold parts.
Rereading it, I was reminded of a remark of Martin Amis about the Canadian-American novelist Saul Bellow. He said that Bellow’s sentences simply weighed more than other writers’. Weight is a useful way of thinking about a sentence, particularly when one is dealing with a writer who demonstrates line by line, page after page, that they can make their sentences do many things at once. Despite its levity, The Netanyahus is a novel full of such sentences, sentences heavy with meaning that transcends the text. Even single words – “America”, “Israel”, “diaspora”, “tradition” ‑ when spoken by Cohen’s Netanyahu, have a spectral weight to them. The weight of history. The weight of a people. Netanyahu’s arrival is a reminder not only for Blum, but for all of us, that our pasts, much like our ghosts, only return if they’ve first been banished.
Tadhg Hoey’s writing has appeared in BOMB, the Dublin Review of Books, Headstuff, and The Irish Times. He lives in Dublin