Reading Through The Awards: The Netanyahu’s: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen

August 18, 2022

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brings together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahu’s: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Corbin College, not quite upstate New York, winter 1959–1960: Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian—but not an historian of the Jews—is co-opted onto a hiring committee to review the application of an exiled Israeli scholar specializing in the Spanish Inquisition. When Benzion Netanyahu shows up for an interview, family unexpectedly in tow, Blum plays the reluctant host to guests who proceed to lay waste to his American complacencies.”

Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus is an example of the rare book that works on every level: the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters, and the book. It is a “comedy of conflict,” a book that sees humor in suffering and makes fun of pain, something that Jewish people tend to be good at, perhaps as a quirk of the culture, but perhaps as sheer morbid necessity. The book is set barely ten years after the establishment of Israel and less than twenty since the Nazi Holocaust. From pogroms to microaggressions, reminders of Jewish suffering permeate.

Our main character Dr. Blum is skeptical of the visiting Dr. Netanyahu’s primary thesis: that the Spanish Inquisition was at least partially, and maybe primarily, an anti-Jewish effort. Blum is also skeptical of the man himself. Where Blum is academic, Netanyahu is dogmatic. Where Blum is politic and diplomatic, Netanyahu is abrasive, even aggressive. Blum smooths over the small mispronunciations of names, and the misunderstandings between Jew and Gentile, where Netanyahu insists on correcting and arguing and even shaming. In one case he substitutes Yiddish for Hebrew. When the college’s “Bible expert” cannot tell the difference, but pretends to, Netanyahu ropes Blum into the insults that follow: “Is this man a fool in a college of liars or a liar in a college of fools?”

Cohen also draws sharp contrast between Blum’s ordinary, working-class parents and his refined, wealthy in-laws. The in-laws are endlessly critical, finding cheapness in beloved items and structural flaws in a beloved home. While the parents did no such poking and prodding, the night they visit is not pleasant, either—an argument about fairness climaxes with pie on the wall and a brandished knife, and ends with a dream (I think it’s fair to say nightmare) comprising a series of social discomforts. Then, in the morning, Blum’s daughter deliberately breaks her nose, and in the reconstruction process gets the non-Jewish nose she always wanted. At every turn of the page, the question remains: who is right? How should one live? Cultural pride or assimilation? Reparations or forgiveness? Criticism or understanding? Lion or lamb?

Taylor Seyfert

Pleasantly surprised by Joshua Cohen’s complex novel, The Netanyahus, I found myself chuckling and appreciating the brainy novel whose genre I seldom reach for. In this fictionalized account of Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s visit to interview for a professor position, the narrator and a history professor at Corbin College is a Jewish man named Ruben Blum. Blum is loosely based on American Literary critic, Harold Bloom, who recounted this tale to Cohen. Blum, who I found to be an abstruse and vexatious narrator at times, is tasked with assessing Netanyahu’s fit for a teaching position—a task he is given primarily because he is the first and only Jewish member of the faculty.

The novel is established by first delving into an introspective and ideational observation of several Jewish characters, all with different backgrounds. These observations are, of course, conducted by an apprehensive and meek Blum. We are introduced to his bitter wife, Edith, and seemingly intelligent but angry teenage daughter, Judith, who desperately wants a nose job. The family then hilariously endures two separate visits from Judith’s grandparents. First, Edith’s parents who are snobbish and then Blum’s who are pragmatic. These were by far, my favorite chapters of the book because not only did they contribute to one of the novel’s themes: Identity, but also because Cohen cleverly interweaved existential inequality, Jewish history, and fiction all in witty prose. Towards the end of the novel Cohen neatly wraps this theme up by having Edith tell Blum, “…I’m sick and tired of hearing about Jews. I’m talking about the two of us.” Blum also receives two conflicting letters regarding Netanyahu: one highly recommending him as a professor and the other cautioning Blum about Netanyahu’s flawed research in addition to alarming criminal-like behavior exhibited when he was an undergraduate. To further complicate his conflicting opinions about Netanyahu, the Israeli scholar arrives at the Blums’ house surprising them with his wife and three sons. The Netanyahus end up being chaotic, rude, and unpleasant guests for the reluctant Blums, who at the end of the novel end up with a trashed house and a scandalous incident.

I tend to enjoy books in which I admire or feel a connection to the narrator; however, I think Blum’s submissiveness is necessary to be what balances Netanyahu’s arrogance. This is what makes this exploratory novel so captivating, that, rather than answer the questions it raises about identity, it presents the readers with characters with differing yet strong senses of self. However, the one thing that stops me from regarding this book as one of my favorites is that although I can understand that one of the main themes here is History versus Myth, I am not educated enough in Jewish history to truly appreciate what is being analyzed here. The last few chapters of the book, especially when Netanyahu was being characterized and delivering lectures, were frustrating, and exhausting to read because of this. For example, Netanyahu tells Blum that if their roles were reversed, “…I’d do absolutely everything to find you a good apartment, and in a war, I’d die for you.” Netanyahu tells him this after his interview with the hiring committee and I would have appreciated it a lot more if I hadn’t just been overwhelmed with specific and intricate historical context seasoned with increasingly difficult vocabulary words. Regardless, I found The Netanyahus to be a quite refreshing read.

Brittenny De La Cruz

Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus is a short, but dense, novel that covers topics from Jewish immigration and persecution to the lifespan of a salamander. The novel is about historian Ruben Blum (definitely not a stand-in for Harold Bloom) who is forced to play host to Ben-Zion Netanyahu (and his uninvited family) while the latter is in town interviewing for a position at Cornell. Through SAT-style vocabulary and humor, Cohen tackles themes such as: What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be American? How is identity cultivated?

Most of the tension throughout the novel centers around identity. The Jewish Blums have assimilated to the American Christian culture they reside in. Ruben is the only Jewish man working in Cornell’s history department, and as the only Jewish family in their neighborhood, they do their best to be not-like-other-Jews. (After all, better for the Jewish man to dress up as Santa and pass out presents than let any of the Christian professors miss out on their faith’s fun.) His wife Edith is detached. Daughter Judy’s deepest desire is for a rhinoplasty to make her nose more like her peers. The desire to assimilate is at constant odds with the colleagues and neighbors around them that see them only as the resident Jews. In the later half of the novel, the tension is doubled when the titular Netanyahus arrive. Ben-Zion believes that the dream of American assimilation is a fraud. That where one comes from will always, at the end of the day, be what you are and it cannot be hidden or morphed, for people will always define themselves and others as something other than American. Each character—from Ruben, to his parents, to his daughter, to the Netanyahus—takes a stance and argues for their identity and what is important for them. Yet, who is anyone to tell someone else how they should define?

With the novel being as short as it is, it works to break up the long philosophical debates that Ruben has with himself and others. Cohen doesn’t try to dumb down the themes he explores. There are long pages that delve into history, philosophy, politics, and theology. At times these passages verge on overwhelming. What really makes the intricacies of the book’s themes accessible is that Cohen does not try to play the novel straight. It’s funny. There are petty arguments between parents and children, there are fart jokes, sex jokes, and the almost over-the-top terribleness of the Netanyahus offers a healthy dose of cringe comedy. Again, it is at times over-the-top humor that, had this been a longer novel, could easily get old. The characters at times became caricatures of “bad” in order to make their arguments. However, because The Netanyahus stands at just over 200-pages paperback these caricature moments are welcome if only to give us a moment to breathe before diving back in.

Rebecca Calloway

During my first read of The Netanyahus I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that I missed that this story was meant to be a comedy. I saw themes of identity, family, existentialism; I read about a man’s struggle to be enough for his family and his job; I read about the dichotomy of conservation and progression. Yet after I finished the book, I was stumped on what to say about such a complicated yet oddly relaxed ride of a novel. I went back to the book summary for a jump off point for my thoughts and remembered, “Oh right. This is supposed to be funny.” And well, The Netanyahus is funny, but not by way of comedy, but satire. That little word, comedy, informed my second reading, and by the end of that reading, I concluded that this book is not just funny, but it’s right.

I missed that it was a comedy because it reminded me of being a minority in academia. As a queer Black person, people’s perceptions of my identity speak before I can. Any identity besides cis, white, Christian male tends to be perceived as a novelty in academic spaces or as a betrayer or lost sheep to the parts of those identities that don’t trust academia, especially if you’re from an ethnic background tormented by white supremacist beliefs. And on top of this, you must push to be the most qualified in your field to prove your place to your white peers. Cohen explores both sides of this place as a minority in America in a close first-person perspective, where the Blum family wants to cling to their American sensibilities, but the Netanyahus have dug themselves deep into their history and plan to use their education to inform the whole world of that history. The satire comes in as Cohen crafts this episode through his verbose prose, describing the outrageousness of the Netanyahus’, inundating the reader with lectures about identity and loyalty from the maternal and paternal parents/grandparents, and laying out plain the blatant discrimination in the academic setting that Ruben faces.

If you’re of an ethnic background, you go through this novel cringing to the point of laughter because you get it. You’ve been here. You’ve experienced the existentialism of being a minority in a white-led world. You’ve experienced the lectures about losing yourself and who you are from people you know and people who may look like you and be in your same spaces but refuse to connect. You’ve lived a life of assimilation only to still be treated as less than. If you go into this book expecting comedy, don’t make light of the truth behind it. Comedy is a form of catharsis, after all, and to make it in a world still led by cis, Christian whiteness, you just have to laugh.

Julienne Parks

The examinations Joshua Cohen makes in The Netanyahus on the concept of diaspora and its pitfalls are laid thick and, unfortunately, all too accurately. Every small moment of ethnic turmoil and internal drama throughout the narrative can be universally felt, even though the real depth of the book is rooted in everything so richly Jewish – from history, to culture, to politics.

The Netanyahus is a book that captures a certain voice, and does so masterfully. That voice, however, was one that eventually wore me down. I very much liken reading the text to hearing an exceptionally worldly elder recounting a story from their life. With paragraphs spilling into three–sometimes four–pages, containing tangents within tangents of slightly-off topic information or historical context, I found myself lost in the act of telling the story rather than the story itself. While the line-by-line writing was sharp, its over-richness eventually dulled the edges for me.

There were moments where I was moved, and moments of genuinely smart humor, but thinking back I struggle to remember which characters delivered those powerful lines. And that is because I felt that while the voice of the author was strong, the voice of the characters was not.

Allene Keshishian

Curated by Brandon Williams


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