The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ulti­mate­ly Even Neg­li­gi­ble Episode in the His­to­ry of a Very Famous Family

By – June 21, 2021

Joshua Cohen’s bril­liant new nov­el, The Netanyahus, begins as a cam­pus satire, an inter­gen­er­a­tional fam­i­ly comedy/​drama that descends into farce when house­guests from hell arrive. At the same time, it cap­tures the stark ten­sions with­in Jew­ish identity.

It’s 1960. Pro­fes­sor Ruben Blum, per­cep­tive if a bit pedan­tic, teach­es at a gen­teel, mediocre col­lege in New York State. Born in the Bronx, Blum grew up with one foot in the sec­u­lar world and its belief in progress, and the oth­er foot in the world of rab­bis who saw Jew­ish des­tiny as car­nage.” Today he’s still divid­ed, pulled in dif­fer­ent direc­tions by his fam­i­ly. With his father he argues against trib­al­ism, say­ing we’re sup­posed to over­come the herd urges and nepo­tis­tic trib­al ties in this coun­try.” But Blum and his wife balk when their daugh­ter wants to have plas­tic surgery to change her nose.

Such ques­tions are alien to oth­ers in the small world that Blum inhab­its, a col­lege found­ed by Puri­tans where he’s the only Jew. When the schol­ar Ben-Zion Netanyahu vis­its the school, Blum is inevitably the fac­ul­ty mem­ber appoint­ed to look after him. Ben-Zion Netanyahu was of course a real his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. This nov­el reimag­ines an event that actu­al­ly took place, and which was wit­nessed by the late, mag­is­te­r­i­al lit­er­ary crit­ic Harold Bloom. Joshua Cohen has refash­ioned Bloom’s rec­ol­lec­tions as a pro­found fable about iden­ti­ty and irrec­on­cil­able differences.

The cam­pus is a micro­cosm of assim­i­la­tion. The admin­is­tra­tion express­ly wants pro­fes­sors who will fit in,” and Blum game­ly tries his best. Netanyahu, on the oth­er hand, flat­ly believes assim­i­la­tion is a fraud: in Amer­i­ca, he says, there is noth­ing to assim­i­late to. Cohen’s fic­tive Netanyahu is an unfor­get­table cre­ation. He’s a human bull­doz­er who insists on always get­ting his way, and who makes sweep­ing, provoca­tive state­ments like, Mes­sian­ism, even false mes­sian­ism, is more Jew­ish a dis­ci­pline than his­to­ry, whose alle­giance to sub­lu­nary pow­ers such as regents and facts was tra­di­tion­al­ly regard­ed by the rab­bis as idolatry.”

This is part­ly a nov­el of ideas, yet its char­ac­ters are won­der­ful­ly alive — not only the Blum and Netanyahu fam­i­lies (includ­ing the young Binyamin Netanyahu, who makes brief appear­ances), but also the towns­peo­ple and col­lege staff. Cohen’s sly wit con­tin­u­al­ly enlivens the tale, with throw­away lines like Satan, the angel who fell when he failed to get tenure.” And the writ­ing is a sheer joy. It speaks of Netanyahu’s intro­duc­tions that read like con­clu­sions, and con­clu­sions that read like prayers.” It describes whipped cream sprayed from its rock­et-can­is­ter in lib­er­al white-petaled florets.”

The Netanyahus is fun­ny, exu­ber­ant, and intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing, with an absorb­ing sto­ry cul­mi­nat­ing in a riotous cli­max — a vir­tu­oso per­for­mance by a mas­ter. It’s not to be missed.

Discussion Questions

The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen pulls no punch­es. It is at once fun­ny and enter­tain­ing, while also act­ing as an impor­tant com­men­tary on key issues of Jew­ish life. Set on the cam­pus of a 1950s uni­ver­si­ty and told through the per­spec­tive of the one Jew­ish fac­ul­ty mem­ber, the book explores what might have hap­pened if Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a famous schol­ar of the Inqui­si­tion and the father of Ben­jamin Netanyahu, comes with his fam­i­ly for a job inter­view. Though the events of the nov­el pur­port to take place over a half-cen­tu­ry ago, the set­ting becomes a plat­form to explore many of today’s most impor­tant Jew­ish ques­tions: the place of Jews in Amer­i­ca, the prob­lem of anti­semitism, the rela­tion­ship between Israel and the Dias­po­ra, and the role of schol­ar­ship in forg­ing Jew­ish identity.

This is a book that plays with style. While some chap­ters are straight­for­ward nar­ra­tives, oth­ers are epis­to­lary. Still, oth­ers take the form pri­mar­i­ly of an aca­d­e­m­ic lec­ture. This allows the sto­ry to teach with­out being preachy and pedan­tic. It also lets the read­er bet­ter under­stand not just what the char­ac­ters do, but how they think and how their schol­ar­ship informs the day-to-day deci­sions they make through­out the novel.

Joshua Cohen has writ­ten a time­less mas­ter­piece. As long as Jews con­tin­ue to ask great ques­tions, this book will inspire them to delve into the answers. It makes the impor­tant, if not con­tro­ver­sial, claim that our world isn’t far off from fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Iberia or 1950s New Eng­land. His­to­ry repeats itself in this nov­el and the Netanyahus pro­vides a plat­form to help us nav­i­gate through it.