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.