:: Article

The Netanyahus

By Ryan David Allen.


Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family is a fictionalized account of the infamous Netanyahu family’s visit to a college campus in the winter of 1959. Ruben Blum, a Professor of American Economic History at the fictitious, not-quite-Cornell, Corbin University in upstate New York, has been tasked with chaperoning the Israeli exile and Medieval historian Benzion Netanyahu; the Hiring Committee is to interview him and he is to give a public lecture. The story’s origins lie in an anecdote shared by the late Howard Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated, about a night he once had to coordinate the family’s visit to Cornell University. Equal parts campus novel and domestic comedy, it is Cohen’s finest novel yet.

Born to Kiev immigrants in the Central Bronx early 20th century, Blum has long since left his Jewish past — his “useless past”, he calls it — behind. His success as an American has depended on his assimilation, and, so, he’d escaped it for the “pagan academe and the hills and dales of my peaceful sub-Niagaran woodland.” The nearest synagogue is in Erie, Pennsylvania. He even self-mythologizes in an American vernacular, likening his accidental discovery of his academic specialties to that of Columbus. Yet for all his attempts to outrun his origins, they always seem to outpace and precede him. Anti-Semitic provocations come frequently and they always have, all of which he responded to “in the style of Jesus Christ, whom I was regularly accused of having crucified.”

Imagine Blum’s disappointment when his efforts to assimilate go all but unnoticed by Department Chair Dr. Morse, who summons Blum to his office to request that he, given his unique position at the university as sole Jew, chaperone the eccentric Jewish candidate. “Of all the limp-swung slings and rubber-gag arrows that Edith and I suffered at Corbin,” this request was “perhaps the only truly wounding one.”

“… Just about a decade prior to the autumn I’m recalling,” Blum says, “the State of Israel was founded. In that miniscule country halfway across the globe, displaced and refugee Jews were busy reinventing themselves into a single people … Simultaneously, a kindred mass-process was occurring here in America, where Jews were busy being deinvented, or uninvented, or assimilated, by democracy and market-forces, intermarriage and miscegenation. Regardless of where they were and the specific nature and direction of the process, however, it remains an incontrovertible fact that nearly all of the world’s Jews were involved at mid-century in becoming something else.”

Blum belongs to the latter Camp; “I’m glad I’m getting older without convictions,” he says at one point. Netanyahu, the exiled Israeli Medievalist whom he is to chaperone, belongs to the former. How could Blum, who didn’t even know what “Medieval Iberia” meant, be of any use to Netanyahu?

Dr. Benzion Netanyahu, however, is just as isolated from European Judaism as Blum himself. Netanyahu’s relocation to America in the early 1940s insulated him both from the horrors Holocaust and the founding of the Israeli state. He spent the forties with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s hardline New Zionist Organization, petitioning American Republicans for a no-partition Israel in Jordan and sermonizing vehemently for the necessity for a Jewish homeland to anyone who will listen. All the while, Jews were being slaughtered; soon after, an Israeli state, albeit a compromised one (in his view), was founded. Isolated from the struggle and the salvation, his cultural identity in America is all he has; to encounter him is to encounter an Israeli lobby — both senses of the term — from which there is no escape. “In a war,” he tells Blum, “I’d die for you.” What war? one can feel Blum asking. They differ in their commitments, but in their proximity to struggle, not so much.

After Blum is called upon to be Netanyahu’s guide, he seeks to familiarize himself with the eccentric scholarship, of Mr. Netanyahu. The singular focus of his work, he soon gleans, is an obsessive desire to prove that the true purpose of the Inquisition, off the record, “was to invalidate new conversions and turn as many Christians back into Jews as possible,” in an effort to racialize Judaism; not doctrinal but racist in the most contemporary of senses, thereby allowing for the further oppression, further seizing of assets, further taxation. He reads his “introductions that read like conclusions,” “conclusions that read like prayers,”; he feels scandalous so immersed in the attic-mind of Netanyahu. He traded the religious for the secular after his Bar-Mitzvah, but now, now, he feels to be one of those Jews forcibly reverted Judaism, “sneaking around in the attic-mind of an obscure Israeli academic.”

Cohen renders this desk-lit scene with such care that something as still and sedentary as a man reading by lamp light is fuel-injected. What Blum is reading are ideas with stakes, and what we are reading is a novel of ideas of the highest stakes. When the morning light comes through the curtains, it catches him by surprise. Morning caught me by surprise on my first read, too.

It was the antic and hell-bent 592-page Book of Numbers that introduced Cohen to a broader audience. “If you’re reading this from a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands,” goes Numbers’ first sentence. Polyphonic, learned, an excursion into the history of the Internet and universal remotes, it gave one the impression that Cohen could do anything. His debut Witz, his preceding 800-page novel about the last Jew on earth, meanwhile, showed an author who tried to do, well, everything (“It gets real Finnegan’s Wake-y toward the end,” he told the The Observer in 2010. Before that there are still puns.)

Moving Kings, Cohen’s third and previous novel, was a display of even further temperance. Despite its slimness and realist commitments, Cohen had no problem bedazzling the fabric of his deeply political novel with his signature flare for neologism, verbed nouns, and adjectived verbs. Entertaining as his descriptions and daring three-point turns of phrase were (parents argue in “the Yiddish of banged cabinets,”; “the second day — the day that God departed the sky from the waters below and so created the conditions for jetlag …”), it was at the story-level, the turning and subsequent turning of the pages, that Moving Kings did not fully succeed: former IDF soldiers working for a sketchy New York moving company in the business of eviction. It was a heavy-handed metaphor for the Israeli occupation, a heavy subject. Undoubtedly a novel by a great writer, Moving Kings had numerous moving parts. The book’s slight spine, however, all but buckled under such weight.

The Netanyahus exists equidistant to Moving Kings in relation to his earlier work. The story, however, plays to a more elegiac key suited to an elderly man all but neutered by the decades of domesticity and a markedly undistinguished life. It is hardly Howard Bloom: Ruben is a professor of taxation studies, not literature — although Blum’s field may be a comical nod to the roles of the Jewish as they related to the royalty throughout European history, and, maybe, Bloom’s own work related to literary influence (one poet’s indebtedness to a preceding poet).

Yet, still, there are men “glorioled in sweat”, people with “rosaceated skin”; there are the most minute and fatal incisions on domestic life: “The fire had the same problem as the family: a lack of oxygen.” A one-armed panhandler is “scrofulated” (from scrofula, not to be image-searched). While talking about cutbacks, Cohen has the ice cubes of a Departmental Chair’s drink clink, “as if in applause, while mine shivered against the glass in my shaking hand.” In one sentence, Cohen distills an entire gulf of dissonance that exists between the academic scrabblers and their superiors. Cohen has not lost his linguistic touch. There are times, however, when assuming the voice of Blum, we do see the ventriloquist’s mouth move, as when Blum takes note of a mother’s baby-talk to her child (her “heliumated tyke-voice”).

Netanyahu’s arrival to Corbin does not come until well beyond the book’s halfway point; there is much else on Cohen’s mind. What follows are letters from other academics produced in full: one a letter of recommendation; one bearing warning of Benzion’s dogmatic zeal. Both conjure the same dread. Blum offers an abbreviated history on Zionism and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists, who loathed “the arabs only slightly more than they loathed their dithering brother-Jews.”

The novel turns from the campus to the suburbs and further schisms among American Jews after the post-Holocaust heel-turn of the 20th century are explored, as typified by the contrasts in class and demeanor of Blum’s parents (they cut the garments and listened to the radio) and his wife Edith’s parents (garment industry bigwigs who played the cello). Despite their differences, both sets disapprove of Ruben and his family equally, assuring he gets enough heat from both sides to stay warm through the upstate winter. Judith, Ruben and Edith’s teenage daughter, meanwhile, hates her nose. “I cut cloth forty years,” Ruben’s father screams at her during an argument, “you don’t think I can do your nose, girl?” Judith later stages stages a gory and hilarious scenario that ensures she’ll damage her nose enough to warrant the surgery she’s always wanted. Netanyahu would weep.

The arguments amongst family members and madcap moments amid the domestic drama are brutally funny. For all his maximalist tendencies, Cohen has always had a knack for conversation amongst the quick-witted in close quarters: one ear for dialogue, the other for diatribe. As grotesque as some of the antics may be, these comedic nuggets are carbon-dated, sifted from the rubble of those novels that chronicled mid-century American Jewish life so well. They’d be too on the nose, no pun intended, if they didn’t work so well.

Eventually, Benzion Netanyahu arrives. His 1940s beaten-up Ford, one of those vehicles with human-like grille profile, the “sweet stupid human look … that almost made you forget that its maker was a Nazi.” Out from the car comes the entire Netanyahu family: Benzion, his wife Tzila, and their young sons Jonathan, Benjamin, and Iddo.

Not only are there more than expected — no one said anything about the entire family — but they’re also to stay at the Blums’ home. The reason: there is no room at the inn. (The joke is even funnier when you know that Cornell, which hides behind the figleaf of Corbindale, is home to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. The SHA, per their website, “embodies the meaning of hospitality.”)

The Yahus, as Blum comes to call them, are screaming the moment they spill from their busted vehicle. They march into the Blums’ home; the children roam “like they were casing it for a burglary”; they track their shoes over the carpet. Iddo’s diaper needs changing. The coarse Tzila, alludes to the family refusing to stop for bathroom breaks on long drives; this is accepted as Netanyahuan law. They lay him on a table without a towel to change him.

“We’re not idiots,” Benjamin says to Edith after she mistakenly assumes that the Brothers Netanyahu cannot speak English. It is the first words we hear from the prime minister-to-be. Moments later Benjamin is pointing at his brother’s diaper and saying “chocolate chip poop cookies.” It is as if Cohen is mocking the reader’s wish for some discernible trace of the man Benjamin is to become, like a scene where a young child with vacant eyes tears the heads off action figures in the corner. We want some evidence of original sin, or at least some origin; something biblical that isolates the germ of a country’s vile nature.

Cohen seeks no such germ. Instead, Benjamin and his brothers are a cadre of comically vacant hell-raisers. Matt Karp, in writing about the 1916 Project for Harper’s Magazine, also takes issue with the collective goal to “attain historical truth by uncovering its elemental beginnings.” “Against the idea of a glorious or a deterministic starting point,” he says, citing Foucault, we must embrace an approach that emphasizes “turbulence” over continuity. In failing to do so, we hold only one step in the discursive forward-march of history accountable for the present. Neither Netanyahu is to solely answer for the acts committed against Palestine and Netanyahu’s ousting has not stalled Israeli apartheid.

Cohen knows (one hopes, at least) that putting the burden of responsibility on one event or even Benzion Netanyahu himself would not work. Instead, the young boys, even Jonathan, the one who would go on to be an enshrined as an Israeli martyr for his role at Entebbe, are no more than rabid. They ransack their home, run through Corbindale’s streets nude, and violently have their way with young women. Tzila, meanwhile, puts on Edith’s jewelry without asking. What are the conviction-less liberal American Jews to do in the face of such entitlement and poor manners?

True to the spirit of a campus novels à la Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, the book builds to a lecture conducted by Netanyahu. Unlike Jim’s lecture that proudly parades into a drunken monologue, Benzion’s lectures and talks stay on course, and with enough rhetorical verve to justify what is more-less a reprisal of what Blum has already told us.

People often write — and read — campus novels for reasons not to do with the academic bits themselves. Even John Williams’ Stoner, a muted paean to a life devoted to higher learning, is more about the elements of living — the cruel wife, the vindictive colleagues — that get in the way of such a life. Such is the campus novel: so often they’re about students rather than hard study. For many, the campus setting merely provides ready constraints (terms begin, terms end) and power relations (professor-student, dean-adjunct). There can be a “pastoral” quality, to quote campus novelist David Lodge, where eccentrics find each other, discuss ideas, have sex, commit murder. Cohen has written, partly, a campus novel, but one that is as concerned with the character’s scholarship as much as it is interested in campus politics.

But Cohen has also written about about American Jews at the turn-of-the-century. The Blum-like assimilated liberals and the Yahus (who all spent more time in America than people care to recall) whose convictions only harden on foreign lands. “To this day, the transmogrification of ancient feuds remains the primary process by which immigrants nativize,” he writes, adding, “to renew a conflict is to acculturate.” In this way, Benzion and the Revisionist Zionists, for whom the Arab-led holocaust always loomed, were more American than Blum could ever hope to be.

Ryan David Allen is a writer based in Nova Scotia, Canada. His recent work was nominated for two National Magazine Awards.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 17th, 2021.