By Joshua Cohen
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99
Reviewed by David Herman
In recent years, some of America’s best writers have turned to Israel as a subject. We’ve had Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am (2016), Forest Dark (2017) by Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Centre of the Earth (2017) and now, by far the best, The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen.
It’s a delightful mix — part campus novel, part history of Zionism — crackling with humour, intelligence and moments when the dark history of the Jews explodes into the story.
The central character is Ruben Blum, a “prosaic professor of American economic history” at Corbin University, a minor college in a nowhere town a world away from the Bronx, where he grew up, the son of Jewish immigrants from Kiev (where his father’s parents were killed in a pogrom in 1905).
Blum’s life is not going well. He’s unhappily married to Edith, a university librarian, and is resented by his teenage daughter, Judy.
Blum is the only Jew in a thoroughly gentile university where he is constantly humiliated. Living “on the wrong side of the Catskills”, at the end of the 1950s, the life of the Blums is full of slights and put-downs.
As the university’s nominal Jew, Blum is asked to look after someone who has just applied for a job, Benzion Netanyahu PhD, a passionate Zionist who has failed to get a job at the Hebrew University and is currently teaching at Dropsie College in Philadelphia. Before this Netanyahu arrives, Blum receives an 18-page letter from Professor Peretz Levavi at the Hebrew University which is part history lesson, part ad hominem attack, spilling the beans on the man destined to be known as Netanyahu Senior, exposing him as a Zionist fanatic and academic fraud.
We eventually meet Benzion and his hellish brood, the three sons — yes, including Benjamin — all rude, unpleasant and totally out of control. They wreak havoc. Their father is just as appalling. Cohen has done his research into the life and times of the real Benjamin Netanyahu’s father but it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction.
The novel focuses on the meek and mediocre Blum and the monstrously arrogant Netanyahu. But the best parts of the novel are the big set-piece events when the grandparents come for dinner, Edith’s parents for Rosh Hashanah and Ruben’s parents for Thanksgiving. Picture both sets of parents from The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and make them ten times more argumentative and difficult and you get the picture.
Cohen’s description of the 1905 pogrom in Kiev, the back-story about Benzion Netanyahu, the petty humiliations of Ruben Blum, the fight between his daughter Judy and her grandfather about the meaning of “fairness”, all this is as good as anything Cohen has written. Clever, funny, dark, deeply moving, full of references to everyone from Nabokov and the Marx Brothers to Jabotinsky and the late Harold Bloom, The Netanyahus is a joy to read.
David Herman is a senior JC reviewer