February 2, 2023

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Joshua Cohen: “Netanyahu” – a fun visit

Who doesn’t immediately think of Israel’s controversial prime minister, who is currently trying to change the political system in his homeland, when he hears the title of this novel? But Joshua Cohen, born in the US in 1980, didn’t write a political roman à la “The Netanyahus,” but a polished, intelligent, and captivatingly funny comedy. Benjamin Netanyahu does appear in it, but only as a less than trustworthy supporting actor in a brilliant slapstick scene.

life in the province

The action takes place in Corbindale, a small fictional college town in upstate New York, “near the shore of Lake Erie among apple orchards, beehives, and dairies.” Historian emeritus Robin Blum outlines his career and what it means to be Jewish in the United States. He came to relate an incident that occurred in 1960. Reuben was the only Jew in his college who “was brought up to respond to provocations in the manner of Jesus Christ, even though I was regularly accused of crucifying him.”

In 1960, in the pre-Woken era, Bloom, his wife, and daughter face constant indignities, despite respectable professional positions and tireless efforts to be discreet and good Americans. The auto mechanic makes lewd remarks, and the dean tells him to play Santa Claus, “because you have a real full beard, like your dad.” Rubin, aware of Jewish history and the violent excesses of anti-Semitism, accepts all of this as relatively harmless.

Confrontation with radical Zionism

But now another Jew is introducing himself at the university, also a historian, his name is Ben-Zion Netanyahu. Joshua Cohen allows two different Jewish personalities to meet, a fiasco inevitable. Netanyahu is attributed to Benjamin Netanyahu’s real-life father, an ultra-Zionist who rejects the existence of the diaspora, but who can’t get a job in Israel because of his revisionist positions – and now has to go to the local university.

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Contrary to academic practice, he brought his wife and three sons with him in a rented junk car. And Robin must accommodate the whole family. First the friendly bourgeois facade holds up, then chaos breaks out.

Slapstick and finest storytelling

In the finale, the youngest Netanyahu, a diaper-clad seven-year-old, rolls over the broken pieces of Blum’s new color TV, while the eldest, Johnny, seduces Blum’s daughter and then escapes naked into the snowy night with his voyeuristic brother. baby. Netanyahu’s wife accuses Blum of Puritanism, and Blum himself sees Netanyahu as “a bunch of crazy Turks.”

The book, for which Cohen won a Pulitzer Prize last year, is a college novel at its core. but also the story of a Jewish family and a novel in the tradition of the great American Jewish writers Bello, Malamud, and Ruth.

It is about Jewish life in the United States, about assimilation and humiliation, about identity and the writing of history. Cohen creates such serious, existential themes with humor, heartfelt comedic elements, and plenty of irony and playfulness in turning everyday scenes into the grotesque. Everyone gets fat. First-person narrator Robin is utterly humorless – and this makes his descriptions all the more comical.