Joshua Cohen takes on ‘The Netanyahus’ in Pulitzer-winning work

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer is one of the big names at this year’s Writers Festival.

 AMERICAN AUTHOR Joshua Cohen discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘The Netanyahus’ at the festival. (photo credit: Marion Ettlinger)
AMERICAN AUTHOR Joshua Cohen discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘The Netanyahus’ at the festival.
(photo credit: Marion Ettlinger)

The old showbiz marketing adage, it seems, still holds true. Even in this day and age when the fake news phenomenon appears to have gone through the roof and back, the crux of the revenue-generating ethos is just get the requisite name out there regardless of the epithets attached to it, as long as the correct letters appear in the correct order.

Joshua Cohen knows how to spell Netanyahu, a name that runs through his latest tome like a thudding leitmotif. It also appears on the cover of the book, The Netanyahus, which is tantalizingly subtitled: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. This week it was announced that Cohen’s latest work has won him the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in the Fiction category.

That’s quite a teaser, and one which nicely sets up the 41-year-old American novelist and journalist’s tête-à-tête with Haaretz writer-editor Benny Ziffer on May 17 (8:30 p.m.), as part of this year’s Writers Festival and the International Book Forum, which runs at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, May 15-19. The slot is part of the Marie Residency Program, which offers writers extended sojourns in Venice and Jerusalem, to facilitate their writing and interface with the public.

It should be a fascinating encounter. Ziffer has never made a secret of his admiration of the country’s – former – longest-serving prime minister and wife. Meanwhile Cohen’s book, which won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and is also available in Hebrew, takes a less than complimentary look at Bibi’s late father, Benzion Netanyahu, a historian who specialized in medieval Iberian Jewry, specifically at the time of the Inquisition.

In fact, there are numerous layers to the book. Jewishness, antisemitism, the Holocaust, academia and morality are all, inter alia, in there. But, if one were to go for a single overarching theme in The Netanyahus – one might even say ostinato – it would probably be the matter of identity.

 THE WRITERS Festival draws large crowds from all over the country. (credit: ELIYAHU YANAI) THE WRITERS Festival draws large crowds from all over the country. (credit: ELIYAHU YANAI)

THE BOOK starts out with a comical notion of a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The narrator of the meandering tale is a certain Reuven Blum, a Jewish historian specializing in, of all weird and wonderful parochial academic fields, the history of taxation. The opening risible observation sets the tone for the storyline, which is liberally sprinkled with dark humor, whereby Blum notes that members of his profession become their line of work after they pass on – viz., historians become history.

That wry, dry take on life ebbs and flows through the following 230 pages, which run the gamut of farcical familial settings, to biting – even barbed – commentary. At the end of the day, one could boil it all down to an attempt to crystallize who we actually are. “I think my own story and the story of this book, I think diverge,” says Cohen when we settle into one of the comfortable side rooms of the lavishly appointed Mishkenot Sha’ananim spread. “You know, a writer is basically a human.”

That may sound more than a little simplistic, but there’s no arguing with the fact that whatever we do, by definition and whether we like it or not, is sparked by our personal backdrop. That goes for the product of creative minds too. “I don’t know that all of this book portrays crises that are my own,” Cohen posts, “but there are certainly crises that I’ve been around, crises of identity.”

The latter is a multi-stratified affair. At the time, Cohen had a notable living hook on which to hang his storyline. “I was thinking about Harold Bloom,” he says, referencing the eminent literary critic and Yale University professor who passed away in 2019. “He is the sort of model, anti-model, for the narrative of the book.”

While Bloom – Cohen pulls the wool just a mite over our eyes by calling the book’s protagonist Blum rather than Bloom – is a towering figure of the American literary world, and a powerful influence on Cohen’s oeuvre, he is not just in the mix in his professional capacity. “I was thinking about that generation, that generation that was very proud and happy to be American.”

That, of course, is very much down to the fact that the United States offered Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms, the Holocaust and all manner of distasteful life circumstances a home. “They were patriots,” Cohen continues. “They were people for whom America gave them a fair shake. They had an optimism about America’s place in the world.”

That largely applies to Cohen’s grandparents’ generation. His grandmother survived thanks to landing a berth in a Kindertransport shipment of Jewish kids from her hometown of Cologne, Germany. The writer recently experienced some sense of closure when he did a reading in the building where his grandmother spent her earliest years.

The Holocaust is there, in the seams of the narrative. While Cohen is third generation, he does not believe the echoes of the Holocaust resonate with him to the extent that they have a formative impression on who he is. Then again, in this book, as it purports to be fiction, the writer can and does  allow himself a free run on the characters he portrays and creates. In some cases the latter should, perhaps, be taken with a modicum of salt.

The plot of The Netanyahus incorporates a reference, of sorts, for Benzion Netanyahu from a German-born Israeli academic called Peretz Levavi, formerly Peter Lügner. “Lügner means liar, doesn’t it?” Cohen shoots at me with a smile. In his letter, Levavi, basically pleads with Blum to employ Netanyahu Sr. at his university, patently to get the latter out of the hair of Israeli academia and even of the Israeli political leadership.

It is important to note that Cohen sets the story in 1959, once again skirting around the “events” he retells and keeping them at arm’s length by opting for a passage of time which occurred long before the author was born. So, Cohen has no direct connection with the Holocaust, or with Benzion Netanyahu, who died 10 years ago at the age of 102. Cohen has not even had occasion to socialize with Bibi. “Why would he want to meet me?” Cohen laughs. That’s a good question, although, having spent a couple of hours in the writer’s company, I believe our former prime minister would get a lot out of a chat with the writer. Whether that would be reciprocal is a moot point.

COHEN IS an entertaining intellectual. He has delved into all kinds of fields in his evolving career. He spent several years living at various locations in Eastern Europe, following his journalistic trail at the time, and is fluent in both German and Hebrew. Intriguingly, he took up classical piano as a kid and even studied composition at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music.

By now, I had absorbed the fact that Cohen is not a by-the-book dude. He sails close to the wind, tends to challenge authority and perceived truths – while speaking his own – and still manages to come over as a decidedly amiable character. Typically, he did not complete his degree as he came to feel he wasn’t going to be exceptional at it.

He says he was predominantly drawn to the sonic art form as a means of taking a tilt at some bothersome societal windmills. “When I look back now, I see that music was absolutely a way to evade Jewish religious tuition,” he declares. “I had a religious upbringing. I went to yeshiva, but everything was fixed within an American context, an observant, Orthodox, modern American context.”

He had to make quite an effort to overstep the bounds of accepted good taste, largely because it was difficult to get a peek of what lay beyond those carefully drawn lines. “It’s not like it was frowned upon to have certain books in the house. The books just weren’t there. But, music was something that was allowed, probably because it was some kind of class signifier. Playing the piano was like [saying] we’re not idiots here. We have a piano.” The youngster grabbed at that lifeline to the big wide world outside his immediate Jewish confines and clung onto it until it had run its course for him.

While The Netanyahus and Cohen’s corporeally and conceptually weighty 2015 offering Book of Numbers – which Bloom dubbed “shatteringly powerful” – clearly feed off the writer’s ethnicity, there was a time when he kicked against his Jewishness and what he saw as the cloistered world of Jews. Music served as a means to that end, and fueled his teenage rebellion phase. “I took to it only because it was the one part of life that my parents didn’t know anything about or I could easily become more expert than they, very quickly. It was also the only thing that put me in touch with people who weren’t Jews.”

Cohen went for it but ultimately forsook that path when he realized he was going to have to put in a couple of extra shifts to take the requisite incremental step. “I was good at it, but then I learned what it meant to be great at it and I wasn’t able, willing – I’m not sure which one – I wasn’t going to be the person to sit and play scales 10 hours a day.”

SO, THE music world’s loss came to be the literary community’s gain with Cohen putting out half a dozen novels to date, including the well-received Witz, in 2010. In the process he has been hailed a major voice in the American literature domain.

Despite foregoing possibly a bright future in recording studios and classical music venues, the sonic and penned-typed elements continue to live side by side and interweave in Cohen’s life. And there’s no escaping his upbringing, right across his early continuum. Doesn’t, for example, composing involve writing? “There is the pure strict counterpoint,” he muses. “Just the idea of keeping individual lines going, whether it’s left hand or right hand, or some soprano, some bass or tenor, that can be followed linearly but also vertically. I always thought that was an interesting compositional principle. I was also always a person who really believed in the ear."

Therein lies an umbilical cord connection with the Orthodox Judaism practice he experienced as a youngster. “I think so much of nusach [prayer wordings], of trop [cantillation marks for Torah reading], means you do so much reading aloud so it becomes memorized. The idea of reading and reading aloud, to me that was fundamental. Because of my religious education, I still read like an idiot,” he chuckles. “When people see me on the subway, I’ll be moving my lips and reading aloud.”

Reading The Netanyahus, audibly or silently, is an experience, an entertaining, thought-provoking, enlightening and, yes, even a little bit of a shocking experience. Okay, so it is classified as fiction but, at the end of the day, who’s to say what is true and what is artificially crafted?

After all, isn’t history just that: his story – someone’s version of events conveyed to us in, hopefully, a user-friendly accessible format. “In a lot of ways, this book was written under the sign of Bloom’s theory of Anxiety of Influence, which, in a very compressed Wikipedia version, is the idea that one always becomes belatedly to history,” Cohen notes. “Everyone who is alive is the person who was born the latest. They are constantly looking back on more and more history behind them. It becomes more and more intimidating almost to the point of paralysis.”

That is a particularly rickety bridge to cross for anyone considering becoming yet another link in the literary chain. “What is the point of my creation in a world where so much creation exists already and goes neglected? I don’t think Bloom meant that for artists – he’s talking about creative writing at this point – who look at the past and are destroyed by it. Others, in order to survive, whether they do this consciously or unconsciously, misinterpret the past in order to say the past was incorrect, and only I can correct it.” Cohen invested that first-person singular with much gravitas.

Writer-historian hubris notwithstanding, The Netanyahus is a good read, and the Cohen-Ziffer rendezvous promises much. ❖

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