- Trachtman, Howard
- Date of entry: Jun-13-2023
Let’s get it out there at the start: this is one wild and crazy book. It is built on a fictionalized account of a meeting that actually took place between the literary critic Harold Bloom and Benzion Netanyahu, the father of the current Prime Minister of Israel. Around this seemingly nondescript event, Joshua Cohen has created an amalgam of at least five simultaneous narratives packed into 237 antic pages.
First, there is the story of the uneasy life of an assimilated Jewish academic, Ruben Blum, the much less illustrious stand-in for Harold Bloom. He is trying to find domestic tranquility and career advancement while teaching in the history department at a small liberal arts school, Corbin College, without completely submerging his Jewish identity.
Then there is the family saga. Ruben’s wife, Edith, is bored in the boondocks. His daughter Judy, who aspires to get admitted to a top tier university (anything but Corbin), is totally focused on getting plastic surgery on her unsatisfactory nose. Blum’s in-laws, who are affiliated but barely practicing Jews, visit the Blums for Rosh Hashana and express their disappointment that Ruben is raising his family so far from the New York City metropolis. Ruben’s parents, who are more observant, visit the Blums for Thanksgiving. The visit deteriorates into the usual family squabbling and miscommunication, and ends on a macabre, comic note. Judy agrees to a day outing with her grandfather but is not ready at the appointed time. Her grandfather knocks on her bedroom door and Judy yells that it is stuck; he then rams the door open with his shoulder and the swinging doorknob smashes right into Judy’s nose, a convenient rhinoplasty (imagine another author who would have the chutzpah to use a classic anti-Semitic trope in such a hilarious way).
Now add a tale of academic intrigue and infighting. Blum’s life becomes complicated when he is asked to chair the search committee that is charged with the decision whether Corbin College should hire Benzion Netanyahu, an unknown Jewish scholar. Blum has to navigate the difficult passage between an objective assessment and satisfying what he thinks the administration wants him to do. Cohen captures the power dynamic of faculty meetings and visiting lectures with all their bombast and jockeying for position.
Next, fold in a robust novel of ideas. Blum reads lengthy letters of recommendation written by Netanyahu’s peers in support of or in opposition to his application for a faculty position. Netanyahu’s lecture outlines his thesis on the origins of antisemitism and the critical turn towards a racial definition that arose in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, the story of antisemitism cannot be divorced from a dark reading of Jewish history. This is all based on academic work of the real Benzion Netanyahu.
Finally, there is the clashing cultures story as the Netanyahu family deals with the snow and cold winter weather in upstate New York and living in close quarters with Americans who they barely understand. The climax of the book involves an overheated adolescent encounter between Judy and Yonatan Netanyahu, the future Israeli hero who will be killed in the 1976 raid that rescued the hijacked hostages in Entebbe. Benjamin (Bibi), the Israeli Prime Minister, also runs across the pages of this fanciful novel but there is no intimation of what fate has in store for him 60 years in the future.
The Netanyahus is a raucous unpredictable book, one that that in all likelihood will not be comparable to anything you have read before."
NY Review of Books