The Netanyahus

Cohen, Joshua

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
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."   


The Netanyahus is a novel about family dynamics, cultures in conflict, academia, assimilation, and antisemitism.  It is told from a predominantly Jewish viewpoint.  But does this in any way limit its wider application and relevance to the nature of human experience?  No, not at all.

In 1974, Thomas Nagel, emeritus professor of philosophy at NYU, wrote a famous essay entitled, “What is it like to be a bat?” In it, he argued that conscious experience has aspects that are subjective and that can only be known from one’s own subjective perspective. This makes it impossible to comprehend beings whose subjective experience is different than our own. He uses as his demonstration case bats, whose primary means of sensory perception are sound waves and echolocation. Nagel asserts that even if we could fully understand the physiology and mechanics of this strange process and could gather all the relevant facts about how bats use sonar to learn about their nocturnal environment and fly around without bumping into trees and things, we would still not know what is actually like to be a bat. We might be able to imagine what it would be like to hang upside down, fly through the night, or emit sound waves to find dinner. But we would not know what  the bat is experiencing as it goes about its life in that dark cave.

Nagel is talking about bats, not people, but I could not help thinking of this essay as I read Joshua Cohen’s creative book. The content and context of the novel are so Jewish.  It runs the gamut from Jewish families living in the melting pot of the United States during late 1950s to rambunctious Israelis academically transported to the sylvan fields of rural New York State. The themes center on Jewish continuity through history, antisemitism, and the struggle to maintain Jewish identity . It captures the unease of people who are uncomfortable openly displaying their Judaism in contrast to the aggressive pride of the modern Israeli Jew who flaunts his pioneering spirit. If Nagel is right, how could the subjective experience of the inimitable cast of characters in this book be accessible to non-Jews? How could The Netanyahus have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2022?

I think the answer is that while no one can look at the world from my vantage point and see it through my two eyes, and my subjective experience may not be accessible to anyone else, there are elements in how I process my experience and to what ends I am aiming that I share with other human beings regardless of where they come from or where they end up. The machinery may be different, but the ultimate purpose and goals are similar. People are infinitely more complex than bats in their subjective mechanisms and the goals to which they are directed. Yet as humans, we all share a need to define a stable identity, maintain that identity in multiple contexts and in the face of numerous threats, and ensure our personal and group integrity over time. I view these human challenges through my Jewish eyes, Joshua Cohen’s characters look out at the world though their mainly Jewish eyes, but what they are aiming for and how they deal with what they see is something that we all share in common, even if our subjective wiring and perception are unique and different from one another.

The acuity of Cohen’s perception is why his book is so timely and highly honored. He is not writing for bats; they do not read books. Human beings do and good readers will hear universal themes and ideas and problems echoing through the pages of this exciting novel. That is why The Netanyahus is being read and discussed and valued – it captures some of our shared subjectivity.


NY Review of Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count