"Corbin College, not-quite-upstate New York, winter 1959-1960: Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian-but not an historian of the Jews-is co-opted onto a hiring committee to review the application of an exiled Israeli scholar specializing in the Spanish Inquisition. When Benzion Netanyahu shows up for an interview, family unexpectedly in tow, Blum plays the reluctant host, to guests who proceed to lay waste to his American complacencies. Mixing fiction with non-fiction, the campus novel with the lecture, The Netanyahus is a wildly inventive, genre-bending comedy of blending, identity, and politics-"An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family" that finds Joshua Cohen at the height of his powers"--
This is my first book by Joshua Cohen. When I started looking into him I saw a number of comments indicating he is the new David Foster Wallace. I see what the commenters
Apparently Harold Bloom told Cohen the story of his meeting with Bibi Netanyahu's father, and from that story this book arose. After a lifetime in NYC our MC Ruben Blum (everyone calls him "Rube") has taken a job at an upstate New York college where he is the only Jew, (faculty, staff or student.) His parents and his in-laws behave like he has moved to a place where Western civilization can no longer be glimpsed. It is the 60's and the women's movement has not yet hit Ithaca (yeah, it is Cornell, though in the book it is "Corbin") so Rube's wife is pressed into the role of faculty wife-sidekick despite her intelligence and education . Rube's daughter misses the city but makes the effort to fit in with the cool kids in bucolic Corbin and in doing so she fully embraces all things goyish. Ruben is up for tenure so despite being aware of the many issues he is not rocking any boats. When the history department decides to vet a candidate for a newly opened tenure track spot somehow Benzion Netanyahu (Bibi's father) ends up on their radar. Because he is Jewish Ruben finds himself on the welcome committee for the Netanyahu clan and hijinks ensue.
The book is a deep dive into Zionism and both Jewish identity and Jewish-American identity (they are different things, really.) These are complicated issues that most of the Jewish people I know deal with. Earlier I quoted Larry David, and when reading this I kept thinking of a scene from Curb your Enthusiasm where Susie Essman and Larry David are yelling at each other "you're a jewface" "I'm a jewface? No you're a jewface." (Its a really great episode.) For many Jewish Americans there are elements of old school Jewishness that make us squirm. The yelling, the hondeling, the conspicuous displays of spending power, the presumption, the pushiness. That is not me, (well I am loud, that is true) and though (unlike Ruben) I have no desire to not be identified as Jewish I am really bothered when I see that sort of behavior from Jewish people because I know people are going to make the same assumptions about me. Side note: It really did feel like Ruben's goal was to fully assimilate. He was like Ralph Lauren (nee Lifshitz) - the Jew trying to be waspier than the wasps. Ruben's last line in the book truly encapsulates this, and it made me bark a laugh on the train so suddenly that the woman next to me skootched away from me. So yes, we reject this stuff, and we can make fun of it, but we also have to reckon with what makes us Jewish if we are so set on distancing ourselves from that real part of our culture. This is hard stuff! Anyway, Cohen goes there, and I laughed a lot on recognition and admiration, but also, I learned a lot. There is a bunch of information on the Spanish Inquisition that was enlightening to say the least. And did I mention it was funny? (The book was funny, not the Inquisition. The Inquisition was not funny, other than as interpreted by Mel Brooks.)
So why did I start by saying this is a 4.5 and not a 5? There are some problems. I mentioned the Jonathan Lethem connection in my head, and in part that is because both Lethem and Cohen are really really pretentious. I am not a person who is put off by preening displays of intellect. Believe me when I say my life would be miserable if I was one of those people because I am surrounded by that pretty much all the time. And if I am being honest I can occasionally be one of those people (though I am not half as smart or informed as Cohen or Lethem so I have less material to work with.) Still, I was a little put off by the pretension, the casual assumption that the reader was well versed enough in the differing approaches to and definitions of Zionism and the last 600 years of European history and the entrenched behaviors of Ivy faculty that no elucidation would be necessary. And perhaps paradoxically because Cohen is so broad in his references he can be downright pedantic when it comes to discussing things Jewish. I felt sometimes like he was in my head telling me why my opinions on Zionism and my "performance" of Jewishness were all wrong -- like he was picking away at all my factual and emotional truths and finding them ridiculous. I felt lectured to in parts, and that wasn't great. Overall though, this is genius. I am not sure it will resonate with non-Jews, but I am guessing if you enjoy Bellow and Roth, and especially if you like Jonathan Lethem it will work for you.
One of the funniest points of the book is an offhanded but funny note of a church called the "Church of the Assumption" - how often we assume! And how often we are wrong - or right!
Parts of this book were hard to read and required some history into actual Jewish history, but there were parts that were laugh-out-loud. Especially Ruben's personal family life and that of his parents and his wife's parents - representing both extremes of Jewishness. This just might be one that I would want to read again.