In The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, his deceptively compact sixth novel, Joshua Cohen (The Book of Numbers) blends fiction and nonfiction in a piercingly funny campus comedy brimming with ideas about Jewish history and identity.
To readers, the name that serves as the title of Cohen’s novel is likely familiar. To his characters, in 1959, it is obscure; as his narrator Ruben Blum puts it, the name “was still a generation from its infamy.” Ruben is a Jewish historian–but “not an historian of the Jews”–at the fictional Corbin College in rural New York State. As the faculty’s first and only Jewish member, Ruben is given the job of reviewing the candidacy of a potential second: Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an Israeli academic with a reputation for zealotry and propagandizing. Accompanied by his incorrigibly rowdy family, Ben-Zion arrives at Ruben’s door and proceeds to upend every sphere of the professor’s intellectual, professional and domestic life.
The real-life Ben-Zion was a significant figure in the movement called Revisionist Zionism, an extreme vision for a Jewish state eventually realized through the political career of his son, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As Ruben grapples with Ben-Zion’s work, which takes a view of “Jewish history that approaches dangerously close to the mystical,” Cohen’s novel occasionally takes on the form of a lecture, carefully weighing competing historiographies. Buoyed by Cohen’s brilliant prose, these digressions never feel oppressive or overly didactic; rather, they are lively, engrossing and, if anything, regrettably brief. As entertaining as it is insightful, The Netanyahus is exhilarating satire.
—Theo Henderson, Ravenna Third Place Books, Seattle, WA
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