Joshua Cohen: 'The Netanyahus'

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Author, Joshua Cohen. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.

Joshua Cohen speaks about his new book “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor And Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.” It’s funny and tragic both at the same time. Cohen wants to make you laugh and then fear that you shouldn’t be laughing. In this story Benzion Netanyahu, historian, crank, madman father of the Netanyahus, is right in all the wrong ways. He and his family land in a Western New York snowbound college town. They trash the home of protagonist Ruben Blum (a pseudo-Harold Bloom), insult him, insult his university, insult the general ideals of American academia, and trash his entire family. A humorous meeting between a zealot and liberalism, an Israeli and an American.

Excerpt from “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor And Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.” by Joshua Cohen

It was only after I left the Army, though—and returned to the woman I’d married and our baby girl I’d never met—that it became clear: I wasn’t what I was doomed to be; no one was going to murder me in this country. No one was going to drag me and my family off to a camp or shove us together into an oven. The only uniform my country would ever make me wear was decorated with medals and ribbons. The diminutive Catholic ladies at PS 114 had been right, my old civics teacher at Stuyvesant who’d lost his chin at Verdun had been right, and even my dour, disabused, Trotskyite professors at CUNY were proving right too, despite themselves—they were right and the rabbis were wrong: America was the most exceptional exception. I myself was waking proof of its dream, my accumulating higher degrees evidence of its higher beneficence, and if there were still some considerable flaws in its laws or policies or propaganda, then my vocation—the vocation of history—would issue the corrective.

That was how I felt, in that busy flourishing period between the war I tried to forget and the counterculture I didn’t anticipate. Ike, the Supreme Allied Commander, was president. The interstates were being paved. The urinals were being desegregated. Alaska and Hawaii had just been admitted to the union. We ordered new flags and globes and tossed out our old ones like so many soiled rags and punctured basketballs. We had fifty stars now, in staggered rows.

And though the Soviets sprawled all over Europe, a new country was founded whose borders could barely contain its labeling and the name Israel spilled out from its green shading across the blue and lucid Mediterranean. No matter the problem, whether it be overpopulation, or the nuclear threat, Asian containment, or the creep of consumerism into intellectual life leading to an atomizing relativism, our own ingenuity would save us. Technology would save us. Within a few years, we’d be colonizing the moon. A few years after that, we’d launch our own moon and colonize other planets and open diners there, chrome-and-neon drive-thrus, fly-thrus, because cars would fly. Robots would be our servants.

At the exact time I’m describing—between my meeting with Dr. Morse at the beginning of the fall term, September 1959, and the arrival of Dr. Netanyahu at the beginning of the spring term, January 1960—if you’d stopped me on the street and asked me how I was, if you’d asked me how the family was, I would’ve answered: wonderful; I would’ve boasted about Edith’s attempts at instituting classification reforms at the library; I would’ve bragged about Judy’s grades and standardized test scores, her prospects for college admission; I might have mentioned the delight I was taking in my tax research, and even in my students. Autumn in Corbindale was the most beautiful season. As the leaves blushed their russet colors, I’d steer my students from (September) Plymouth and English America, through (October) the Revolution and Constitution, into (November) Federalism, before finally marching them (December) straight to the gate of Fort Sumter. Am. History 101. After my classes, I’d scurry over the root-split sidewalks of Hamilton, right on Wolcott, left on Dexter, right on Gallatin, to Evergreen, and our handsome, gabled house, as the dark came earlier and cooler. I’d open the door into the smell of roasting chicken. Edith would be tossing a salad or shaking up a dressing. The table would be set. Judy would be upstairs practicing her flute or figure-drawing her profile with the help of a mirror. I’d change into a robe and pile up some sticks for a fire. After supper, we’d gather by the hearth to assemble a jigsaw puzzle, pausing only to tear up old editions of The Corbindale Gazette (“It’s Apple-Picking Season”), and thick back-issues of The New Yorker (“Khrushchev and Nixon Meet in a Kitchen”) to stoke the cozy flames.

Of course, no historian could be satisfied with this account—no sane non-historian, no sane person, should be either. It’s too wishful.

The truth was this: my wife was bored and my daughter was angry. We’d sit around the hearth, where sometimes there wasn’t any warmth, because I was actually terrible at making fires and some- times I’d use up entire boxes of matches just trying to spark the tinder. In the rare instance that I’d get the logs to catch, I’d inevitably forget to open the flue and the den would be choked with smoke. The fire had the same problem as the family: a lack of oxygen. I recall sitting by the side of cold ashes and a 500-piece puzzle of a $500 bill, trying to fit some together into the collar of that great protectionist William McKinley, aware but unable to communicate my awareness that the true puzzle to work on was us. Edith wanted a proper degree and a job that had her reading books, not just cataloging them; Judy wanted to get out of the house and be free of her nose, which she thought was too long, too big, too bumpy. Our house—like so many in our neighborhood, a Dutch Colonial, or, as it should perhaps more accurately be called, a Dutch Colonial Revival, because it dated from just after the Civil War when people were feeling nostalgic—was old and drafty and crumbling. I’d initially been in love with its clapboarded and shuttered austerity, but after a year of coming and going I’d become suspicious of its double-identity. Look at a Dutch Colonial from the front, it looks like a house. Look at a Dutch Colonial from the side, it looks like a barn. This bothered me. It made me uncertain as to whether we were humans or animals. And though there was so much to do to prepare the house for the winter—because last winter had left its lessons, especially on the shingling—I tended to procrastinate and withdraw after supper to my study upstairs. My study was at the end of the hall: a cherry-lined chamber, all my books shelved in my own order, which Edith couldn’t touch. I kept the door shut, but if I stayed still, if I stilled my breathing, I could hear her getting ready for bed. A bit later, I could hear Judy getting into bed. There would be a puddle of light under the draft of the door and then, with a click, it would dry up and vanish and, for a while at least, the only indication that I wasn’t alone in the house would be a certain stress, a certain tension, in the woodgrain, and the occasional creak of Edith rolling over, Judy’s whinny-snoring. It was during those hours that I’d put aside my taxes and turn to the Jews. That’s what I’d say—I’d get up from my desk and stretch and say, “Time for the Jews,” though sometimes I wouldn’t say it, I’d just think it, and, forsaking the research curriculum I’d set myself for the term (the commodity bubbles of the plantation economy), I’d head over to my cozy leather baseball-mitt recliner in the corner, switch on the floor lamp, and bury myself in Dr. Netanyahu, his journal articles, his journal reviews, his PhD thesis on the conversos, the Marranos, the Iberian Inquisition (Spanish and Portuguese).

The lamp had a banker’s green glass shade whose emerald glow meant jealousy, envy, even shame to me. I confess I felt ashamed 

about it, this secret study of mine, this sudden hidden lucubration, my unexpected resurgence of interest in subjects Jewish. These were the subjects I’d been forced to study at Young Israel, if not on pain of death then on pain of parental disapproval, and it felt strange, it felt illicit, to be delving into those very same tragedies now, and with more attention being paid than ever before, for the sake of my employer.

As I turned the pages (the English-language pages, whose frequent references to the Hebrew-language work of “Ben Zion,” “Ben zion,” and “B. Netanyahu” indicated that the bulk of his scholarship was out of my grasp); as I applied myself to his introductions that read like conclusions and tried to stay reading through to his conclusions that read like prayers, I found myself simultaneously attuned to every sound in the house, from the shift and settle of the foundations up through the vibrance of the refrigerator and the ticking of the clock, to the chestnuts that clattered on the roof and the squirreled-and-chipmunked gutters; so alert and yet so spooked by the adventitious rustle, it was as if I were afraid of being caught . . . but caught by whom? My wife and daughter? The informer moon? An Inquisition tribunal from the College Seminary escorted by an armed posse of desperadoes deputized by the offices of the Corbin- dale Sheriff ? And caught doing what? Caught doing my job? I kept telling myself that what I was doing was required of me; it was a committee responsibility, a Department prereq; I was just following orders! Let them bind me to a pole and set me ablaze with what should’ve burned in the hearth, my last words would be: In the Name of Dr. Morse!

But as I paged deeper, I was scandalized myself: It was difficult for me to feel that I wasn’t blaspheming, just by reading.

Excerpted from The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor And Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen. Published by New York Review Books. Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.