Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Selections from Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel, "The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family"

I read "The Netanyahus" last year and immediately was taken by Joshua Cohen's spot on take on the growing mid-century fissure between American Jews and Israelis. Aside from that, it is hilarious.  And now it has won the Pulitzer, putting Cohen up on the level of Roth, Bellow, Chabon and Malamud - and making this book, which was rejected by over 20 publishers, a must-read for American Jews.  I've highlighted some of my favorite passages.  Click here for the NYT review. Click here for the Ha'aretz podcast interview.

A decade: the lifespan of a salamander; the time it took for the Flavian‘s to put up the Colosseum in for Odysseus to make it back to Ithaca;… Just about a decade prior to the autumn I’m recalling, the state of Israel was founded. In that minuscule country halfway across the globe, displaced and refugee Jews were busy reinventing themselves into a single people, united by the hatred and subjugation of contrary regimes, in a mass process of solidarity aroused by gross antagonism. Simultaneously, a kindred mass process was occurring here in America, where Jews were busy being de-invented , or uninvented, or assimilated, by democracy and market forces, intermarriage and miscegenation. Regardless of where they were and the specific nature and direction of the process, however, it remains an incontrovertible fact that nearly all the worlds Jews were involved in mid century and becoming something else; and at this point of transformation, the old internal differences between them – a former citizenship and class, to say nothing of language in degree of religious observance - became for a brief moment more palpable than ever, giving one last death rattle gasp. (P.51)

Dr. Netanyahu was a believer, and if there was any distinction at all between what he believed and what the rabbis did, it was that Dr. Netanyahu preferred to attribute the power of change not to a deity acting in accordance with an inscrutable design to the worlds best stock of Gentiles who acted out of hatred, constantly judging the Jews and pressing them, and affecting change through their oppression: converting them, and converting them, massacring and expelling. This is how Dr. Netanyahu was able to pass off a theology as history, by the vesting the divine of its responsibility for change and assigning it instead to mortals… (P.41)


The history of Zionism is so difficult to recount, and all attempts evanescence into metaphysics. Socialists, communist, anarchist, Zionists – think of how many identities Jews had to assume over the course of the modern era only in order to be what they were, to be Jews again… But this time to be Jews freely… (P.81)


As the Netanyahu kids are mesmerized watching their host’s brand new TV in 1960, Benjamin, sitting Leaugust said without tearing his snake-eyed gaze from the screen, that he wanted to watch Bonanza.

 Consider these stories: a band of across the border desperadoes threaten a ranch and a lone gunslinger is warily hired to dispatch them, paid a bounty with the last of a sweetheart prostitute’s dusty nuggets… A tribe of savage Apache attack a wagon train of honest Christian missionaries who must compromise with violence… I’m not saying these stories had an outside influence on the future direction of the Netanyahu boys, so much as I’m saying they had an outside influence on everyone, at the time. (P156)

Benzion Netanyahu gives a lecture toward the end of the book, detailing his take on Jewish history.

“When it came to chronicling Jewish life, what difference could there be between Rome and Greece and Babylon? Were they all just ultimately variations on Egyptian bondage, and all of their rulers essentially incarnations of the Pharaoh? Through this process of repeatedly relating the Bible to the present, history was negated; the more the stories were repeated – every weekly recurrence of the Sabbath, every annual recurrence of a holiday – the more the past was brought into the present until the present and past were essentially collapsed and each next year was rendered identical to the last, with all occurrences made contemporary.  This collapsing of time in part of a certain messianic quality both to the daily lives of individual Jews and to the collective spiritual life of the Jewish people. In other words, through interpretation these preservers of God‘s word were preserved themselves. Take, for instance, Zion, a historical kingdom that in its destruction was transmuted into myths, becoming in the Diaspora a story and poetic trope that reign supreme in the Jewish imagination for millennia.  The world is full of real events, real things, which have been lost in their destruction and are only remembered as having existed in written history. Because it was remembered not as written history but as interpretable story was able to exist again in actuality, with the founding of the modern state of Israel. With the establishment of Israel, the poetic was returned to the practical. This is the first example ever in human civilization in which this happened – in which a story became real; it became a real country with a real army, real essential services, real treaties and real trade pacts, real supply chains  and real sewage. Now that Israel exists, however, the days of the Bible tales are finished and the true history of my people can finally begin and if any Jewish question remains to be answered it’s whether my people have the ability or appetite to tell the difference.” (P171)


You, Ruben Blum, are out of history; you’re over and finished; and only a generation or to the memory of who your people were will be dead, and America won’t give your unrecognizable descendants anything real with which to replace the sense of peoplehood it took from them; cut…. Your life here is rich in possessions but poor in spirit, petty and forgivable, with your Frigidaires and color TVs, in front of which you can munch your instant supper, laugh at the joke, and choke, realizing that you have traded your birth right away for a bowl of plastic lentils… (P212)

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