Author Joshua Cohen didn’t expect to hear he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Netanyahus” while in Jerusalem.
Yet here he was, about to start a writer’s residency at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim as well as appearing at the annual Writers’ Festival, when word came that his novel about the former prime minister’s father had won the award.
“I certainly thought about turning around and going back to the airport,” Cohen told The Times of Israel. “It’s one irony piled atop another irony piled atop another irony.”
Ironies and fiction portrayed as fact are at the core of Cohen’s satirical novel, in which he spends a large chunk of text explaining who Benzion Netanyahu was: a scholar of Jewish history and activist in the Revisionist Zionism movement who lobbied in the United States to support the creation of the Jewish state.
“You have to explain who the guy is before they can read the book,” said Cohen. “No one knows about this father. They can’t even pronounce his name. And forget Jabotinsky” — Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Jewish leader who employed Benzion Netanyahu as his secretary and historian.
In the novel, protagonist Ruben Blum is an academic at the fictionalized Corbin College in Ithaca, New York, eagerly awaiting his turn at tenure. He gets a chance to curry some favor when he is asked to host an Israeli academic, Benzion Netanyahu, who is coming to interview at the school.
There’s an extremely satirical turn of events as Netanyahu shows up with his wife and three sons, Yoni, Benjamin and Iddo, and wreaks havoc in the Blum household.
The back story to Cohen’s novel is a kernel of a real-life tale that the author heard from literary scholar Harold Bloom, who hosted Netanyahu at Yale in the late 1950s.
Bloom befriended the much-younger Cohen toward the end of Bloom’s life, the two men recognizing one another as kindred spirits despite their difference in ages and backgrounds.
“People don’t understand what sort of amazing joke Harold Bloom’s life was,” Cohen said. “The guy is born Tzvi Hersh, speaks Yiddish, doesn’t learn English until he’s 6 or 7, his parents are functionally illiterate in English and he becomes the Sterling professor of Humanities at Yale and one of world’s experts on Shakespeare, Shelley, the Elizabethans and Romantic poetry and that’s hilarious and he knew it was hilarious and that’s one of things that made him able to do his job.”
Cohen, 41, is the product of Orthodox day schools in southern New Jersey. He still speaks Hebrew fairly fluently and has a deep familiarity with the Jewish world. He deeply mines that knowledge as a writer while now living as a secular Jew.
One of Cohen’s characters, Benjamin Netanyahu, also mastered a fresh identity and language when he attended high school in the Philadelphia suburbs and university at MIT. He utilized that early US exposure to launch his political career.
“He was able to convince the Jewish community that the survival of Israel depended on them, and it was a good pitch,” said Cohen, who remembers meeting Netanyahu as a grade school student in New Jersey. “Netanyahu sounds like Philadelphia. Like the sound of the rich kids coming down to the shore and y’know, moving in.”
Once Cohen had recognized the fictional possibilities in the Harold Bloom anecdote about the Netanyahus, he launched into his writing, while hiding himself among the characters.
“Fiction works for me as a place to hide things that can’t appear anywhere else,” he said. “The entire process of fiction is a process of hiding, hiding myself in the text, hiding others’ opinions in the text.”
Cohen said he has a tendency of believing anyone’s emotions, which may be a weakness as a human being but “it’s an enormous strength as a writer.”
“Like Benzion Netanyahu, who has ideas that are repugnant to me but also completely understandable through his biography. I feel like I’m very sympathetic to anyone who tells me their story and I feel like I want to allow myself to become them and inhabit them.”
Ultimately, said Cohen, the book is about his sense of oppression due to the constant political debate in the US.
“I wanted to be able to assert the ability of art to obliterate political divides,” said Cohen. “How I respond to things is I usually ironize them.”
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