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Joshua Cohen’s satirical novel ‘The Netanyahus’ wins Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Committee hails ‘a mordant, linguistically deft historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience’; Miami Herald wins news award for Surfside coverage

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor-in-chief of JTA

American author Joshua Cohen is seen at the Coop Ambasciatori bookshop in Bologna, Italy, September 5, 2019. (Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images via JTA)
American author Joshua Cohen is seen at the Coop Ambasciatori bookshop in Bologna, Italy, September 5, 2019. (Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images via JTA)

JTA — The 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to “The Netanyahus,” a scathing, satirical novel by Brooklyn writer Joshua Cohen that imagines a visit by the family of the former Israeli prime minister to an American college town in the early 1960s.

The prize committee called the novel “a mordant, linguistically deft historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience, presenting ideas and disputes as volatile as its tightly-wound plot.”

Cohen, 41, based the novel on a real-life visit by Benzion Netanyahu, a historian and the father of Benjamin Netanyahu, to Cornell University, where the elder Netanyahu served as a professor of Judaic studies from 1971–1975.

Cohen said the story of the Netanyahus’ initial visit to the campus was related to him by the late literary critic Harold Bloom.

In the novel, the assimilated Jewish narrator hosts the family and bristles at Benzion’s fiercely nationalist worldview. “I wanted to write something about the identity politics and the campus politics that are around us,” Cohen told Hey Alma, JTA’s sister site. “There’s a lot in Benzion Netanyahu that’s really about the tribalism that happens when these large ethnic or racial collectives collapse — these empires collapse, and they collapse into tribalism.”

The novel, subtitled “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,” has been highly praised for its blend of wit and intellectual debate about Zionism and Jewish identity.

Related: ToI Joshua Cohen interview — ‘The Netanyahus’ analyzes the famous family through the story of one night

“It is an infuriating, frustrating, pretentious piece of work — and also absorbing, delightful, hilarious, breathtaking and the best and most relevant novel I’ve read in what feels like forever,” The New York Times’ Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote last June.

‘The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family,’ by Joshua Cohen. (Courtesy)

Most reviews were largely positive for the novel; The Guardian called it “a comic historical fantasia — a dizzying range of bookish learning and worldly knowhow is given rich, resourceful expression.” The novel won the Jewish Book Council’s fiction award for 2021.

But there were detractors. Jewish Currents criticized the novel for being derivative of both Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and the Jewish Review of Books said that the novel includes “a capsule history of Zionism that is so blatant a distortion that I just gave up.”

“The Netanyahus” is Cohen’s sixth novel.

One of the finalists for the fiction prize was “Monkey Boy,” by Francisco Goldman, based in part on Goldman’s own background as the son of a Jewish father and a Guatemalan Catholic mother.

In the news categories, The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize in public service journalism for its coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

The Miami Herald took the breaking news award for its work covering the deadly Surfside condo tower collapse.

“As a newsroom, we poured our hearts into the breaking news and the ongoing daily coverage, and subsequent investigative coverage, of the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse story,” The Miami Herald’s executive editor, Monica Richardson, wrote in a statement. “It was our story to tell because the people and the families in Surfside who were impacted by this unthinkable tragedy are a part of our community.”

A member of the Israeli search and rescue team, left, salutes in front of the rubble that once was Champlain Towers South during a prayer ceremony, July 7, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (Jose A Iglesias/Miami Herald via AP)

The Pulitzer Prizes also awarded a special citation to journalists of Ukraine, acknowledging their “courage, endurance and commitment” in covering the ongoing Russian invasion that began earlier this year. Last August, the Pulitzer board granted a special citation to Afghan journalists who risked their safety to help produce news stories and images from their own war-torn country.

The Pulitzer Prizes, administered by Columbia University and considered the most prestigious in American journalism, recognize work in 15 journalism categories and seven arts categories. This year’s awards, which were livestreamed, honored work produced in 2021. The winner of the public service award receives a gold medal, while winners of each of the other categories get $15,000.

AP contributed to this report.
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