That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

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This review appears in our Fall 2021 issue. Subscribe now to receive a copy in your mailbox.

Discussed in this essay: The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, by Joshua Cohen. New York Review Books, 2021. 248 pages.

IN 2018, the week after Philip Roth’s death, the novelist Joshua Cohen received an email summoning him to the home of the esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom. In a retelling of their meeting published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Cohen is not subtle about how he understands its significance, comparing it to the encounter between Nathan Zuckerman and E.I. Lonoff, often read as stand-ins for Roth and the writer Bernard Malamud in Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, and to a Hasidic tale in which a disciple comes to visit the Maggid of Mezritch, a great mystic. Cohen quotes Martin Buber’s rendition of the story: In the house of the sage, anyone “whose soul was still churned up wanting” would be “at peace when he looked into the face of the maggid.” “This,” Cohen writes, “was what I experienced the moment I looked into Bloom’s face.”

Bloom, who died little more than a year after this meeting, was particularly well-suited to anoint Roth’s successor. He was best known as a staunch advocate for the Western canon and as a champion of writers he deemed suitable for inclusion. “Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth, and quite possibly your Book of Numbers are the four best books by Jewish writers in America,” he told Cohen, situating the latter’s 2015 novel among the major works by Jewish American men. He soon codified this declaration: Among the nearly 50 novels considered in his posthumous collection The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread—his last act of canonization—Book of Numbers is one of two books by living authors, and the only one by a Jew.

In his latest novel, The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, Cohen has returned the favor by transforming Bloom himself into a literary figure straight out of the Jewish canon. As Cohen explains in an afterword, the novel’s plot is derived from a story passed down by the scholar—“one of the last he ever told me”—about “the time he was asked to coordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who showed up for a job interview and lecture with his wife and three children in tow and proceeded to make a mess.” One of those children, of course, would go on to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The Netanyahus, which opens in the fall of 1959, blends fact and fabulation: While Cohen remains faithful to the biographical details of the titular family, Bloom becomes Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian of American tax policy at Corbin College, a fictional version of Cornell. The novel centers on the collision of two Jewish archetypes—the boastful, burly Israeli and the meek, assimilating American, metonymized in two pontificating historians and their families. 

In this face-off, Cohen gives the diaspora home court advantage not only by setting the novel in the US, but by arranging its form as an homage to, and loving parody of, the paradigmatic Jewish American novel, as developed in the 20th century by writers like Malamud, Henry and Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Cynthia Ozick. The books that comprise this canon catch Jewish assimilation into American whiteness in medias res, wrestling with the Jew’s strangeness in a strange land and plumbing intergenerational family conflict, the alienation of life among gentiles, and an ever-attenuating relationship to tradition. These novels, which often explored a neurotic inner landscape refracted through the fraught chauvinism of Jewish masculinity, have been celebrated for metabolizing anxiety into a grandiosely self-deprecating comic mode. The Netanyahus anchors itself in this well-trod terrain.   

Repurposing the familiar tropes of this canon is essential to Cohen’s literary project. In a letter to Bloom, quoted in Bloom’s piece on Book of Numbers in his posthumous book of essays, Cohen explains his work’s relationship to the longstanding Judaic motif of brokenness, which originates with the biblical shattering of the Tablets of the Law. “A broken tradition,” Cohen writes, “can never be made whole again in and of itself, but rather its pieces can only be combined with the pieces of another broken tradition, into a new and never-before-imagined whole, bound together by someone suspicious of and even ashamed by the very activity but unable—historically unable—to do anything else.” He explains how he attempted this mending of the tradition of Jewish American fiction through the tripartite structure of his last novel, Moving Kings, which tells the story of an American Jewish moving company magnate who employs an Israeli cousin for the classically Zionist task of carrying out evictions, thus staging a different kind of confrontation between the Israeli and the diaspora Jew than the one pursued in The Netanyahus. “The first section,” he writes,

is my homage to Roth/Malamud/Bellow . . . The second section is my homage to the Israeli novel—written with the impulse to create a new language in a new land, but constantly recalled to the Tanach, and alternately reveling in and wary of that tension. The third section is my attempt to unite the two, but perversely to do it partially in the voice of a black Muslim who mistrusts both.

Moving Kings thus tests Cohen’s wager that he can rejuvenate the Jewish American novel by striking its broken pieces against the fragments of other traditions, in the hopes a spark will catch. But that novel falls apart entirely in its crucial final section, which is meant to bring the others to a synthesis. The compelling if mechanically over-staged exploration of contemporary Jewish life that plays out in the first sections collapses in the novel’s last act into a baffling cartoon, punctuated by melodramatic violence and marred by Cohen’s utterly unconvincing portrait of an antisemitic Black Muslim evictee. (“He himself would frequently slag on the Hymies—the Jewdog usurers, the Zionist pawnbrokers, the overcharging underpaying predatory loaning don’t patch no leaky ceiling kikes.”)

“A broken tradition can never be made whole again in and of itself.”

In The Netanyahus, Cohen aims for a more vital synthesis by staging a more direct aesthetic, ideological, and spiritual confrontation between American and Israeli Jewishness. The homage to the Jewish American canon dictates the novel’s entire form, turning The Netanyahus into a midcentury pastiche—a Jewish campus novel animated by Rothian hijinks and brief bursts of Bellowish lyricism. The Israelis intrude upon this world with a crash, challenging not only the family of assimilated American characters, but the very project of Jewish fiction. Ben-Zion Netanyahu has little time for storytelling now that the Jew has, as of 1948, entered into history. As he explains to a class of seminarians, to whom he’s meant to be delivering a trial lecture on the Bible:

Zion, 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 . . . Now that Israel exists, however, the days of the Bible tales are finished and the true history of my people can finally begin.

If Jewish narrative, up to and including the Bible itself, has served its function, what then to make of the Jewish novel? By staging the conflict between American and Israeli Jewishness on these terms, Cohen implicitly sets himself the task of demonstrating the form’s enduring value. Diasporic fiction, he suggests, can contest the Zionist monopoly on the meaning of Jewishness. The project is admirable for its attempt to reckon earnestly with both the legacy of American Jewish literature and the material meaning of Jewishness today, but it’s also too beholden to fixed archetypes to respond imaginatively to the experience of contemporary Jewish life. Rather than bringing forth a new brightness from a broken tradition, his attempt to render the 20th-century Jewish American novel newly relevant through an ironic repurposing of exhausted tropes only carries us back into that lineage’s most familiar features. The result is a novel that understands itself as live and potent, but is really anemic, even undead. 

COHEN CERTAINLY UNDERSTANDS the risks of employing—or attempting to revivify—tired tropes. Early in The Netanyahus, Ruben Blum, speaking from our present, bemoans the fact that his “Jewish anxieties are surely hackneyed by now,” blaming “their present banality” on “the lack of creativity on the part of those who’ve channeled them over the past half-century.” Indeed, The Netanyahus promptly distinguishes itself from these hackneyed rehashings of familiar forms by virtue of its self-awareness. Blum is nearly metafictional in his understanding of himself as a literary caricature. He describes himself as “the bloated, hypertensive, and above all apprehensive and even dread-fueled embodiment of the under-coordinated, over-intellectualizing, self-deprecating male Jewish stereotype that Woody Allen, for instance, and so many Jewish-American literary writers found outlandish financial and sexual success lampooning (Roth in the generation younger than mine, Bellow and Malamud in the generation older.)” Through Blum’s recursively neurotic meditations on representations of male Jewish neurosis, Cohen attempts to intensify a trope to the point that it transcends its banality. 

Blum’s family, however, is not blessed with the same self-consciousness. His wife, Edith, and teenage daughter, Judy, are like automata programmed to go through the motions of domestic life in a Jewish novel. Predictably, Ruben and Edith are locked in a tiresome argument with Judy over her pining for a nose job. When the topic takes over family holidays—on Rosh Hashanah, the Blums host Edith’s refined German Jewish parents; on Thanksgiving, they entertain Ruben’s Eastern European clan—the resulting scenes play out as by-the-numbers explorations of intergenerational tensions around assimilation. Edith’s mother brings along a cream to shrink Judy’s schnoz; Ruben’s mother insists Judy has “the nose of my Aunt Zelda” and that “the man who loves you will marry you because of it, not in spite of it.” When the nose plot reaches its climax—with Judy tricking her paternal grandfather into slamming a door on her face, shattering her beak in a, well, on-the-nose image of the violence of assimilation—the antics feel like half-baked or half-remembered Roth.

Even as Cohen develops his diasporic pastiche, he lays the groundwork for its collision with history. While his predecessors’ explorations of these tensions most often send American Jews to the Holy Land—as in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, The Counterlife, and Operation ShylockThe Netanyahus reverses the motion of aliyah. Blum is asked to serve on a hiring committee for a certain Ben-Zion Netanyahu: in the novel as in life, a heretical historian of medieval Jewry during the Inquisition, as well as the erstwhile personal secretary to Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Blum’s whirlwind study of Netanyahu’s historiography functions as a clever if didactic device to educate the reader on the same. We learn that, in Netanyahu’s heterodox interpretation, the aim of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions was not to turn Jews into Catholics, but rather “to invalidate new conversions and turn as many new Christians back into Jews as possible.” Under his reading, it is at this moment, rather than centuries later, that Jewishness is redefined from a religious to a racial category, grounded in the innateness
of blood. 

The political consequences of this historical revision are made explicit in one of Netanyahu’s letters of recommendation, which is really a letter of warning. A former colleague of Netanyahu’s at Hebrew University cautions that 

there comes a point in nearly every text he produces where it emerges that the true phenomenon under discussion is not anti-Semitism in Early Medieval Lorraine or Late Medieval Iberia but rather anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Nazi Germany; and suddenly a description of how a specific tragedy affected a specific diaspora becomes a diatribe about the general tragedy of the Jewish Diaspora, and how that Diaspora must end—as if history should not describe, but prescribe—in the founding of the State of Israel.

The idea that exile is incompatible with Jewish flourishing is captured most strikingly in the novel’s epigraph, a quote from a speech Jabotinsky delivered in 1938 on Tisha B’Av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temples: “Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you.”

As American and Israeli Jewry collide, Cohen recasts Jabotinsky’s ominous political proclamation in aesthetic terms. If the founding of the Jewish state supplants an imagined community held together by text with a polis united by ethnonational interest, the diasporic novel can respond, however meekly, by turning history back into fiction. Of course, the line between the two is blurry to begin with. Cohen understands this, and The Netanyahus plays with the interpenetrating mythologies that drive Israeli and American self-conception. At one point, the Netanyahu children sit rapturously watching a Western at the Blums’ house; the scene subtly suggests that for all the father loathes the diaspora and disdains narrative, the settler mindset the son will someday personify is rooted in a foreign fiction. 

The conflict between the American and Israeli families comes to a head after Ben-Zion bombs his Corbin interview and concludes his campus lecture by raging about how the United States, like all nations before it, will ultimately reject the Jews. Later that evening, Ruben and Edith return home to find that Iddo, the youngest Netanyahu, has shattered their color TV—a symbol of American consumerism procured after Judy’s nose job—and then proceed to interrupt 13-year-old Jonathan having sex with Judy while 10-year-old Benjamin stands guard. The boys flee the scene, and the Blums and Netanyahus give chase. 

The self-conscious absurdity of the pursuit—Blum takes note of Jonathan’s “headstrong rigid penis toggling with his stride between pointing rudely out to spear me and sticking straight up at the ceiling”—functions as a dramatic rejoinder to Netanyahu’s notion of Israeli supremacy. By subsuming the Netanyahus into the paradigmatic, phallic folly of American Jewish fiction, the novel effectively transforms them into diaspora Jews, understood as a literary production of the diasporic imagination. While Ben-Zion disparages narrative as a crutch adopted in exile, narrative absorbs him and his family; they are forced, finally, to assimilate into the aesthetic of the Jewish American canon, rendered as absurd as American Jews. Fiction emerges victorious over history.

The Netanyahus are forced, finally, to assimilate into the aesthetic of the Jewish American canon, rendered as absurd as American Jews.

But the success of the project requires a real demonstration of the continued vitality of the exilic Jewish imagination. Instead, The Netanyahus shows how, even with a glaze of self-consciousness and a thoroughgoing sense of irony, the exploitation of a sapped form can cut off avenues of new thinking, returning us to tired modes. Judy’s loudly misogynistic arc, from her obsession with her nose to her passive use in the sexual act that serves as the novel’s climax, epitomizes this exhaustion. Like a joke worn to ribbons from overtelling, the laughter it conjures isn’t spontaneous and transgressive, but knowing and hollow. As Blum searches in the snow for Benjamin and Jonathan, the novel’s climactic—and traumatic—moment of combustion provokes only a grotesque series of observations: “A tangle of tinsel was blown through the air and into a full black holly shrub where it glittered like my daughter’s bush, and there, above the steering wheel, the Stop sign was a breast, scraped red and horripilated.” The exaggeratedly boorish sexuality of the line—and its convergence with this moment of despair—suggests Cohen understands that the novel has hit a dead end.

AT THE END OF HIS OPUS, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem tells a tale taught to him by the Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon:

When the Baal Shem [the founder of Hasidism] had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, and we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he had told had the same effect as the actions of the other three. 

In his essay “The Fire and the Tale,” the philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes this story as “an allegory of literature,” which retains a remnant of religion’s “sources of mystery.” Part of the parable’s power is its insistence that holiness can persist through generations of growing distance from a sacred act. Perhaps Cohen’s venture is not dissimilar: If the American Jewish novel in its heyday is the ritual, or the place where it occurred, could a Jewish novel written today be the story—potent even in its fadedness, offering some kind of positive negation? 

The Netanyahus’ provocative premise sets it up to be such a novel, but its hubristic conclusion makes clear why Cohen was never up to the task. In the afterword, cheekily titled “Credits & Extra Credit,” Cohen reports that Bloom’s widow, Jeanne Gould, blessed the use of the story on which the novel is based, but asked Cohen to run it by the real-life inspiration for Judy, “a younger female relative sent up to board with the Blooms to get her out of the Bronx.” The relative declines to participate in the process, and Cohen responds that he will “do [his] best to make her unrecognizable.” The book ends with the relative’s bombastic reply to the draft he has sent, inviting “her corrections and suggestions”: “I’ve just finished reading your ‘book,’” it begins, “and I’m going to say it once and for all and that’s it: Judaism is just another word for THE PATRIARCHY . . . We’re all one people, the Human People, with no differences between us.” The note carries on in this vein: “The planet is ruined, the machines are taking over, and none of this Jewish crap still matters . . . Admit it, even literacy is dying—and when the last old Jew of you is finally as dead as (((God))) this proud nonbinary dyke YES DYKE IS GOING TO DANCE NAKED AS HELL ON HIS GRAVE.”

The self-parodying prose nearly defies credulity—and in fact, the postscript’s veracity is suspect. (While most critics have taken it as fact, Leo Robson, writing in The Guardian, claims it’s “at least partly fabricated,” citing apparent inventions embedded in the text.) Whether concocted or merely reprinted, this message is a self-evidently absurd critique of the novel, a rhetorical grenade launched from the cover of a banal secular humanism that denounces one form of identitarianism while bolstering itself with another. By presenting the accusation of the irrelevance of this novel—and of the Jewish novel as such—as hysterical, Cohen arrogantly certifies his own project, relieving the novel of the burden of proving its worth.

Ending on a joke is itself a move drawn from the Jewish American canon. Portnoy’s Complaint concludes with a gag literally labeled “PUNCH LINE.” After hundreds of pages of Alexander Portnoy’s hypersexualized, aggressively neurotic ramblings, Roth turns the tables on his narrator with the final line, seemingly spoken by Portnoy’s psychoanalyst: “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” Roth’s final quip, by inviting us to read the entire novel as a setup to a joke delivered in the guise of a therapeutic preamble, punctures the form of the fiction that leads up to it, calling itself—and its author’s grand ambitions—into question. The last paragraph of The Netanyahus does precisely the opposite, transforming a technique of self-deprecation into one of self-regard. 

In his letter to Bloom, Cohen wrote that the person who repairs the Jewish tradition must be “someone suspicious of and even ashamed by the very activity.” He’s right about the humility that great art requires. But he’s wrong that his own work has displayed it, at least so far. Perhaps he’s wrong, too, that our broken literary tradition stands in need of repair. If Cohen has so far given us only variously interesting failures, it may be because he finds himself continually compelled to try to build a new Temple, rather than dwell in the ruins.

Nathan Goldman is the managing editor of Jewish Currents

The post That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore appeared first on Jewish Currents.

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