History Is a Story that Satisfies Power: A Conversation with Joshua Cohen (Author of "The Netanyahus")Historians in the News
tags: Israel, Zionism, historical fiction, Benjamin Netanyahu, Campus Novels
THERE ARE FEW AUTHORS today who can claim as consistent and meteoric a rise as Joshua Cohen. From the release of his 824-page leviathan, Witz, in 2010 to his stint as the writing coach for whistleblower Edward Snowden, Cohen has achieved the sort of fame most writers can only dream of, and all before the age of 40. Fewer still can claim to have been canonized during their lifetime, with the late Harold Bloom calling Cohen’s 2015 novel, Book of Numbers, among “the four best books by Jewish writers in America.”
Much of Cohen’s success can be attributed to his apocalyptic view of the world, his fiction and essays offering a prophetic cry against our present end of days. That’s what makes Cohen’s latest book, a historical novel entitled The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, seem so out of place. Written during the COVID-19 lockdown, the novel follows an academic who meets the infamous Israeli family in Upstate New York, and proceeds to chronicle their checkered history.
After a decade spent on the bleeding edge, what made America’s wunderkind author begin the new decade with a look back? I met with Joshua Cohen in April to talk about his new book.
ZACHARY ISSENBERG: What was your process with this book? The book’s ending reveals that it began as a story told by …
JOSHUA COHEN: Let’s not give that away, please. I’ll just say that, to my mind, this is a book about the tensions between fathers and sons, stories and histories, influence and whatever the opposite is of influence — disfluence?
Let me phrase it another way: where did these ideas come from?
A feeling of valediction, a sense of saying goodbye to a certain generation or to a number of generations that memory collapses into a single generation. Call them “the old people” — Bellow, Roth, Bloom, all the old Jews — whose passing also represents the passing of a type of liberalism that isn’t in vogue anymore, or is maybe even demonized.
This book has a lot to do with Patriarchs and your relationship to the patriarchy — Jewish and otherwise.
Fathers have been on my mind.
As have education, taxation, and politics, apparently. Where in the process did you start connecting all these issues?
I feel like all of those disclosed themselves fairly early in the writing. I made my narrator a professor of taxation studies mostly for the metaphor — influence as a form of tax — and of course as a nod to Jewish history, the so-called tax-farming and money-managing roles of Jewish advisors to European royalty and nobility. Those roles were of profound interest to Benzion Netanyahu, the professor of Medieval history, polemicist, and patriarch at the heart of the book. I was fascinated by him — by this obscure scholarly father who’s remembered now, if he’s remembered at all, because of his sons, including Yonatan, Israel’s most famous martyr-hero (killed during the raid at Entebbe in 1976), and Benjamin, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister (at least he’s the prime minister now). When you ask about connections, this is what I think about: what connects fathers and sons, academia and politics, Israel and America …
I’d always known that the Netanyahus had spent time in the States, but I’d never asked why. And I’d never thought about how it felt — for the family to have spent the most important decades in modern Jewish history, when Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, when the state of Israel was being founded, stuck in New York and Philadelphia, spectating from the sidelines.
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