For people who like to read, the November-December season is the most wonderful time of the year in more ways than one. Forget winter wonderlands and holiday cheer — it’s when all of the “Best Books of the Year” compilations drops (see: NPR’s “Books We Love” and The New York Times’ “100 Notable Books”).
It’s through those types of compilations that I stumbled onto one of my recent reads: “The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.” What a title!
The book, written by Joshua Cohen, won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and lured me in with the back cover’s promise of a “wildly inventive, genre-bending comedy of blending, identity, and politics.” It’s a fictional story based on a real circumstance surrounding Benzion Netanyahu — the late father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The plot of the story is simple and for the most part follows true events: Benzion Netanyahu applies to be a professor at college in upstate New York. Our narrator is Prof. Ruben Blum, who is tasked, as the college’s only Jewish faculty member, with helping decide whether or not Benzion should be brought onto the staff.
While the work is presented as — largely — a work of fiction, there are elements of truth.
Benzion Netanyahu really taught in the United States: at Dropsie College, at the University of Denver and at Cornell University. The book is dedicated “to the memory of Harold Bloom” — a real academic and literary critic who told a story to Cohen that inspired “The Netanyahus,” according to an appendix written by Cohen.
The book is largely a pensive and academic survey of the Revisionist Zionism embraced by Benzion and partly a ridiculous slapstick comedy about the Netanyahu family that reads straight out of a TV show from the 1960s. Interwoven throughout are contemporary musings by the narrator about how to reconcile his own Jewish upbringing, Benzion’s writings and his Jewish family.
Indeed, the book opens with a 1938 quote from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, under whom Benzion Netanyahu worked closely: “Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you.”
At its core, “The Netanyahus” is about identity and what it means for Ruben Bloom to interrogate his own understanding of what it means to be Jewish. The book is a thoughtful and timely contribution to contemporary fiction.
For those who care about this kind of stuff (I do), “The Netanyahus” is laden with accolades. Among others, it received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2021 National Jewish Book Award and was named, all in 2021, a New York Times Notable Book, a Wall Street Journal Best book and a Kirkus Best Fiction Book.
“The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family” was published in 2021 by The New York Review of Books.
Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of the Peninsula Clarion that features reviews and recommendations of books and other texts through a contemporary lens.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.