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Mrs. Maisel Meets the Son of Zion: Joshua Cohen’s “The Netanyahus”

From New York City to the Catskills to Miami Beach; from the luftmensch-professor father on Mrs. Maisel’s side to the meddling, overbearing Jewish mother on Mr. Maisel’s; add in some brisket and a few Yiddishisms here and there, and bam! — you’ve got Amazon Prime’s Jewish schtick conglomerate, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
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January 12, 2023

From New York City to the Catskills to Miami Beach; from the luftmensch-professor father on Mrs. Maisel’s side to the meddling, overbearing Jewish mother on Mr. Maisel’s; add in some brisket and a few Yiddishisms here and there, and bam! — you’ve got Amazon Prime’s Jewish schtick conglomerate, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Joshua Cohen’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning “The Netanyahus,” stuffed with the history of Revisionist Zionism and thin-slicing an anecdotal (apocryphal?) episode from the family of the yet again (!) and longest-reigning prime minister of Israel, is not dissimilar. Sure, it takes place in an upstate New York venue that is not the Borscht Belt, and the underlying questions about the place of the Jew in America and the nature of Jewish historiography are serious ones, but the almost slapstick humor and reliance on Jewish stereotypes makes Cohen’s work feel like a literary equivalent to the shmaltzy television series. 

Cohen’s campus novel centers on a Ruben Blum, the assimilated son of the Jewish Bronx who is “the first Jew ever hired by Corbin College.” This description immediately calls to mind the introduction to Coleman Silk, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s campus novel “The Human Stain” (2000) who, we’re told, was “among the first of the Jews permitted to teach in a classics department anywhere in America” and “the first Jewish dean of faculty at Athena College.” (Also suggesting shades of “Stain,” with a twist, Cohen’s Blum declares: “for my generation, a Jew would be lucky to pass as white”). Ruben is married to Edith, the only humanized female character in the book, and they have a daughter, Judith. Judith’s main role is to obsess over her Jewish nose, which she gets “fixed,” causing psychological harm to her family in so doing. (What was it that the Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker reportedly quipped about Jewish comic Fanny Brice? “She cut off her nose to spite her race!”) In this focus on the female Jewish nose, Judith evokes another Roth character, Brenda Patimkin in “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959), and the endless sexist permutations trotted out in Jewish cultural productions ever since. In the margin of my copy of “The Netanyahus,” I scribbled the name of Tahneer Oksman’s 2016 study of women and Jewish American identity: “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

The first half of Cohen’s novel is mostly about the Blums — their family life, visits from their parents (representing a battle royale of “The Yekkes” vs “The Yiddishers”), the genteel antisemitism that creeps into Ruben’s campus life on a near daily basis. The year of 1959 bleeds into 1960 and at last, the title characters, the Netanyahus, arrive. 

The Netanyahus, or “Yahus,” as Blum calls them, show up in a clown car, all five of “die ganze mishpocha” (Cohen’s words). The patriarch, Ben-Zion, is a literal borves professor (my grandmother’s words; promising I would end up barefoot is how she tried to warn me away from academia). His wife Tzila is bitter and conniving. Their three boys, Yonatan, Benjamin and Iddo, are vilde chayes (my words—but it’s exactly as wild animals that Cohen depicts them). They are so badly behaved that I admit I felt slightly better about my own kids, who were loudly squabbling in a hotel lobby this morning; at least none of them flipped over a television. 

Of course, much is known about the future lives of the elder two Netanyahu boys. Yonatan went on to become Yoni, a man who died a hero in the 1976 Raid on Entebbe (most of us have seen at least a couple of films based on the event). Benjamin went on to become King Bibi, leader of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. It’s only Iddo that has mostly flown under the radar (a “sweet nice guy” according to Cohen’s appendix).

In the novel, poor nebbuch Iddo is seven and still in diapers. These are, I should add, Pampers, and they peel open and shut. I note these details because they’re terribly odd, as the company wasn’t yet in existence at the time of the narrative, and the replacement of pins with tape for diapers would have been well over a decade away. But apparently disposable diapers suggest a good metaphor for affluent, consumerist American life, a sharp contrast to Israel still in its salad years. Complains Tzila to Edith:

“This is what I like about America, the disposing things … The disposing cups and plates and bowls. The disposing pampers … Washers, dryers. The machine for the dishes. When you want warm water, when you want hot water, you turn on the tap and it’s there so it burns you, no tanks you have to wait for; and in the summers, an air-conditioner, not a fan. In Israel these are luxurious goods and no one has them. But here in the States, you have it so easy.”

There are many keen observations in this novel, and not a few great lines, like when Blum describes the imagined shared beliefs of his coreligionists as a form of worshipping at “the Church of the Assumption.” 

Anachronistic analogy aside, it’s a keen observation about life in the U.S. — then and now. And there are many keen observations in this novel, and not a few great lines, like when Blum describes the imagined shared beliefs of his coreligionists as a form of worshipping at “the Church of the Assumption” or recounts his childhood as a tug-of-war between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen.” 

Presumably, for the judges of the Pulitzer Prize, it is these moments, and not the millionth self-hating Jewish girl-character trying to rid herself of her ethnic nose or brisket dinner (with kugel and tzimmes on the side) that make Cohen’s book so appealing.


Karen E. H. Skinazi, Ph.D, is Associate Professor of Literature and Culture and the director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol (UK) and the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.

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