by Anthony Conty (Parkville, MD): “The Netanyahus” by Joshua Cohen tells the story of a Jewish man in a prominent history department who does not study Jewish history. Instead, Ruben Blum is responsible for reviewing an application from a quirky Israeli scholar. The man is Benjamin Netanyahu’s father and teaches us how theology and history interact in Jewish politics. You wouldn’t think you could describe this type of book as funny, but here we are.

Blum has a life that seems familiar in American literature: he has achieved a high level of academia but does not impress his parents or in-laws with his status at the college. Think of how the media treats doctorates that are not medical. As we transition to scholar Ben-Zion Netanyahu, we see the jealousy and cynicism with which the scholars view their peers as historians of Judaism pass judgment on how historians consider Jewish suffering.

We take a while to meet the scholar as we experience family nostalgia with the Blums and the in-laws. Then, just when we think that Ruben has met his stress quota, the Netanyahus descend upon his idyllic existence. The best parts occur when we are reading about his household; you cannot imagine this entire life taking a back seat to the political aspects of the novel. The Blums need their sitcom by themselves.

When the family and the 10-year-old Benjamin arrive, the results are sitcom-esque but funny. I think the easiest way to poke harmless fun at a former world leader is to imagine him as a precocious 10-year-old with little self-control. The more incredible frustration comes from the adults; however, since social norms differ significantly, the Blums go along with the Netanyahus’ hijinks as if they are improv actors who have no choice but to say “yes.”

Cohen has a gift for writing about the mundane and making it funny and exciting. The history/theology debate works through several portions of the novel, and you may Google a few things if you are not Jewish or a historian. For such a short novel, you will find yourself engrossed and relate to the protagonist despite his regimented place in academia in a faraway time. I would love for one of you to read this and discuss it with me.