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.