Blum cannot turn away from Netanyahu’s work. Like the rest of us running from our upbringings and therefore obsessed by them, he can’t stop reflecting upon his own past. The sleepless hours he spends reading through Netanyahu’s writing were “the first time in my life I’d ever looked back and compared who I’d been with who I’d become. I was a tenure track historian and an active participant in secular American life sneaking around in the attic-mind of an obscure Israeli academic like I was one of the antique Jews he wrote about, a convert forcibly returned to the faith I’d left and too consumed by internal turmoil to notice the hour until — jolted by the chatter of amatory birds‚ I’d turn and tug aside the curtain and outside the window was morning.”
Through this all is the story of Blum’s home life, which contains his wife, Edith, who misses New York, and their daughter, Judy, who, like all daughters, is slightly more liberal than they are. She’s writing her college essays now — the theme is fairness — and pining for a nose job, which she will get at all costs. On a Thanksgiving visit, Edith’s mother puts Blum’s impossible position succinctly: “If you decide to go and hire this Jew, they’ll say Jewish favoritism. If you decide not to go and hire this Jew, they’ll say you’re trying to avoid the appearance of Jewish favoritism.”
Blum, of course, is asked to host Netanyahu through the rigmarole of a hiring weekend: a job interview, a guest lecture, drinks at the local. Netanyahu brings along his three sons and his wife, Tzila, and Edith shows the Netanyahus her American hospitality. To say it gets chaotic from there is an understatement, but more, the chaos is just the ingenious layer on top of what this book also is, which is a brilliant examination of the Jew’s role in American society, always a tense place. The success of the Jews in America doesn’t dispel danger; no, the success creates the danger.
This is what the book is about, about the grappling of American Jewry (and its secret girlfriend, Israel). “The Netanyahus” presents, in addition to a dynamic and compelling story, a thorough history of the quarrels of Zionism at its founding and an account of the unimaginable thing that happened when finally the Jews had a national homeland and a place to go, when, according to the Netanyahu in this book, Jews stopped being a mythological people who wandered the earth, who were chased around the earth, and began being a people who could record their own history. They — we — were finally real.
This seems heavy, yes. And it is! But I promise that the book is both readable and, in spots, I absolutely screamed with laughter. I hesitate to say it’s accessible, only because of the amount of unnecessarily blue-chip words that appear throughout. And here I’ll take a paragraph on just this. It was unclear to me if these words appeared as a way to convey the character of Ruben Blum — maybe as a pompous professorial type? If so, it was lost on me, since the net result was the same: I lost some of the rhythm in a Sheol of internet vocabulary searches, though, to be clear, I do not cavil at these words, lest my own lesser vocabulary stick out like a carbuncle. (Also: Glabrous! Cathexes! Strappado! It goes on!)
“The Netanyahus,” as an appendix to the book reads, was inspired by a story that the literary critic and academic Harold Bloom told Cohen toward the end of Bloom’s life. Blum, however, appears to be a wholly fictional character, even though the real-life Benzion Netanyahu did spend some time at Cornell as a professor. It’s unclear what else about the book is true.
But I also don’t care. Because this was a great book for me to read during the weeks after it was assigned to me, as tensions between Israel and Gaza raged and there was nothing to say about the matter but to text a few people I’m in touch with when these things go on and share my distress and also my inability to share that distress wider. This was a good book to read while tensions escalated further, and friends reached out to me who were just “wondering” what my point of view was on it, in argument stance, and people I didn’t know tweeted at me to see where my support for an oppressed people was, and my peers — who know full well the constraints of my job’s policy on tweeting about politics — liked those tweets, as though being Jewish meant I had to answer for Israel or its government, which I did not elect.