Interview: Joshua Cohen

A chat with the novelist about superheroes, alienation, and Bibi.

Hello, all! I’m back. I come to you today to offer up an interview I conducted with novelist Joshua Cohen a few weeks back. The ostensible peg was his upcoming novel, The Netanyahus, but we chatted about a wide range of topics, as you’ll see. Below is the first chunk — Substack won’t let me put all the text in there, so if you know you want to read the whole thing, head to the newly minted “Interviews” tab on my website. If you’d like a taste before you commit to clicking, read on …

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I want this to be a conversation. I know every interviewer says that, but especially because I just released my first book and I've been on the other side of … 

… which I've read. I read about 50 pages of it before yesterday and then yesterday I read all of it.

Oh, no shit.

Yeah, well, I mean, you were like, “Let's kind of do it in a both-ways thing,” and I was like, Oh fuck, I gotta finish this thing. So I read it and I loved it. I mean, I know I'm probably the best audience for it because I know nothing about Marvel. He's just the guy whose name I heard of. And so, in that sense, it's like, you gotta convince me. And you did.

That was the goal.

Yeah, for me, it's like, picking up a book like … I lived for a while in this very odd apartment in Poland, and the only book the person had left behind that was in German was a biography of [former Polish president] Lech Wałęsa’s, like, father, or Lech Wałęsa's. family. But not him. So I’d heard of Lech Wałęsa and I was like, I'll read it, but I was like, it's not about him, it's about his family. And so it was the only book I could read, ’cause I can't read Polish but I can read German. I was there for a month, so I read this book three times. And I felt like in that same situation of like, this person's gotta convince me, and you did.

Thank you. I really appreciate that. My great handicap, mentally, is I hate that I don't know how to be a novelist. A novelist of research like yourself. I write non-fiction because I just get too intimidated by the idea of trying to convince people of things that didn't actually happen. So I suppose a lot of that, me sending you things of myself, was a little bit of neurosis of 'I have to prove myself to this guy.' But also I thought it would be good for the convo, so I'm glad you liked it.

It's a really novelistic biography.

Well, that's what I wanted to do. Because, look, like I said, that's my big Napoleon complex, something, I don't know, inferiority complex, of wanting to write something like that, but in non-fiction.

In that same way that — and this is probably a stupid comment, because again, I don't really know the territory, and because I don't know the territory, I don't know how interesting it's going to be for your readers or for people who come to it who really know that really knows this world — the only comparanda that I can really think of that I know is the Chabon book. 

Kavalier and Clay.

Right. Novels have this — especially historical novels — have this problem that they're written by novelists who might know how to write novels, and certainly Chabon knows how to write a novel, but then it's like, what do I do with the research or with the facts that I think are interesting? There are a lot of times that books can seem like, you can take a pen and circle and say, "Here's the Wikipedia graft. Here's where the skin of Wikipedia was grafted onto this fictional body.” And the truth is that more and more, especially as we're reading books written in the time of the internet, you could spot that a mile away. And I think another writer can spot that a mile away. But the way in which that stuff actually sits well on the page, all those really interesting facts and digressions, is in nonfiction that has a novelistic rhythm to it. Because then it doesn't seem like these are bodies that are grafted on, they seem like they are in fact the body itself.

Right. That's my cheat. You're describing it as a virtue, but for me, it always feels like a cheat. It's the old line from Glengarry Glen Ross, "just tell the truth, it's the easiest thing to remember." If you stick to what's there, then you can tell the story. As long as it's an interesting story. But anyway, The Netanyahus: I really liked and it was funny that it came right when it did because I was in the middle of reading Zakhor, the Yosef Haim Yerushalmi book/essay/collection of lectures. Have you read that?

Oh yeah. There's a whole lot of Zakhor-parody in The Netanyahus.

Yeah, it's very funny. That was the thing. I was reading it and I was like, "I bet you he's riffing on Zakhor." Especially given you have the Harold Bloom stuff at the end and he wrote that introduction for Zakhor. Happy coincidence. We keep having these happy coincidences. Like, me picking up your The Book of Numbers right when, like the main character in that one, my own book got delayed because of a national disaster — COVID, in my case. I read Moving Kings while I was moving and pondering the fate of Zionism. It just keeps happening. Let me whip up some of the questions or topics that I put together so I can stop spinning around in circles.

No, we can talk about Yerushalmi, too, and whatever you want to talk about.

I would love to talk about Yerushalmi. I love his idea of Jewish historical study as the faith of fallen Jews because, from a narcissistic perspective, that's absolutely … “It me,” as they say on Twitter. I don't have the background of practice when it comes to Jewish life that much. I mean, I grew up in suburban Illinois. My dad is from here in Providence, but he got a job in Chicago right before I was born. So when I was a kid, I was raised in Illinois. I became a bar mitzvah and everything and went to Hebrew school, but it's such a classic Millennial Reform Jewish story: I pretty much just dropped it all once I was in high school or so. And in the past few years, I've really become this sort of secular baal teshuva and dived in and had this become — “this” being the writing miasma that is Jewish Studies or Jewish topics — has been a fixation for me. And I keep coming back to the historical narratives. That's just what … At my public high school, I did a lot of work in the history department because we had this award-winning history department. So that's just sort of my love language. And coming toward the topic of Jewishness, I keep coming to these historical narratives and getting frustrated that I don't know everything. And while reading Zakhor and reading The Netanyahus, I kept thinking of how that's my — not to get too mythological about it — but that's my Jewish yearning. I don't have the tools to be able to decipher Jewish "religious" texts in the same way that I can with historical texts because I've studied history, I know how to read that stuff. And I don't know, you say that there's a lot of parody of Zakhor in there. What do you think of the idea of historical study of Jewish stuff as the faith of fallen Jews?

When I say there was parody of Yerulshami, of Zakhor, it's more like the novelistic approach of me channeling Benzion Netanyahu's mockery of Zakhor. I think that to someone like Benzion Netanyahu — not a friend of mine, not someone I knew, I know people who knew him, but I'm speculating, but really — I think to most revisionists, historians, Revisionists with the big "R", but a little bit with the little r, historians, I think that they essentially reached Benzion's … that Yerushalmi essentially reached Benzion in a Revisionist point of view in a pretty roundabout way. I think any Revisionist would essentially say, "Of course it's immaterial whether history is a Jewish thing or not, the point is that whoever is in power gets to write it. And whoever gets to write it, needs to write it in a way that continues their power.” Right? And that this idea that this history was anathema to Jewish people was exactly the problem. And that the more that a certain history, a certain history, was insisted upon as an unbroken sort of history, and the more that you bring the religious interpretation of time into a secular interpretation of history, the greater chances you have of reinforcing your political power. This idea of eternality. The idea of the calendar as eternity's microcosm, that every year, the same holidays repeat. That community life, that the rituals in community life create the calendar and kind of immerse everyone in a perpetual religious present. Constantly reliving the Exodus from Egypt, constantly marking the regalim, when you would go to the Temple, even though there was no Temple: these things create a people. And if we can translate these religious notions of time and these religious notions of eternality of time into the political realm, you essentially have a deathless nation-state. And so I think that, from a Revisionist point of view, Yerulshami was a poet, or was poetic, but blanched before the political implications of his thesis.

Interesting. 

There's not much politics in that book.

In Zakhor?

Yeah.

No. Israel sort of pops up one or two times briefly, but no, it's not about politics, really.

It pops up, especially one time when the man relays a story, the kibbutz. Where essentially the way Israel is a perversion of this notion of diasporic eternality. And certainly, that would not have been Benzion's position.

The return to history is so key to a lot of understandings of why Zionism seemed necessary. But I guess that's not universally agreed upon. I mean, it's interesting to think about this idea that history is not only something that is not a concern, but also anathema to Jewish thought for so many centuries. I recall, early on in my recent Jewish awakening, just assuming, Oh, there must be a ton that I can dive into about certain eras and I'm just not hearing about it because I'm uneducated. As opposed to the fact that there's sort of a deliberate burying, either for political/nationalist ends or just the idea that the history doesn't really matter. Obviously, Jewish history, you can learn it, but the fact that I wasn't learning it that much as a child or even as an adult, I've learned to be somewhat forgiving of myself, because that's sort of a political project or also just sort of part of something kind of baked in, as Yerulshami says, to that idea of the calendar and memory and the fact that we don't have a Hebrew word for history, we just have blah blah blah. We're getting kind of heavy here. I want to ground us a little bit more. What's interesting, also, speaking of history, about the Netanyahu situation in time, it being 1959, is you have this era when a Jewish professor at a liberal arts college is hosting an Israeli professor and he doesn't have to hear anything about the Palestinians. There are no discussions of Palestinians in any kind of great detail. They're just a complete non-entity. I don't really have a question there, I just found it fascinating. Was that part of what appealed to you to about looking at this period, this kind of interzone before the '67 war where American Jewish conceptions of Israel haven't really cohered necessarily? Or were they more coherent? I don't know. I can rephrase the question.

I can answer what interested me.

Yeah, go ahead. That's always the best way to go. 

Look, I wanted to write something about campus politics today. And I didn't want to write directly about them because that's the first step to having someone shut the book on you. Right? And so one of these stories that I had gotten about Benzion Netenyahu, it was a tiny anecdote and it was pretty funny to me. But I thought it contained a little bit of sex. And I thought it contained a little bit of ideological suspicion — especially, you know, this is the McCarthy era, or a little bit after the McCarthy era. And so I thought a combination of the Red Scare hangover with a little bit of sexual politics and reckoning was maybe the right place to do it. I find what's most interesting is to me at least when it comes to the question of Palestinians, when it comes to the question of Israel/Palestine, it's really the Israelis who bring it up in the book. And if you want to go even farther than that, it's not even the Israelis who bring it up, it's the German emigre to Palestine to Israel who brings it up in the recommendation letter for Benzion. The guy who writes the long thing that basically explains Jabotinsky and explains the Revisionists and the way they're fomenting these anti-Arab riots and their racist policies and so on and so forth. So for me, the role of Palestinians in the book is really to be a concern of what you would consider a liberal European, y’know, mamash Ashkenaz intellectual. 

A yekke

Totally. So that, to me, that's sort of the role. That wouldn't have been something brought up by an administrator at an upstate college.

No. I am not as much of an expert as I should be on exactly all the currents that lead you to the place where we are now, but it is such a stark contrast that now that's the only thing that gets talked about on campus. But also, when you say in the book it's the Israeli that's bringing up the Palestinians, today, you have this world where ... Good luck finding an Israeli who wants to talk to you about Palestinians at all. It's become this complete … Not just verboten, it's almost like it doesn't … It's the Big Other obviously, it's always there. I went to Israel/Palestine/West Bank, etc in 2017 in this solo trip that stirred up a lot for me. What was interesting was that I kept trying to talk to Israelis about the Palestinians and the conflict and nobody wanted to talk about it. And not only that, not only did they not want to talk about it, they thought I was just some dumb rube for wanting to discuss it. Not my political views. I wasn't even expressing any political views. I was there as a journalist. But they were rolling their eyes like, "Ok, another fucking American wants to talk about Palestinians." And I guess that was a consequence of Bibi and the Second Intifada. We just sort of stopped having these discussions.

For a lot of people, yeah, Netanyahu, Bibi Netanyahu has taken the place of the Palestinians in the domestic discussion. And so he's kind of like the synecdocheor mnemonic device for discussing it. One of the things that I was really thinking about is, now Netanyahu has become the longest-serving prime minister in the history of his country and there's a way in which I think, from reading history, that so much of history is a collapsing of small acts or small events that essentially accrue to different people's spiritual ledgers, let's say. And in a lot of ways, Netanyahu has become this magnet for all thoughts of Israel's ultimate success and all thoughts of Israel's ultimate failure. And in a way, Netanyahu's entire reign almost presents the Israeli question, the Jewish question of Israel, as a choice between the wild success of Israel as this military/technological ...

Now economic.

Economic powerhouse. And on the other hand, more than ever, an apartheid state. And I think it's the idea that this is the choice that really expresses the extremities of emotions that Israelis feel with Netanyahu. So to talk about Netanyahu, to get Carveresque about it, what we talk about when we talk about Netanyahu is we talk about Palestine. And so in a way, I found in my own reporting over there, when I've done that, the way to get people to talk about the situation, as they call it, is to bring up Netanyahu. Because there you have the entire history after the entire Second Intifada. 

And the whole history of Israel in some ways. Did you read the Anshel Pfeffer bio of Bibi? He situates it as, yeah, he was born in '49 and his whole arc is that arc of Israel’s history, in some ways. Or at least one of the many arcs of the country.

Yeah, sure, but one of his own personal arcs was trying to convince people that he wasn't American. That he was really Israeli. And, not only that, but that he was almost a non-Ashkenazi Israeli. I mean, the degree to which he attempted to kind of pervert his own sense of identity and also rewrite it, not just for public consumption, but for himself. And to rewrite his father's place in the country's history and the way that he was almost forced — and in this sense I have sympathy for him — forced to trade on his brother's legacy. All that. All of that really speaks to a person who is very adept at self-preservation. But to the point where he loses a core. 

It's all PR.

And really, I wanted to read him in the same way that I think Trump can be read in a certain way. As this sort of son, as an eternal son, of a father for whom nothing was good enough. I think the difference really is, with Bibi, that's really the return of the repressed, because Benzion was exiled/self-exiled, unemployable, had the kind of ambition that would never have been satisfied with anything. But beyond that, had put himself in a politically untenable position. And look, during the two most important events of Jewish history of the last half millennium, which is the foundation state of Israel in '48 and the Holocaust, Benzion Netanyahu is not in a concentration camp in Poland, nor was he in Palestine fighting. He was in suburban Philadelphia. It was that total sense of being out of history and the rage occasioned within him. 

It's not exactly like the classic thing of a dictator often coming from the imperial periphery, but it's not wildly dissimilar. I mean, I'm not calling Bibi Hitler, but Hitler's Austrian, Stalin's Georgian — and Bibi is, in a lot of ways, American.

Yeah, I think for this, it's that feeling of, his father comes from Poland, but really has a headstart on a lot of academics, at least who begin coming into Hebrew University in the '20s and '30s, when it was founded. And he's a person who speaks better Hebrew, reads better Hebrew, is much more acclimated to this new country, but every year, the best faculties of Europe kind of stream in and he finds himself farther and farther away from his goal of just getting a decent academic appointment there. In a way, it's this interesting thing that we have here. The immigrants are taking away all the jobs. But it's different when...it's this sense there that it's different because it's the faculties of Friedrich Wilhelm University are coming in to take away all the jobs. But the truth is, that nationalist feeling was the same. And the nationalist feeling was the same and really in order to deal with that resentment, with that pure, pure resentment and that sense of entitlement, his ideology, his editorializing, and his polemics became more and more severe to the point where he essentially faced the choice to become a terrorist. And so, what I kind of enjoyed was putting a person like that into an academic setting. Especially a person who's an expert on the Inquisition, in a setting of interrogation by a university interview department. I mean, when these guys are talking about Bolsheviks, he's essentially saying, "No, I've met real Bolsheviks. Real Bolsheviks. People who've killed people." And I think that that part of the idea of finding a real ideologue on an American campus — meaning someone who really is ready to lead — read some pages of a newspaper or not, he still had his Jabotinsky ties. There were people on the streets. Someone who's ready to say, "Yes, we will spill blood for this. We're ready for this." 

Read the rest on my website.