Israel is a basically a nation of off-duty soldiers, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion once put it, more or less. Joshua Cohen took this one step further in his new novel “Moving Kings.” The protagonists, Yoav and Uri, two young Israelis after army service who wind up in New York, aren’t soldiers anymore, though they're still basically combat troops. They see the world as one big battlefield and their civilian lives as a direct continuation of their service in the West Bank.
Joshua Cohen, 36, a New Jersey native, received a religious education and reads Hebrew fluently. For a time he translated texts from German to Hebrew and English and for a few years he was a correspondent for The Forward in Europe. “Moving Kings” is his fifth novel, in addition to his books of short stories. This year Guernica magazine named him one of the promising young writers in the United States.
Cohen’s connection to Israel is intense. He has many relatives there and visits often. In research for his new book he lived in Tel Aviv’s edgy Florentin neighborhood and blogged under the heading “Israel Diaries.”
In one post, he wrote: “I’m here to write a novel about Israel. Which is not what I told the woman who checked my passport at Ben-Gurion. I told her I was here to visit cousins. So many dangers in writing about Israel.”
In “Moving Kings” the chance to work (illegally of course) in Yoav’s Uncle David’s moving company brings the two young men to the big city. Nablus and the Gaza Strip are part of their recent past, and now they’re in hipster Chelsea and the Lower East Side.
It’s a new beginning that couldn’t be more different than the military landscape they knew, yet their roles remain unchanged: to fight. Moving furniture between buildings in Brooklyn is a direct continuation of breaking into Palestinians’ homes. When tenants are behind in their rent in poor Bronx neighborhoods, they evict them in the same spirit of urban warfare in which they were trained.
The evictees are seen as dangerous enemies who have to be “neutralized” with a minimum number of casualties. Yoav and Uri see every Arab behind the counter in a New York bodega as a target for their derogatory remarks, people whose dignity must be crushed.
As Cohen puts it in the novel, a group of guys go out "swarming the houses of strangers, taking the furniture apart, taking the furniture away, breaking shit by accident, and not by accident, committing petty theft by accident, and not by accident or always petty ... leaving everything empty, leaving everything a mess – who would’ve guessed that the army had been training him for moving?”
A novel and an indictment
Cohen depicts Yoav and Uri as superficial figures lacking independent personalities, nothing more than a reflection of the Israeli occupation. Their language is vulgar, their worldview simplistic, their actions violent. They have entirely no compassion – not toward the tenants they’re evicting and not even toward each other. They’re just cogs in a well-oiled machine that once was roadblocks and now is a moving company. Like good soldiers, they carry out orders and don’t ask unnecessary questions.
In the army that’s called keeping your head down. In Cohen’s book, it’s laziness mixed with the helplessness of people used to doing what they’re told.
“Each time he’d leave the house, it was only to complete a single errand, which was all he could manage .... The only choices Yoav was capable of making, then, were minor, befitting his rank.”
So yes, the violence of the two young men is a way of life that doesn’t distinguish between a Palestinian at a roadblock and a bouncer at a New York party. When they try to get into a nightclub and are rejected because they aren’t on the list, Uri loses it. A macho combat solider, he isn’t going to let some loser security guard treat him like that. So he does what could be expected of a former Israeli soldier who comes up against an obstacle: He beats the guy up and then charges at the objective.
You don’t have to be a big partygoer to know that a scene like that is very unlikely. But Cohen apparently is at peace with this unlikeliness. Time after time the reader gets the impression that this is less a novel and more an indictment against Israeli society. For 240 pages, Uri and Yoav are shown as extreme, one-dimensional, animal-like. Cohen doesn’t try to soften the edges.
And if Yoav and Uri are the product of the Israeli occupation into which they were born, the American uncle, David, is just a typical Jewish macher. He owns a moving company and cheats his clients regularly. He’s a narrow-minded man who donates to the Republican Party and can’t hold a simple conversation, a failure of a family man who cheats on his wife with his secretary and gives his daughter jewelry that he stole from his clients’ homes.
His connection to Israel and Judaism is central to his personality, because like any American Jewish macher, he’s an enthusiastic Zionist and a good Jew. He goes to synagogue, makes sure his non-Jewish wife converts, and dances at his only daughter’s bat mitzvah party with the secretary’s he’s screwing on the side.
All that can perhaps explain the high praise heaped on the book in the United States. Published by Random House, it has been covered by almost all the major book reviews in the United States.
The Los Angeles Times calls it “brilliant” in its headline of the review: “It starts tucked deep into a subculture — in this case the peculiarities of running a New York City-area moving company — but expands to consume whole swaths of race and religion. It comes on as unassuming yet stylish, but circles around tricky questions of occupation and power in the U.S. and Israel. And yet none of it feels messy or overreaching — indeed, it feels master-planned to slowly unsettle your convictions, as the best novels do.”
The Washington Post describes it as a “svelte comic triumph that concentrates [Cohen’s] genius .... a fantastically agile style .... Cohen explores themes of power and Jewish identity with the same insight that has justly attracted praise from some of the country’s most sophisticated writers.”
The New Yorker has devoted a particularly long review to “Moving Kings,” calling Cohen “an extraordinary prose stylist, surely one of the most prodigious in American fiction today.”
A metaphor like a car accident
I read an interview with you in which you said the book isn’t about good or bad Israelis, but about the truth. Is the truth so one-dimensional and gloomy as you describe it in the book?
“There is always the danger in making a metaphor or false equivalence between the occupation and the housing crises here. People have the idea that a metaphor is a little too close to an analogy. I tend to think that a metaphor is more like a car accident. You crush one car into another car and the impact creates the experience.
“I wanted to follow two people who were living a metaphor and almost didn’t know it. They are living their lives and in a sense kind of doing what they were told, and following a path that was set up for them from birth. It was not to make a political point, but to set a track for the reader .... "
Reading the book, I get the impression you tried not to soften Yoav and Uri in any way, not to describe any positive side of their personalities that can somewhat correct the violence that erupts from them.
“I think it is very difficult to be soft, especially when you get out of the army and when you work as an eviction mover. But I also think that the book’s senses of toughness or hardness were actually a response to my own experience. We are living in a time when opinions have become falsified and rigid, living in a time that is deeply polarized, and a time that doesn’t necessarily have patience for softness. And most of the softness that’s provided is kitsch, is nostalgic, is sentimental, so I wanted to write a book that would be the fulfillment of the ideology on both sides ....
“And by the way, I would say that the moments of emotions, of softness, are so troubling that people don’t read them as softness. For example, when David has a heart attack and then his cousin sends him an email and asks, ‘will you take my son and put him to work,’ his entire capacity for feeling isn’t really with his work, isn’t really with his personal relations, it’s really with Israel. And his relationship with his daughter that he desperately wants, and he feels soft towards her, he can express by giving her jewelry that was stolen from other people.”
You describe Yoav and Uri as two idlers who can’t make a decision, not even the smallest, when actually most Israelis who go to the United States have a strong will to succeed. I haven’t met a young Israeli immigrant who sits around all day on his uncle’s couch, as you describe Yoav in your book.
“Yes, you’re right, absolutely. At the same time, I wanted to show a different part of the spectrum. So many novels in America and in Israel, they feature characters from the socioeconomic background that you would typically think would buy the books. And the truth is that that’s not what New York City is and that’s not what Israel is. I mean, when you go to Israel you think everyone speaks as a second language either Yiddish or German. We have this idea that all Jews eat gefilte fish, and that this is the American Jewish experience because the American Jewish experience is largely Ashkenazi, certainly in literature.
“I always thought it was a complete disconnect the way you would see American Jews in literature and then you go to Israel. And I wanted to write about a bunch of arsim from Netivot [in Israel’s poorer south]. I wanted to write about these people because they exist, they come to New York, a few of them married into my family and it’s a part of the culture that’s on the one hand accessible to me and on the other is utterly foreign, certainly foreign to American Jewish readers who for too long have existed in the world of not just the European experience but of the Yiddish experience and the Shoah.”
You talk about Yoav and Uri’s fate because of their Israeli identity and army service. On the other hand, there’s David, who is portrayed as a scoundrel and an avid Zionist. Is this also a decree of fate?
“This to me is very familiar territory; these are people of my parents’ generation who grew up to parents who are Holocaust survivors and are doing work that no Jewish people would do — taking jobs in industries considered dirty and developing a sort of pride from this. David gets into this business and climbs his way up into the middle class and the upper middle class and he never loses this chip on his shoulder. In the same way that so many people can’t recognize the bounty of America, they can’t recognize their success because all they can remember is who they had to step on to get there.
“And he has an enormous amount of pride in that, and he thinks that if the people he is profiting off aren’t able to defend themselves, that’s because they weren’t able to develop strong enough of communities to defend themselves .... He is a Jew, he is a Republican, he’s from New Jersey, he doesn’t share the city with African-Americans, he doesn’t share the city with Latinos.
“With regard to his relationship with Israel, I think in the book it’s really in two ways. In one way, Israel justifies his identity as the ‘other’ in America; Israel’s existence allows him to say to himself that he is not completely an American. And second, it’s because his relationship with his daughter is so [unsettled] that he kind of sees this relationship with Israel as of developing another paternal relationship to a cousin who might in fact become a son.”
And while he’s embracing Israel as a source of pride, his daughter claims that Israel is an apartheid state. Is this generation gap familiar to you personally?
“The relationship of my generation is very different from the relationship of my parents’ generation. My parents’ generation was the generation of the good Israel ... my parents came from Labor Zionism. And it’s very difficult to sort of pick apart the transition from their generation to mine — what from the disaffection comes from the occupation and what comes from the rise of the global left.
"You really can’t divorce a relationship with Israel from a relationship between minorities in America, from a relationship between Jews and African-Americans, and to a lesser extent between Jews and Latinos. And the reason is that the left sees in the occupation all the hallmarks of the institutional discrimination and racism that is deeply a part of American history.
“So I think that for many people of my generation, there is confusion: Even if they feel emotionally bound to Israel, they still feel, in a way, intellectually that it’s discrediting to maintain this relationship.
"Which I always find ironic, by the way. The occupation is a major part of Israel’s existence, but so is socialism. I’ve always felt that one of the points that Israel did a very bad job of communicating with people of my generation is realizing that the left that came out so critical of Israel to the point of anti-Semitism — that [the critics should] sort of see the other elements of the left that are functioning in Israel that are more functional in Israel than in the United States. I would consider Tammy’s views to be fairly mainstream of that generation.”
How would you define your relationship with Israel, where you’ve spent quite a bit of time?
“I feel connected to my family wherever my family lives and a lot of my family lives in Israel. My own relationship with Israel, it’s very difficult to say because I’m not sure what it is besides the people I know and love who live there. I don’t really know that I have a relationship to the United States besides my family and friends. If you ask me what my thoughts are about the founding ideology of the United States, I would say that it’s nice that everyone can pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also there were lots of slaves here, and we happened to exterminate most of the Native American population.
“I don’t have relationship to ideologies or governments. I enjoy going there, the food is good, the women are beautiful, my family is occasionally kind, there are a number of poets there that I will read until I die, the language is important to me .... But for me a state is almost besides the point. A state is almost outside the consideration of what I expect and love in a culture.”