WASHINGTON – Joshua Cohen won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Netanyahus,” a fictionalized account purportedly based on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father seeking a job in academia in 1950s New York.
The book has received widespread praise and accolades, including being named the 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner, a Wall Street Journal best book of the year, a New York Times notable book of the year and a Kirkus best fiction book of the year.
Narrated by fictional retired economic historian Ruben Blum, the book imagines a January 1960 visit by Netanyahu’s real father, Benzion, to the also fictitious Corbin University, where he has applied for an opening on the academic faculty. Blum, who is Corbin’s only Jewish professor, has been asked to host Netanyahu, who shows up with his family in tow.
Cohen says in an afterword that his narrative was inspired by a real campus visit by Benzion Netanyahu, apparently to Cornell University, where in the ’70s the Israeli historian genuinely chaired the department of Semitic languages and literature.
In Cohen’s telling, Benzion has a chip on his shoulder; his sons – Jonathan, 13, Benjamin, 10, and Iddo, 7 – are savages; and his wife, Tzila, is described by a Corbindale resident who encounters her as “that mean foreign lady with an accent.”
Having Netanyahu hosted by an American, who is enjoying the advantages of a postwar period when barriers were falling for Jews, allows the author to make Blum a foil to the Warsaw-born Revisionist Zionist, who has seen the remnant of his people gain a state but is certain it could be lost at any moment.
In an interview with Haaretz last year, Cohen said “I had sympathy [for Netanyahu], as someone who has had to earn part of his living at institutions. I’m writing a book so that something meaningful is there after I’m dead, and Benzion Netanyahu absolutely had this idea. The problem is that it curdled in him and that sourness was transferred to his children, who didn’t have the intellectual access to the international arena and the facts."
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Many of the other winners in the arts Monday were explorations of race and class, in the past and the present.
James Ijames' “Fat Ham,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” set at a Black family’s barbecue in the modern South, received the Pulitzer for drama. The late artist Winfred Rembert won in biography for “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” as told to Erin I. Kelly. Andrea Elliott's “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City,” which builds upon her New York Times investigative series about a homeless Black girl from Brooklyn, received a Pulitzer for general nonfiction.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.