Recalling his Jewish upbringing in 1940s New Jersey, Alexander Portnoy, the infamous narrator of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, remembers his mother’s anxiety about junk food: she pronounced the word hamburger, he says, ‘just as she might say Hitler’. Although acutely aware of the Nazi genocide in Europe, Portnoy, in America, inhabits a realm in which Hitler and hamburgers share emotional space; the horrors of mid-century European Jewish experience hardly brush his. A similar sense of the incommensurability of Jewish history and everyday American life is at the heart of Joshua Cohen’s erudite, occasionally hilarious and eventually unhinged sixth novel, The Netanyahus. To be Jewish and American, this novel suggests, is to be both centred in, and at the far edges of – perhaps not even touching – Jewish history.
Ruben Blum is, in 1959, the only Jewish faculty member at the quiet, WASP-ish Corbin University in upstate New York, situated ‘among the apple orchards and apiaries and dairies’. As a result of budget cuts, it seems, the history department is obliged to hire a new historian who can double