Really Hot Pastrami
Joel B. Levine MD
Jolted awake. Few things do that and when they do the moment is terrible. Terrible in its suddenness and even more fearful for its underlying reason. Waking is graceful, a soft landing on the firmness of living. Jolted is a cannonade, being blown back through the veil of comfortable assumptions.
Joshua Cohen has been called the best living writer using the English language. That alone is a good bar top debate but what he makes ferociously clear in his new book, “The Netanyahu’s”, is that he shatters glass to unrecognizable shards of past presumptions. As with Orson Wells, in the “Lady from Shanghai”, Cohen breaks to reveal but makes you grieve at the fate of the mirrors.
Cohen carries a hammer heavier than Phillip Roth’s not allowing the American Jew to sit, wistfully, at a distance between their Jewishness and that of Lvov and Zukerman. Fighters know that when they really want to do damage, they close the space between so the physics of the punch gives it a different intention. Cohen closes the same distance taking the Jewish reader to a place that really does feel less safe. “ Trigger warning” : hand grenades can look like matzoh balls.
My son had told me about the book. He told me to read it and not that I would like it. He reminds me of Cohen, about the same age, manner, a bit of resemblance and with that clarity that makes thoughts original. To see that Cohen is yet a young man, a man without the usual pedigree, is to sense that he comes from a place the Webb telescope will yet reveal. Perhaps there is a planet,” Uncle Morris”, just beyond the visible sky, a galactic Catskill’s where knives and skills are the sharpened the same way.
For those of you who are not Jewish, this is a fictional novel. For those of us who are, it is an inchoate memory. Uncanny, exact, unsparing. I recall the dinner, at the generic “apartment on Ocean Parkway”, in the sublime film, “My Favorite Year”. It was parody and still sweet enough to be an acceptable lie. It was the good “bad “version of the 1950’s Jewish family. At the “Blum” table, Cohen makes sure you really taste the venom in the borscht. Funny thing though it is a very recognizable flavor.
Cohen dissects without even asking for the permission you give to the surgeon. It is insider trading of cultural information only the chosen few would know. Cohen is a magnificent yenta, a brilliant one, and that is what we never imagined a yenta could be. This is Myron Cohen with a grudge and as if Joe Louis had a specific audience in mind when he said, “You can run but you can’t hide”.
When you start “The Netanyahu’s,” you imagine it will be satiric and still encoded in the hieroglyphics of Jewishness in America. Non-Jews can appreciate other people being Jewish but Cohen is pure in his retelling of every secret handshake (ne insult) and intended slight. He is like Watson and Crick doing the encoding of the Semitic DNA.
It is brilliant and it is as sharp as a guillotine. Jews, like any truly inbred group, are tightly bound. Maybe everyone is someone’s cousin 15 times removed. Jackie Mason’s retelling of the Jew in a restaurant remains remarkable for I know of no exception that the experience is true for every Jewish family. “There is a draft” will be valid when the pyramids are all gone.
Cohen has no advanced degree and perhaps an immaculately conceived career. He was just suddenly there. He sat at the foot , literally, of Harold Bloom, and it really shows. Cohen is our Milton, channeling the waiter in the Stage Deli’s relocation to purgatory. “ What, you want mayonnaise?”
I will surely read his other books and admire him for his rare skill. Bloom made sure he trusted his talent more that his vanity. To paraphrase, he is speaking, “Truth to the “Mishpuca”.