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How Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Joshua Cohen mines the Israeli-American relationship for comedy and tragedy

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11.05.2022

(JTA) — For many younger Jews, being critical of Israel is itself a form of attachment. They may not consider themselves answerable to the Jewish state, but they definitely feel answerable for it in the eyes of the world. The same is true of some Jewish writers, including Michael Chabon and his wife, Israel-born novelist Ayelet Waldman, who together edited the 2017 anthology “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation.”

But the American writer who has found Israel most fruitful as a subject is Joshua Cohen, whose critique of Zionism is more complicated and ironic. Born in 1980 and raised in an Orthodox family in New Jersey, Cohen emerged in the 2010s as the author of “Witz” and “Book of Numbers,” huge, world swallowing novels in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Jewishness is central to those books — “Witz” is a postmodern epic about the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that kills all the world’s Jews on a single night, like Passover in reverse. But it wasn’t until later that Cohen turned his focus to Israel in two books that are more approachable and realistic — at least up to a point: “Moving Kings” (2017) and “The Netanyahus” (2021), named this week as the winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Most American writers mirror their own experience by sending American characters to be tested or redeemed in Israel, but in these novels, Cohen brings Israeli characters to the United States. It’s a canny decision that effectively reverses the burden of proof: Now it is Israeli Jews who have to show whether they can live up to American conditions and ideals.

That reversal is signaled in the name of the protagonist of “Moving Kings.” Instead of King David, Cohen suggests, America produces men like David King, who rules over nothing but a shady moving and storage business. He is a harsh reflection of the social position of American Jewry: King rules high-handedly over his employees, who are poor immigrants of color, but is cowed by the WASPs he encounters at a Republican fundraiser.

“It was distressing — to others, but not to himself, who didn’t notice — how he’d change,” Cohen writes. “How he’d let himself be lectured, talked down to. How he’d become, in certain situations, not servile exactly, but docile, tamed. A Jew.”

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Indeed, David is deliberately conceived as an unpleasant Jewish stereotype: “This was how David made money, the same way he drove: by........

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