2017-08-16 / Voice at the Shore

Acclaimed novelist and AC native Joshua Cohen talks about his new book at Shirat Hayam

ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor


JOSHUA COHEN JOSHUA COHEN Will the next Great American Novelist be Atlantic Cityborn and-bred—and a graduate of Trocki Hebrew Academy? Quite possibly. Joshua Cohen, the 36-year-old son of Shirat Hayam members

Barry and Ronnie Cohen, has been described in literary circles as one of the Best Young American Writers (according to Granta, a British literary magazine). Three of his recent novels have been named Best Books of the Year by media outlets ranging from the Village Voice and the New Yorker to the Wall Street Journal and NPR. The LA Times lauds his “brain-on-fire intellect” and the New Yorker calls Cohen “an extraordinary prose stylist, surely one of the most prodigious at work in American fiction today.”

Last month, Cohen released his newest novel, Moving Kings, which is already critically acclaimed. The author, who now resides in NYC, will talk about his latest book and more at Shirat Hayam on Wednesday, August 30, 7-8:30 p.m. A dessert reception and book signing will follow the discussion, which will be moderated by Meryl Rodgers.

Although Rodgers typically leads book groups for the Board of Jewish Education (which is co-presenting the event with Shirat Hayam), this time she has a special connection to the book author.

“Meryl Rodgers has known me since I was born,” noted Cohen. “I will be happy to talk about anything she wants to talk about. I’m open to anything.”

No doubt there will be a lot to talk about—starting with his most recent book. Moving Kings tells the story of two young Israeli soldiers (veterans of the 2014 Gaza war) who spend a “gap year” after their military service working for a New York City moving company owned by divorced middle-aged Jewish businessman David King, who is a distant cousin to one of the soldiers.

The book, which is at varying times funny, insightful and dramatic, paints unique pictures of a diverse group of characters that are Jewish, non-Jewish, Israeli and minority. It also draws a parallel between the soldiers’ experiences evicting poor people from their homes in New York City and their experiences as soldiers in Gaza, where they had to break into Palestinians’ homes, hustle them out, and search through their possessions.

“This is a book about what it means to have a home, what a home can represent, making your home in a new city,” said Cohen, who remembered seeing what this was like for Trocki Hebrew Academy students who came here from the former Soviet Union. “It is also about the process of ‘unhoming’ people, which is legal, but seems immoral—anathema to Jewish morality.”

Cohen said he found it interesting to contrast the soldiers’ “military experience that some people believe to be illegal by international law” with the eviction of poor people, which “is legal and normal but still maybe not moral.”

“I consider this more of a test of someone’s politics rather than a political statement,” added Cohen.

Cohen’s father, Barry, said that ethics has always been more important than politics for Joshua. “The issues that mattered most to Joshua growing up (and which were the subject of countless dinner table debates) were not politics and left versus right, but rather ethics and wrong versus right,” he noted.

Joshua said his interest in houses and homes grew out of his experience growing up at the Jersey shore, where so many second homes were empty for most of the year. “The image of these homes closed down for the season stuck with me—perfect houses with no one in them—homes sitting empty in a world where a lot of people don’t have homes.”

Cohen’s strong Jewish upbringing is also evident in his books. Moving Kings is one of his many books with Jewish characters and themes. Cohen remembers the Jewish community he grew up in as “very tight and close knit...its own little shtetl. I didn’t really realize goyim lived in South Jersey,” he joked. Cohen credited people like Cantor Ed Kulp as being “enormously influential” in imparting to him “an authentic Jewish spirit.” He also described his education at Hebrew Academy, under the direction of Mordecai Weiss, as “pretty formidable.”

His frequent trips to Israel (“I’ve been there maybe a dozen times with my family”) and many encounters with Israelis—including the handful of Israeli students at Trocki Academy—made it easy for Cohen to craft Israeli characters. He also traveled to Israel in the summer of 2014—during the Gaza war—specifically to do research for Moving Kings.

In addition to writing novels, Cohen is also a journalist. Last summer, he did a lot of writing about Atlantic City. “I spent a month and a half in Atlantic City, writing about Trump’s impact on the region, Atlantic City’s takeover by the state, and the legacy of casino gaming.”

What’s it like to be an up-and-coming American writer? Maybe not what you’d think. There is no opulent Park Avenue apartment; rather, Cohen lives in his aunt’s New York City apartment building.

“What’s my life like? I’ve been doing publicity [for Moving Kings] wall-to-wall for a couple of months,” he said, adding that the book will soon be coming out in German and French. When not working on the book, he added, “It’s a lot of deadlines. I work for a lot of magazines and newspapers. I did a lot of political writing during the election and after.”

“There’s not a lot of opportunities to do the things I like, which are drinking and sleeping,” he added. 

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