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On Heaven & Politics: An Interview with Joshua Cohen

As one critic has noted, Joshua Cohen’s new novel reminds us of an old Richard Pryor routine. Coming to in an ambulance after a cocaine binge-induced heart attack, Prior finds himself encircled by white medics. “Shit!” he thinks, “They sent me to the wrong heaven!”

Joshua Cohen

In Cohen’s A Heaven of Others, published by Buffalo-based Starcherone Books, a 10-year old Jewish boy in Jerusalem is blown up by a 10-year old Palestinian boy and ascends to a heaven not of his tradition.

Artvoice: Why does the idea of multiple heavens interest you?

Joshua Cohen: Swedenborg mapped the Christian heaven. The Muslim heaven features prominently in the Koran and various Arabic poetries, Hadith and other homiletic commentary. The Jewish heaven, though, is still a mystery—it’s mystic. Jews believe in olam haba—literally ‘The World to Come,’ which is, accurately, this world if and when Messianically perfected, and not ‘The Next World,’ or any other world, for that matter, past or future. Because Jews have this world and only this world, then, they have been particularly sensitive to the lives they live on and of it. To example: Martyrdom, or suicide, is forbidden in Judaism. The only way a Jew might become martyred is if he or she is killed, not if they kill themselves.

In A Heaven of Others a Jewish boy (he’s an Israeli, but he’s also a Jew) is exploded by a suicide bomber, and ascends, mistakenly, to the Muslim Heaven. He’s on the wrong side of the wall, and without a passport—this is, in itself, and even if mistaken, a political act.

Today, centuries after Spinoza, we’re still having this discussion of religion vs. politics. Our current American president has exampled, once again, that the more religious the politician, the more dangerous. A religious person like W. Bush can justify his politics, though, because this isn’t it for him—there’s more. According to the theology of this Administration and, too, to the theology of every terrorist that wants to kill Americans, Israelis, and Jews, today does not have to be tended if a tomorrow awaits. Earth and humanity can be defiled and murdered, these people think, because heaven is inexhaustibly ours—only, that is, if you’re a believer.

All of that said, the politics of this book are simple, almost simple-minded: I believe in peace. I believe in the world here and now. Spinoza said that he considered ‘reality’ and ‘perfection’ synonymous terms. He was saying, in effect: This is the only world and the only life we have, or that we know we have. ‘We’ not just being Spinoza’s Jews anymore, but everyone.

Joshua Cohen reads from A Heaven of Others Saturday, May 3, at 8pm, in Hallwalls Cinema, 340 Delaware Ave. At 2pm, Cohen will be part of a forum at Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St., “Is Political Fiction Possible?” along with UB English professor Mark Shechner and Starcherone Books publisher Ted Pelton.

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