Bad Jews: A His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Pol­i­tics and Identities

  • Review
By – October 14, 2022

Near­ly a decade ago, Joshua Harmon’s play Bad Jews caused a stir by dis­play­ing pet­ty bick­er­ing with­in a Jew­ish fam­i­ly over a reli­gious heir­loom. The premise: one fam­i­ly mem­ber, a young reli­gious woman, stakes a claim to being the right­ful inher­i­tor of the keep­sake because she has kept the faith. Her athe­ist cousin, who is dat­ing a non-Jew­ish woman, relates instead to the Holo­caust his­to­ry of the object. What’s more, he hates what he feels is his cousin’s holi­er-than-thou” atti­tude towards him.

Emi­ly Tamkin’s non­fic­tion book of the same title trav­els sim­i­lar ter­ri­to­ry. She probes con­flicts over Jew­ish iden­ti­ty over the past hun­dred years in Amer­i­ca from the per­spec­tive of today’s hot-but­ton issues. Her argu­ments speak of the het­ero­nor­ma­tive fam­i­ly,” and elite, self-appoint­ed lead­ers of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty.” She returns fre­quent­ly to ques­tions of race: whether or not Jews are white,” and how Jews have treat­ed Black peo­ple. Tamkin is also trou­bled by any resis­tance to intermarriage.

She her­self grew up in a home with lit­tle Jew­ish obser­vance. She nev­er had a bat mitz­vah; she doesn’t observe the Sab­bath or keep kosher. Tamkin asserts unequiv­o­cal­ly that no one per­son is an author­i­ty on being an Amer­i­can Jew.” And she asks rhetor­i­cal­ly, What makes one Jew­ish life more or less authen­tic than another?”

Tamkin writes in a very acces­si­ble, con­ver­sa­tion­al tone, and enlivens her his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive with anec­dotes and per­son­al com­ments. In addi­tion to key polit­i­cal episodes — Rab­bi Stephen S. Wise’s equiv­o­cal role as an advo­cate for Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust; the tri­al of Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg — she ani­mates her account with fre­quent ref­er­ences to pop­u­lar-cul­ture fig­ures: base­ball leg­end Hank Green­berg, film direc­tor William Wyler, and Bar­bie-doll cre­ator Ruth Han­dler. It’s an invit­ing intro­duc­tion to Amer­i­can Jew­ish history.

You might expect a book called Bad Jews to dis­ap­prove of the kind of invid­i­ous com­par­isons which the phrase implies, but that’s actu­al­ly not the case. In fact the sec­ond half of the book names the bad” Jews, replac­ing the old stereo­type of who’s bad” — per­haps Jews who don’t go to syn­a­gogue, or who inter­mar­ry — with a new one.

In Tamkin’s view, the bad” Jews are neo­con­ser­v­a­tives, Ben­jamin Netanyahu, Hen­ry Kissinger, Ashkenor­ma­tive” Jews, Jews who sup­port­ed Don­ald Trump, rab­bis who oppose inter­mar­riage, orga­ni­za­tions which are invari­ably pro-Israel, and gate­keep­ers” who dis­crim­i­nate against Jews of col­or. Her heroes are the social­ists of a cen­tu­ry ago; reli­gious plu­ral­ists; BernieSanders; Jere­my Ben-Ami; Peter Beinart; Bend the Arc; and Jew­ish sup­port­ers of Black Lives Matter.

To her cred­it, Emi­ly Tamkin is also self-aware. Think­ing about the phrase the wor­ship of false idols,” she won­ders whether peo­ple might not look at me and I think was doing the same thing.” Ulti­mate­ly, she con­cludes that what she per­son­al­ly wants from Judaism is a sense of con­nect­ed­ness and tra­di­tion and mean­ing, and also a sense of dis­com­fort and chal­lenge.” Read­ers, espe­cial­ly those with pro­gres­sive lean­ings, will find a lot of food for thought in her hon­est, sober­ing reflections.

Discussion Questions