I am a Bad Jew by many people’s standards. Other people would deny me even that, since I never had a bar mitzvah and have never belonged to a synagogue. I am only very slowly learning Hebrew. I’m mostly committed to holidays for the food and a loose sense of seasonality. This year for Chanukah I said a blessing lighting candles but decided that I didn’t want to say the others. In recent years I’ve found myself feeling a stronger pull toward my ancestry within the Eastern European Yiddish community than the Hebraic Zionism that I find problematic for its assimilationist obliteration of specific Jewish heritage before considering the actions of the state of Israel.
It was with this background that I read Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews: A history of American Jewish Politics and Identities. For a history of Jewish people in the United States, the plural in “identities” is important, according to Emily Tamkin. Essential, in fact, because there has been a multiplicity of ways to be Jewish, so too is there a multiplicity of ways to be “Bad Jews,” in any number of respects deficient. Narratives and counter-narratives. Tamkin even includes in her introduction like the one I wrote above to explain how she might just be too bad a Jew to author this book, but perhaps that is just the point.
Bad Jews, which blends history, more than 150 interviews, and a streak of memoir, unfolds in chronologically, with each chapter constructed around two interlocking themes: what might prompt some Jews to characterize others as “Bad Jews” and how Jews fit into the broader patterns of American culture.
American Jewish history is a history, or a set of histories, of immigration and the subsequent oscillation between accepting and resisting acculturation.
While it is common to speak of Jews as a cohesive group, Tamkin invites readers to think otherwise down to the most fundamental levels. Ashkenazim from the Germany and Eastern Europe form the dominant image of what a Jewish person looks like in the United States (and have formed the majority of the population since 1730), but Tamkin notes that the earliest Jews to arrive here were Sephardim who arrived by way of the Iberian peninsula and, thus, early Synagogues followed Sephardic practices. This early arrival also inevitably entangled the Jewish community with slavery, both in terms of employing enslaved labor to construct their places of worship and owning enslaved people. She points out that the first Jewish person to hold a cabinet position was Judah P. Benjamin, a wealthy slave owner who became secretary of state of the Confederate States of America.
Tamkin weaves this same thread back in during the Civil Rights Movement when, in 1965, famously, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many Jews are rightfully proud of this heritage and Tamkin cites polling form the 1950s that suggests that most Jews considered commitment to civil rights more essential for being a “Good Jew” than support for Israel. And yet, as a number of recent comments from Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and other prominent African Americans indicate, there is also a longstanding frustration with, if not hostility in, this relationship. Tamkin builds from an analysis of James Baldwin’s essay “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They Are Anti-White,” to identify the disconnect in that while Jewish allies of the movement emphasize the similarities in their place in American society, African Americans chaffed at the differences in lived experience when most Jews received the privileges of being white. In other words, it isn’t that Jews are not marginalized in essential ways in American society, but they also get to be the landlords.
In turn, this point again reinforces the tensions within the American Jewish community when it comes to Jews of color.
[Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Jews who participated in the civil rights movement are] American Jewish history, but…only a part of it. In the contemporary context, that means grappling with all of American Jewish history and with the various stances American Jews have chosen to take with respect to white supremacy. It also means that those who say that Jews aren’t white only to turn around and malign Jews who do not look white as not really being Jewish are only fooling themselves.
Race is a construct, but it is a construct with lived implications. And there are, in the United States, Jews who go through life as white. This is the majority of American Jews. If they—we—do not wish to be considered as complicit in white supremacy, a good place to start would be by not insisting that we’re more Jewish than Jews of color.
The issue of race stood out because of the current state of discourse in the United States and other books I have read in the past few years like Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and Koshersoul, both of which address the intersection of his race and his Judaism, but it is only one example of the questions at the heart of Bad Jews. There is no one way to be a “Good Jew,” in Tamkin’s thesis, and thus there is a multiplicity of ways to be a “Bad Jew.” Moreover, these are contested definitions perpetually undergoing regeneration.
In many respects, the story that Tamkin tells about Jews parallels the evolution of the United States more broadly, and it is important to recognize those connections. However, “Jews” make for a compelling subject for thinking about the United States as a pluralistic polity because of the way that both mainstream Christian Americans and parts of the Jewish community have tried to articulate Jews as an eternal other, separate from and incompatible with the rest of the citizen body.
Bad Jews is not a book one can turn to for answers. That very idea is antithetical even to Tamkin’s project. Rather, this is a book that is designed to think with. I came into it with a strong sense of certain schisms within the broad Jewish community, but I quickly discovered that I had underestimated how deep and multifaceted these divisions were.
This is the second in a backlog of books I read months ago that I still want to write about. Since I am currently re-reading several novels that I’m teaching with this semester, I might even “catch up” before the semester overtakes me too much.