Wanting in, wanting out: Phoebe Maltz Bovy contemplates the soup of beliefs found in a new book called ‘Bad Jews’

Out of sync with the season but artisanally schmaltzed.

Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews is in a sense two books in one. It’s a sweeping explainer—clearly written, and well-sourced with interviews and citations of respected historians—of American Jewish history. It’s also an argument-driven case for Jewish pluralism. 

From the title, I was anticipating a book about Jewish rebels. Gangsters, maybe, as with Bad Gays, or whoever the American equivalent is to Amy Winehouse.

(Nor is it “bad” in the sense of Bad Feminist, a book in which Roxane Gay advocated unachievable ideological purity.)

It is instead, more poignantly, about belonging: everyone’s someone else’s bad Jew—which, for the purposes of this book, means one who is insufficiently or dubiously Jewish.

It took me a while to figure this out. At first I thought the point of the book was that Jews are not a monolith, and that there are many ways to be Jewish, which, while true, didn’t seem like a new or important enough point to merit a project of this magnitude. But it’s not that. It’s about the ways that Jews have challenged one another’s membership in the group. It’s not a protest against halakhic gatekeeping (and she’s clear that religious-line-drawing is not her concern) so much as about the thing where Jewish conservatives see Jewish progressives as traitors.  

For the author—an American journalist who spent part of her childhood in Toronto—the question of authenticity is at once theoretical and personal. She’s an intermarried Jew, in a community fixated on getting Jews to marry in.

And yet, is she not part of a Jewish household?.

“My husband… joined a synagogue with me; lights Shabbat candles every week with me; hosts Passover seders with me; buys apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah; has his own menorah; watches movies about Jewish history and culture with me; goes to Jewish museums and memorials around the world with me; and agreed while we were still dating to raise our children Jewish.”

Tamkin is also, she notes, the daughter of a convert to Judaism, one whose path to acceptance was not always smooth:

“My mom quite literally changed my life by deciding to convert to Judaism and raise us as Jewish kids. She was often not treated warmly by members of the Jewish community. But I’m not writing this for them. I’m writing this for her. Mommy: I’m sorry anybody ever made you feel less than. I hope you know that, to me, you are the best Jew a person can be, because you are the best person a person can be.”

This sense of identity made her “worried… that I was not Jewish enough, or not the right kind of Jewish, to write a book on American Jewish history.”

Bad Jews is a rejection of Jewishness as an exclusionary club. Tamkin argues against a vision of Jewish continuity that centres on in-marriage and suggests, as an alternative, embracing the vibrant Jewish organizing of, in particular, queer Jews and Jews of colour.

She’s less enthusiastic about Israel and Zionism, but rightly notes that American Jews of more recent refugee status, who may feel a bit less safe in the world, continue to see the urgency of a Jewish state.  

To be a bad Jew, in Bad Jews, is to be someone banging on the door of Jewishness, asking to be let in, or at the very least, having your Jewishness questioned. But there’s a different use of “bad Jew” that never comes up in the book. It’s when Jews use the expression about themselves as a way of reassuring non-Jews that they’re not too Jewish. A “bad Jew” as double negative, that is, in situations where Jewishness is likely to be viewed as an impediment. As in, “don’t worry, I eat bacon, I’m a bad Jew.”

The internal conversation about belonging—where the hoped-for situation is to be considered an authentic Jew—coexists with a broader society that frowns on Jewishness. Just as some Jews have wanted in, others have, for various reasons, wanted out. 

I’m thinking about the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry David thinks he comes from a small-town, all-American white Christian family. Or the trope in Holocaust stories of the Jew who survived by passing, because as luck would have it they didn’t look Jewish. Jewishness is many things: a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, a people, a community. It is also, as the stories of converts from Judaism throughout history remind, a fate.

Though well-versed in the history of American antisemitism, Tamkin’s central preoccupation is with the Jews who want in and are pushed out. There’s another whole part of the diaspora Jewish experience that’s about wanting out while knowing that there isn’t one. 

As with all history books, academic and general-audience, Bad Jews is at once about the time discussed and its own current moment. Tamkin uses “Jewish person” throughout, something I found strange until I remembered that in some circles “Jew” is thought to be a slur.    

Everybody comes to a topic like this with their own idiosyncratic perspectives. I’m an intermarried, non-observant, liberal Zionist Jew. (And a native New Yorker in Toronto, too.) As far as I know, all my ancestors were Jewish. A lot of what Tamkin writes about the Jewish communal obsession with intermarriage, and specifically with getting Jewish women to have Jewish babies, resonated with me. The parts about wanting in, not so much. 

While I’ve met plenty of people who’ve disapproved of my politics or life choices, I have never once worried if I was Jewish enough. I’ve never had to want in. Though nor, clearly (hello!), do I want out.

Now you can tell Phoebe what you think: pbovy[@]thecjn.ca

If you’re new to our new senior editor, you can read her introduction.

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