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‘Bad Jews’ exposes the fault lines in American Judaism

A Shabbat morning service at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., in February 2020. Emily Tamkin explores the dividing lines among American Jews, writing, “Every group has its rules that determine who is in and who is out.” (Noah Berger/AP)

As a young girl, I considered my grandmother Minnie, my father’s mother, the epitome of a pious Jew. A diminutive woman who fled Poland after World War I and was widowed long before I was born, she held steadfast to Jewish tradition and practice — keeping strictly kosher, observing the Sabbath — as if she transported her Orthodox old world to a modest apartment in the Bronx.

We’d visit on Sundays. There were so many families at our Reform synagogue that the younger children attended Hebrew School on Saturday mornings, and I remember one day eagerly telling my grandmother about my class, anticipating her approval.

We learned Hebrew words. She smiled.

And a new prayer. Another smile.

And the teacher played Jewish songs on the piano. A deep frown.

I was stunned by her reaction. Many observant Jews do not play musical instruments on the Sabbath, but I didn’t know that at the time. I only knew that I suddenly went from Good Jew to Bad Jew, crossing an invisible fault line drawn by the one person in my life who cared openly about such things.

This fault line is catalogued and explored in Emily Tamkin’s new book, “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities.” My grandmother’s disapproval — that of a conventionally religious Jew dismayed at the irreligious behavior of her offspring — is one of many ways in which American Jews draw lines and judge one another, sometimes out of love or to uphold treasured traditions, other times out of anger, insecurity or political beliefs that transcend the tribal.

Jews aren’t the only ones to draw such lines, of course. (Just ask your Catholic friends if they’ve ever felt like a Bad Catholic.) But the particularity of Jewish life in contemporary America provides an especially easy canvas. Here religious practice is freely available to follow or ignore; assimilation is commonly accessible; and as the late Leonard Fein once observed, every Jew is a Jew by choice. The Nazis didn’t care if you played the piano on the Sabbath — you were a Jew, no matter what. Here Jews are generally able to try to enforce their own dividing lines, and some do, with relish.

Tamkin is, by her own admission, an imperfect chronicler of American Jewish history and identity. She was not religiously educated, did not have a bat mitzvah, married a non-Jew and did not visit Israel until she began writing this book. When she and her husband joined a Reform synagogue, she “felt like a person playing at being Jewish while filling out the membership forms.”

Her honesty is appreciated, and her sense of being an outsider seeking acceptance, knowledge and understanding propels this book. The more pertinent question is not whether Tamkin is qualified to undertake this project but whether she is discerning and insightful enough to add to the considerable conversation on Jewish religious, cultural and political identity that already exists.

Unfortunately, while she adeptly offers a serviceable overview of that debate, she misses the chance to fully analyze it and provide fresh thinking.

Summarizing the early history of Jews in America, she does make an important point: that antisemitism was present but largely not foundational. “There was, broadly speaking, cultural discrimination against Jews, and that was at times reinforced and reflected by institutions like the justice system,” she writes. “But that is very different from Jews in America being legally classified and treated differently.” (As African Americans were since the time of slavery.)

And because of that, acceptance and assimilation were attainable. “In the years from 1945 through the 1960s, many American Jews moved more comfortably into and up in the world of white America,” she writes.

As they became more accepted, prosperous and secure, American Jews adapted divergent religious and political identities. The chapter headings of “Bad Jews” encapsulate those identities: Zionist Jews, Civil Rights Jews, Right-Wing Jews, Laboring Jews, Refugee Jews, “This Land Is Our Land” Jews, Pushing Jews. Engagement with Israel became a larger and more controversial aspect of Jewish identity. Engagement with other movements — civil rights, labor, immigration reform — flowed and ebbed.

What clearly animates Tamkin is the debate over intermarriage. Her mother was not born Jewish and converted after she married her father. Tamkin’s Indian American husband has agreed to raise their (prospective) children Jewishly and gladly supports creating a Jewish home. Nonetheless, as Tamkin writes repeatedly, she often is made to feel like a Bad Jew by the Jewish establishment.

Referencing one prominent philanthropist who views intermarriage as an existential threat (or at least one keeping him up at night), Tamkin writes, “I wondered if he understood what it felt like to hear from people who are held up as Jewish leaders that the big threat to Jewishness is you, a person who is so proud to be Jewish and who happens to love someone who is not.”

This plaintive cry is not new, at least to anyone who has paid attention to Jewish debate in the last decade or more. Even though the imperative for a Jew to marry another Jew is embedded in Jewish law and tradition, the rate of intermarriage has soared in America, and so has mainstream acknowledgment, if not full acceptance. Just one example: Birthright Israel, the free trip to Israel that has become a rite of passage, is open to Jewish young adults “who have at least one Jewish parent.”

This is also true: The children of intermarriages are much less likely to be raised as Jews and identify as Jews. There are notable exceptions, and Tamkin’s future family may be one of them. But there’s a solid reason that the Jewish establishment cares about in-marriage, even if the forces of assimilation and modernization will make it impossible to sustain for all but the Orthodox.

Toward the end of the book, Tamkin writes, “Every group has its rules that determine who is in and who is out.” True, but in wildly pluralistic Jewish America, such norms may not exist — and may not matter if they do. Contemporary American Jews have no Santa Claus figure deciding who is naughty or nice, because Jewish life is decentralized, multifaceted and largely free of outside control.

I began to think, when reading this book, that the writer is imprisoned by the title. It sets up the reader to expect fresh thinking about who is a Bad Jew, when really Tamkin is earnestly trying to understand how many in this crazy quilt of a nation are trying to be Good Jews. Including the author herself.

Jane Eisner, a regular Book World contributor, is the director of academic affairs for the Columbia School of Journalism. She is writing a book about Carole King for Yale University Press.

Bad Jews

A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities

By Emily Tamkin

Harper. 307 pp. $28.99

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