Emily Tamkin used to think of herself as a “bad Jew.”
The journalist and author told The Times of Israel that she once believed that her failure to adhere to certain religious, cultural and political norms placed her outside the spectrum of what is considered a “good Jew.”
However, in her new book, “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” Tamkin casts aside not just the idea that she herself is a “bad Jew,” but that the phrase should ever be utilized to describe — or demonize — members of the Jewish community.
Traversing through the past century of American Jewish history, Tamkin’s “Bad Jew” delves into some of the issues that have most divided American Jewry, from immigration to organized labor, civil rights, Zionism, intermarriage and other hot-button topics that Jewish groups often did not – and still do not – agree upon.
Questions arise: Is the “good Jew” the one who champions human rights for all, or the one who prioritizes the safety and security of the Jewish community? Is the “good Jew” the one who claims that antisemitism stems largely from the right or the one who views it as a firmly left-wing problem? And is the “bad Jew” Sheldon Adelson or George Soros? Bernie Sanders or Jared Kushner?
In the introduction to the book, published by heavy-hitter HarperCollins, Tamkin lays out her intention “to use American Jewish history to demonstrate that the concept of ‘Bad Jew’ — much like that of ‘Good Jew’ — is, like almost everything else in American Jewish history, more contested than defined, and that there are more meaningful conversations about American Jewishness to be had instead.”
Tamkin suggests that labeling political opponents as “bad” or “good” Jews — or worse, as not Jewish at all due to their positions — should be firmly dismissed.
“I think using political differences as some sort of authenticity test is wrong,” said Tamkin in a recent phone interview. “I feel like American Jewish politics now are just throwing labels on people across the aisle and hoping that it sticks. And I think that’s not the most productive conversation. I would rather talk about what is meaningful, what’s significant, what’s morally compelling, and not try to assert that it’s the only way that one can be Jewish — because it’s not.”
Internal Jewish strife has existed as long as Jews have – illustrated no better than by the classic joke about a Jewish man stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues: the one he attends and the one he refuses to attend.
But Tamkin said she saw a need to write “Bad Jews” at this particular moment in time after a confluence of several motivations. One of those was her last book, “The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society,” which dealt in part with the vast antisemitic conspiracy theories ascribed to the left-wing billionaire. The others included the divisive rise to power of Donald Trump as well as an infamous 2011 tweet from right-wing provocateur pundit Ben Shapiro, which declared: “The Jewish people has always been plagued by Bad Jews, who undermine it from within. In America, those Bad Jews largely vote Democrat.”
While researching the book, Tamkin reached out to many Jewish leaders and historians, but also spoke to around 150 Jewish Americans of all stripes about their own stories and identities.
“One of the things that I’m proud of in this book is that although there are notable figures who were interviewed, most of the interviews are American Jews who are just living their lives as American Jews and shared their thoughts with me,” said Tamkin.
She also weaves her own personal family history and identity throughout the book, including her ancestors’ immigration stories, her parents’ views on Jewish identity and the antisemitism she and her siblings faced growing up in a small town on Long Island.
“I don’t really write like that ever,” she said. “But I found that – first – my own family story would be a useful way to follow the story of American Jewish history and — second — I thought that it… would be less complete if I was writing about American Jewish narratives and trying to complicate them and not doing that with the stories that I tell myself.”
Born to a father who grew up in a synagogue-attending Conservative Jewish family and a Catholic mother who converted before she was born, Tamkin herself married a non-Jewish man in 2020, but intends to raise her future children as Jewish.
“I really went back and forth deciding whether to write the book – because I grew up secular, because I’m not married to a Jewish person, because I’d never been to Israel before writing the book,” said Tamkin, who was concerned that she might be seen as “not really Jewish enough to write it.”
Ultimately, she said, she realized she would never tell anyone else to “hold themselves to that standard.”
Tamkin visited Israel twice during her research, noting that it is “probably telling that in a book on American Jews, I felt like I could not submit it if I had not been to Israel, because Israel looms so large in the American Jewish imagination and consciousness.”
Across nine chapters organized by theme, Tamkin explores new and old divisions among American Jews, including figures at the forefront of both the socialist and neoconservative movements; those in the refusenik camp fighting for Russian Jews’ right to leave, versus those in the dissident movement seeking to improve life for Soviet Jews; and even those on either side of the debate over the Anti-Defamation League accusing evangelical preacher Pat Robertson of antisemitism.
Despite each chapter’s focus, the topics that seem to most pervasively torment American Jews – intermarriage and support of Israel – unsurprisingly rear their heads repeatedly throughout the book.
Keen consumers of American Jewish history will already be familiar with many if not most of the topics Tamkin covers in “Bad Jews.” But she has hopes the book will reach a wide-ranging audience.
“I would hope that it is first and foremost of interest to American Jews,” she said. “Having said that, everybody has an identity. And I think the experience of finding yourself — finding identity to be a concept at once extensive and quite limiting — is not unique to Jewish people.”
While Tamkin presents multiple sides of the divisive issues covered in the book, she still stakes her claim pretty clearly on the side of progressive liberals, which may turn off those seeking a more detached approach and reel in those who are similarly aligned.
“I tried to include a range of voices, I tried to include opinions that I disagree with, but the book still comes from a certain point of view,” noted Tamkin of her own politics. She is also quick to point out that “Bad Jews” is in no way an exhaustive or comprehensive look at the topic.
“You could get 100 people writing a book on the last 100 years of American Jewish history, and you would get 100 different books,” she said. “I’m not trying to present this as ‘Yep, this is it.’ This is a story. It’s an invitation to rethink some of the narratives that we tell ourselves, to grapple with identity.”
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