Emily Tamkin Talks “Bad Jews”

Many Jews use the term “Bad Jew” as a weapon against other members of the community or even against themselves. You can be called a Bad Jew if you don’t keep kosher; if you only go to temple on Yom Kippur; if you don’t attend or send your children to Hebrew school; if you enjoy Christmas music; if your partner isn’t Jewish; if you don’t call your mother often enough. The list is endless.

In her new book, Bad Jews (Harper, $$), author Emily Tamkin points out that  there are several million people who identify as American Jews—but that doesn’t mean they all identify with one another. American Jewish history is full of discussions and debates and hand wringing over who is Jewish, how to be Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish.  

Tamkin talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the evolution of Jewishness throughout American history, and why the question of who is—or isn’t—a bad Jew resists an easy answer. 

YZM: Why does the term “Bad Jew” even exist?  Do Christians typically worry about being bad Christians or describe themselves that way? 

ET: I don’t think the idea of being a “bad” member of a group — either feeling that way yourself or calling someone else that — is unique to Jews. There are at least as many jokes about Catholic guilt as there are Jewish guilt. And I don’t even think it’s particular to religion. We could point to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. My book is one of three Bad books this year that I’m aware of, and my understanding is that the other two, Bad Gays and Bad Mexicans, are also about complicating histories of a certain group. 

Groups are held together by certain concepts, and one of the most powerful is stories. Certainly, this is true in the Jewish tradition, and by that I mean both the stories of Judaism and the stories we pass down to one another as Jews, about being Jewish. 

But what happens when you don’t quite fit into a particular story? What if the story doesn’t make sense to you? What if it does, but it’s not reflected in your own life? Or what if you interpret it differently than someone else? And because this inevitably happens, we have this reality of stories that don’t quite work for people, and people who don’t quite work for the stories. I think the concept of the Bad Jew, at its core, comes back to that. 

YZM: In the book, you identify familiar stereotypes— Jews as cheap/overly concerned about money, Jews as Communists, Jews as belonging to powerful, secret cabals that control finance and politics—how do these characterizations speak to the idea of being a bad Jew? 

ET: One thing that happens over and over in American Jewish history is the existence of Jews who threaten to make other Jews look bad — or, at least, make other Jews feel threatened. And one way they do this is by adhering to these stereotypes. In some cases, that’s led certain Jewish institutions to want to have nothing to do with them. I’m thinking here of the way in which establishment Jewish groups tried to distance themselves from Communism in the 1950s. And in some cases, it’s led to a discomfort with talking about certain realities. It’s uncomfortable, for some, for example, to speak about Bernie Madoff, a Jewish financier who scammed people (especially other Jewish people).

I would just add here that one of the people I spoke to for the book, the historian Lila Corwin Berman, made the point to me that being afraid to discuss, for example, Jewish philanthropy because of fear of feeding stereotypes makes the mistake of pretending that what antisemites think is dictated by the behavior of Jews. It’s not. Antisemitism isn’t really about Jewish people and what we say and do; it’s about antisemites and their own hateful ideas. 

YZM: You’ve written that the racial status of Jews had been called into question, and that at one point, Jews sought prove their whiteness by the denigration of non-whites; can you address the repercussions of that position? 

ET: Certainly, not every Jewish person goes through life in the United States as a white person, but many of us do. At the turn of the last century, when Jews’ racial status was called into question, Jewish leaders very clearly made the case that they should not be considered anything but white for immigration purposes (this was not enough to stop discriminatory immigration law).

 After WWII, American Jews were able to benefit from the GI Bill, which Black Americans were not. American Jews were able to move out into suburbia, furthering, intentionally or otherwise, segregation of American life. Certain Jewish writers wrote about themselves in contrast to Black Americans. 

If American Jews are going to celebrate Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement, then we need to be aware of this, too. And by “this” I mean the role that some American Jews played in upholding a discriminatory racial hierarchy.

YZM: Talk about the debate between assimilationists and transformationalists; where do you see yourself? 

ET: One tension that emerges when one looks at American Jewish history are between those who see things like intermarrying or changing a Haggadah or rethinking what it means to be Jewish in America as losses and those who think that part of tradition is changing and evolving. (I should say that these are all different issues and some people are more comfortable with change in some areas than others.) I am personally much more in the latter group. The way we live is always changing. Sometimes the mere act of trying to keep life as it is creates a change. I live a very different life than, for example, my great grandmother, but I think that’s fine, and I also think it’s Jewish. 

I should say that I’m sure this could be considered self-serving, or self-justifying. And maybe it is. But I also think it’s right. 

YZM: Near the end of the book, you write, The more I read and wrote and thought about being Jewish, the less I understood of it.  Can you elaborate on this statement?  Where do you see the future of Jews heading? 

ET: I just meant that the more I thought about “what does it mean to be Jewish, and particularly in the United States?,” the more I could see that there was no answer. I’d read about a debate on some subject and, at the end of it, it would split into three more debates. I would start thinking that I’d wrapped my head around something and then change my mind. 

Someone told me that they were surprised at how optimistic the book is. I think I surprised myself in that way, too. But I am cautiously optimistic that the future of American Jews will be a rich one. There are so many people who care deeply about Jewishness, and who are invested, personally and collectively, in figuring out what is meaningful about being Jewish. I think the future of American Jewishness will be pluralistic, and I think it will be fraught and challenging, and I think it will look different than it does today, and I think that last part is also a proud part of American Jewish tradition.