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

Posted By on October 15, 2022

Emily Tamkins Bad Jews is in a sense two books in one. Its a sweeping explainerclearly written, and well-sourced with interviews and citations of respected historiansof American Jewish history. Its 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: everyones someone elses bad Jewwhich, 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, didnt seem like a new or important enough point to merit a project of this magnitude. But its not that. Its about the ways that Jews have challenged one anothers membership in the group. Its not a protest against halakhic gatekeeping (and shes 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 authoran American journalist who spent part of her childhood in Torontothe question of authenticity is at once theoretical and personal. Shes 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 Im not writing this for them. Im writing this for her. Mommy: Im 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.

Shes 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 theres a different use of bad Jew that never comes up in the book. Its when Jews use the expression about themselves as a way of reassuring non-Jews that theyre 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, dont worry, I eat bacon, Im a bad Jew.

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

Im 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 didnt 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, Tamkins central preoccupation is with the Jews who want in and are pushed out. Theres another whole part of the diaspora Jewish experience thats about wanting out while knowing that there isnt 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. Im 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 Ive met plenty of people whove disapproved of my politics or life choices, I have never once worried if I was Jewish enough. Ive 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 youre new to our new senior editor, you canread her introduction.

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Wanting in, wanting out: Phoebe Maltz Bovy contemplates the soup of beliefs found in a new book called 'Bad Jews' - The Canadian Jewish News

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