We were visiting on Sunday. There were so many families in our Reform Synagogue that the youngest children went to Hebrew school on Saturday mornings, and I remember one day I impatiently told 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 amazed by his reaction. Many observant Jews don’t 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 only person in my life who openly cared about such things.
This fault line is cataloged 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 traditionally religious Jewess appalled by the irreligious behavior of her offspring – is one of the many ways that American Jews draw lines and judge each other, sometimes out of love or to maintain 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 uniqueness of Jewish life in contemporary America provides a particularly 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 and enforce their own lines of demarcation, and some do, with relish.
Tamkin is, by her own admission, a flawed chronicler of American Jewish history and identity. She had no religious education, had no bat mitzvah, married a non-Jew and did not visit Israel until she started writing this book. When she and her husband joined a Reform synagogue, she “felt like a person playing at being Jewish while filling out 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 insightful and perceptive enough to add to the considerable conversation about Jewish religious, cultural and political identity that already exists.
Unfortunately, while she deftly offers useful insight into this debate, she misses the opportunity to fully analyze it and offer new thinking.
Summarizing the early history of Jews in America, she makes an important point: that anti-Semitism was present but largely not fundamental. “There was, generally speaking, cultural discrimination against Jews, and this was sometimes reinforced and reflected by institutions like the judiciary,” she writes. “But it’s very different from the Jews of America who are legally classified and treated differently.” (As African Americans have been since the days of slavery.)
And because of that, acceptance and assimilation were achievable. “In the 1945s through the 1960s, many American Jews settled more comfortably into the world of white America,” she writes.
As they became more accepted, prosperous, and secure, American Jews accommodated divergent religious and political identities. The chapter titles of “Bad Jews” encapsulate these identities: Zionist Jews, Civil Rights Jews, Right-Wing Jews, Hardworking Jews, Refugee Jews, “This Land is Our Land” Jews, Pushing Jews. Engagement with Israel has become a broader and more controversial aspect of Jewish identity. Engagement with other movements – civil rights, labor, immigration reform – ebbed and flowed.
What clearly animates Tamkin is the debate over intermarriage. Her mother was not born Jewish and converted after marrying her father. Tamkin’s Native American husband has agreed to raise their (future) children in Jewry and willingly supports the establishment of a Jewish home. Nonetheless, as Tamkin repeatedly writes, she is often made to feel like a bad Jew by the Jewish establishment.
Referring to a prominent philanthropist who views intermarriage as an existential threat (or at least one that keeps him awake at night), Tamkin writes, “I wondered if he understood what it was like to hear People considered Jewish leaders say that the big threat to Jewishness is you, a person who is so proud to be Jewish and who loves someone who isn’t.
This plaintive cry is not new, at least to anyone who has paid attention to the Jewish debate for the past decade or more. Even though the imperative for a Jew to marry another Jew is rooted in Jewish law and tradition, the rate of intermarriage has skyrocketed in America, as has general recognition, if not full acceptance. Just one example: Birthright Israel, the free trip to Israel that has become a right of passage, is open to young Jewish adults “who have at least one Jewish parent”.
This is also true: Children from mixed marriages are much less likely to be raised Jewish and to identify as Jewish. There are notable exceptions, and Tamkin’s future family might be one of them. But there is a solid reason why the Jewish establishment cares about in-marriage, even though the forces of assimilation and modernization will make it impossible to sustain it except for the Orthodox.
Towards the end of the book, Tamkin writes, “Each band has its rules that determine who’s in and who’s out.” True, but in an extremely pluralistic Jewish America such norms may not exist – and may not matter if they do. Contemporary American Jews do not have a Santa Claus figure who decides who is naughty or nice, because Jewish life is decentralized, multifaceted and largely free from outside control.
I started to think, reading this book, that the writer is a prisoner of the title. This leads the reader to expect new thinking about who is a bad Jew, when in reality Tamkin is seriously trying to figure out how many people in this crazy quilt of a nation are trying to be good Jews. Including the author herself.
Jane Eisner, a regular contributor to Book World, is the director of academic affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is writing a book on Carole King for Yale University Press.
A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities
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