American Jewish History Is Full of ‘Bad Jews’

Author Emily Tamkin chatted with Hey Alma about her latest book, what it means to be a Bad Jew and, yes, Kanye West.

There are a lot of ways to call someone a Bad Jew.

To avoid reproducing the harm caused by such names, I won’t be listing them. But rest assured (or maybe not) that it’s not uncommon to hear Jews (particularly on the Jewish sides of social media) in disagreement hurling insults, in English and Yiddish. This name-calling often accuses others of harboring internalized antisemitism, harkens back to titles given to Jewish prisoners and collaboraters during the Holocaust, and demeans or negates a person’s Jewishness completely.

But what does it even mean to be a “bad Jew” in the context of American Jewish identity, history and values? Does such a definition even exist?

These are the questions central to “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” an important new book from author and journalist Emily Tamkin which debuted on Tuesday.

I chatted with Emily recently about her latest work, what it means to be a Bad Jew and, yes, Kanye West.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

When did you first have the idea for “Bad Jews”?

I’ve been saying that my “villain origin story” comes from writing my first book, which was about George Soros. One of the things that people say when they’re accused of being antisemitic for the way in which they criticize Soros is that he’s not even really Jewish, right? Look at Israel, they don’t like him, he doesn’t go to synagogue, etc. This really upset me. And after some reflection, I figured out that that was as much about me as it was about this billionaire, who is fine. So that was what led to this book.

As I wrote the introduction, I really went back and forth on whether I should write “Bad Jews” — if I was the person who should write this book, and whether I was “Jewish enough,” or the right kind of Jewish person, to write the book. And what I realized is that that is exactly the kind of attitude that I am writing against. That was sort of the reason that there should be a book like this. So that’s how I came to write “Bad Jews.”

It’s so interesting to hear your own personal reflection process, because the inclusion of yourself and your own family history in the narrative was so powerful.

Thank you. That was not the easiest thing for me. I am a journalist, and I mostly cover politics and foreign policy, so writing about myself in this way is not something I do so often. But I thought about two things. First, I thought it worked as a narrative device for the timeline I was looking at: Some of the historical changes and debates happening between American Jews also happened within my own family. And second: If I was going to hold up these narratives and challenge them, in a way, it seemed only fair that I do that for myself, too. Like, what are the stories that I’ve been telling myself? And in what ways might they not be complete?

How did writing the book change the way you viewed those stories? If at all?

I grew up very secular. As I write in the book, one of the changes that happened to me as a result of this [book] is that I joined a synagogue. I would ask some of my interviewees what being Jewish meant to them, or what it means to them to live as American Jews, and I found myself feeling jealous of people who said they were members of synagogues. I realized that I had told myself that I was this one kind of American Jew, but that I am actually an adult, so I can change what that means to me all the time.

I still catch myself having these moments of internalized “bad Jew.” But I catch them now. I think it’s something that many of us do. It’s very common. I love a tweet of yours actually, that was like, “Enough of self hating Jews, I want to see self-loving Jews.” I really feel that way, too. There are things that I could do that would not be in keeping with my own understanding of what it means to live a Jewish life. But like, for example, if I forget what day Simchat Torah is, which I won’t because it’s the day my book comes out, is that bad? No. And so this book let me let go of some of the hang-ups that I’ve clearly been holding on to.

Can you tell me about the research, interview and writing process for the book?

There were two components to this — one was grappling with the scholarship that was already out there. I am very clear that this is not an academic text. This is a journalistic text, but it’s in conversation with academic works, which was hard and humbling. I had one professor say to me, “we all speak in our own registers.” So Lila Corwin Berman, should you read this interview, thank you so much for saying that. It was very helpful.

The other part of it, because I am a journalist, was trying to speak to people. In some cases, I sought out people who are prominent in history or big players in American Jewish political life. But largely, it meant just finding American Jews to speak to who would share their stories with me, which involved a Google form and Twitter and friends and friends of friends and friends of strangers and enemies of strangers. That last part was a joke, but basically, I was just trying to seek out a wide range of voices and perspectives.

The hardest thing about writing this book was that identity is literally the most personal thing, it’s who you are. I want people to feel represented, and I want people to feel included. But at the same time, it’s not possible for everybody to be fully seen. Also, everybody’s going to disagree with some part of this book, because they didn’t write it. I did. Which is good — that’s generative, that’s what we’re trying to do here. But I wanted to make sure, for example, that Jews of color were included, though I myself am not a Jew of color, and I’m not trying to speak for Jews of color. And it’s the same with Jews who are more observant than I am, and the list goes on and on. Getting that balance right was something that I took very seriously.

As I said to somebody else, one of the things that I’m really proud of is that most of the interviews are with “regular” people, right? I think that if you read this book, you will come away understanding that this is a living history full of lots of different types of American Jewish lives.

So where do you think this impulse to call others bad Jews comes from?

Well, the first thing I should say is that the most common response to  “what do you think of when you think of a bad Jew?” is that people would say, “Oh, I think of myself.” Which is kind of funny, but may ultimately be kind of sad.

I see it manifesting in two ways. On the religious side, there are all of these rules and practices, and if you don’t adhere to them, you’re somehow bad. I don’t really agree with that point of view, but I see where it comes from. There are also people who are doing this very intentionally for political purposes, which, speaking honestly, I think is really manipulative. I think it’s wrong to weaponize identity like that, or to try to claim authenticity over identity in that way.

How do you think American Jews should respond when we accuse one another of being bad Jews or self-hating Jews, or when Jews themselves hold up antisemitic conspiracy theories?

On the last one, I think they shouldn’t do that. But really, my answer is that we should have very little patience for it. In some ways, this book is a love letter to Jewish pluralism, and pluralism has within it a paradox.  It means that I have to sit with and accept the fact that there are other Jews who regularly say that other people are bad Jews. And like that that’s a legitimate form of interpretation of Jewishness and Judaism. Which it is.

And so to take my own advice, I won’t say that Jews aren’t Jewish when they’re doing that. But I think it’s a cruel thing to do. I personally don’t think that it’s borne out in the tradition, which is about arguing. And I also wrote in the book that if your whole argument is that my argument doesn’t count because I’m not really Jewish, then you don’t have an argument. You’re just shutting down the debate. So I think that it’s important that Jews not respond to that argument by saying, “Well, actually, you’re not really Jewish.” I think we should not just throw the label of “shanda fur die goyim” back and forth at each other, and instead say, “Here’s why I think you’re wrong.”

The example that I’ve been giving to people is: I am sure that Stephen Miller, if he were pressed, could find an example in Judaism or in Jewish tradition that justifies what I consider to be his completely abhorrent immigration policy. And so what I won’t say is that he’s not Jewish. But I think what he’s doing is cruel and wrong. They could be Jewish values, but they’re not my Jewish values. So rather than saying, “Now, I’m doing Jewishness right and you’re doing it wrong.” I don’t need to cancel you out from the debate. I can win this debate on the merits.

Very early on in the book, you talk about your belief that a more accurate definition of antisemitism is that it’s the the conviction that Jews are forever alien and bent on corrupting the populations they’re a part of. Why do you think it’s important to draw this out explicitly?

I think nationalism, and specifically, ethnonationalism has such a potent role in our politics today that it’s useful to call the thing by the name and say, “You’re not just saying that Jews are all-powerful. And you’re not just saying that everything is a Jewish conspiracy.” Let’s take it one step further: Why would Jews be trying to conspire against the nation — unless you don’t really think that they’re part of the nation? You don’t, because you’re an antisemite. In assessing how I see antisemitism is being used today in American politics, it’s useful to also have this element named and stated and understood as part of the conversation.

Another interesting part of the book was about the relationship between American Jews and whiteness. How do you think American Jews should reckon with white supremacy?

If you’re a Jewish person who goes through life as white, you don’t have to call yourself white. But I, for example, go through life as a white person. I looked at my great-grandparents’ census records, and they’re recorded as white. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t discrimination against Jews throughout American history. But under the law, for the most part, Jews were treated like white Americans and got those privileges and those rights. Antisemitism was at an all-time high during World War II, but guess what? After the war, Jews still get the benefits of the GI Bill.

So, what I’ll call for all intents and purposes white Jews in the United States need to reckon with the fact that we have benefited from the racial hierarchy of this country. And for some American Jews to say, “Well, I’m not white” sounds, to me and to many other people, like you’re trying to opt out of responsibility. And I also think it’s pretty rich, given that Jews of color repeatedly say that they feel like they’re discriminated against in Jewish spaces.

So I feel that there are some American Jews who kind of want it both ways, right? They don’t want to call themselves white, because they don’t want to be responsible for the racial hierarchy of the United States. But they also want to claim that people who look like them are like the “real Jews.” And I think this is pretty hurtful and destructive and wrong — and also ahistorical. That’s just not what happened, and we know that based on the recorded history on this.

What do you want Jewish readers to get out of the book?

I hope Jewish readers see themselves in this book. I also hope that it challenges Jewish readers. I hope that, just as I had narratives that were challenged in the writing of the book, that they themselves think of the stories that they tell themselves and look at how the stories might not be complete, or how they might be in tension with somebody else’s stories. And I hope it makes them think.

I also just want to say that I really love being an American Jew. This is something that I take great pride in and find great joy in, even when I’m vexed by it. I hope that they feel that in the book, as well.

In the last section of “Bad Jews,” you bring up Hey Alma and the centering of Jewish stories that have historically not been centered. How did reading Hey Alma shape your argument or discussion?

What I love about Hey Alma is that I have seen, many times, people writing their first published essay in which they’re writing about Jewish identity, and maybe they’re allowing themselves to explore or claim it in a way that they didn’t before. Hey Alma introduces people to the richness and variety of Jewish identities.

In the same final section of the book, there’s a quotation from a person who says “We don’t want it to be tokenistic.” So, at the same time, it’s not enough for readers to be like, “Now I know that there are Asian Jews.” That’s not what I want. I hope that people walk away from this book feeling that while it is not for them to claim Jewishness or Judaism for all Jews, that they are empowered to claim it for themselves. And Hey Alma is a place that does that for readers and writers.

How do you feel that the release of your book is coming at this really fraught time for American Jews because of, among other things, Kanye West?

So first of all, this person is not well. But clearly, I think what he said was horrible and contemptible, and ridiculous. To me, more concerning than that is the fact that he received a platform. He said horrible things on a widely-watched news show hosted by somebody who regularly invites other guests who speak in antisemitic tropes and stereotypes and dog whistles. That host is embraced by one of our two major political parties, which is also regularly embracing antisemitic tropes and stereotypes and dog whistles.

We should also note that the reason that Tucker Carlson had Ye on in the first place is that he wore a White Lives Matter shirt. And I’ve been really disheartened by some of the discourse and the fallout from this that has pitted Black Americans and American Jews against one another. That’s an erasure of Black Jews, who exist and are part of this story and are affected by both antisemitism and anti-Black racism. But I also think that if you look at how antisemitism works in American politics today, it often works in concert with racism, or with Islamophobia, or with xenophobia. And I think that we need to understand that and to seek out solidarity where we can.

I really appreciate what you’re saying about the erasure of Black Jews. Over the last few days or so I’ve seen very little recognition of the pain that Black Jews are experiencing, and also this rhetoric of wanting Black Americans to answer for Ye.

It’s ridiculous, and frankly, racist to ask to call on Black Americans to act as though a rapper is somehow speaking for anybody but himself. I will also say that I’ve seen some white Jews invoke the civil rights movement, as sort of like, well, we were there for you, why aren’t you here for us? And as I say in the book: Yes, many American Jews did participate in the civil rights movement. But at the same time, some voiced their support while living in largely white communities and not doing much in the way of tangible action to benefit the movement. Also, posting a photo of Rabbi Heschel is not the same thing as actually being engaged in solidarity today. And I think that we should remember that.

OK, just one more question. Since you’ve asked so many others: What do you think of when you think of a “Bad Jew,” and do you consider yourself to be a “Bad Jew?”

I used to, but I don’t anymore. Or, to put it another way: I think I am a bad Jew, but I’m also a good Jew. Figuring out what both of those mean to me personally… That’s the work of Jewish life. At the end of the book, I quote my rabbi as saying that a bad Jew is a person who forgets that the Torah begins with Adam — which is to say that it begins with your humanity. And while I don’t like to ascribe the label of Bad Jew, I think, for me, that’s useful in that it comes down to humanity and recognizing it in others and in yourself.

Evelyn Frick

Evelyn Frick (she/they) is a writer and associate editor at Hey Alma. She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. In her spare time, she's a comedian and contributor for Reductress and The Onion.

Read More