Perhaps There Are No Bad Jews, but There Certainly Are Bad Books about Them

March 16, 2023 | Tal Fortgang
About the author:

In Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities, the New Statesman’s Emily Tamkin explores American Jews’ “ever-evolving relationship to the nation’s culture and identity, and each other,” as the publisher’s blurb has it. Tal Fortgang writes in his review:

Neither systematic enough to be a serious work of history nor bold enough to work as a pop-sociological provocation, Bad Jews is a book about Jewish identity marked by several identity crises. It wants to be critical of the Jews she clearly thinks are “bad,” but it’s committed to treating all things as equally Jewish; it wants to analyze the particularistic while maintaining Tamkin’s universalistic bona fides; it aims for objectivity but slides into hackneyed leftism without realizing. What it ends up doing is either trailing off before each story ends or reciting the kind of pablum you would expect from a mediocre progressive candidate for public office when asked what her Jewishness means to her.

Trendy activist language eventually seeps through. [Tamkin] frequently fixates on the importance of “whiteness,” but toggles between treating it as a legal, cultural, racial, or other category. Her bible is a 1998 book called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America, as if a UCLA anthropologist named Karen Brodkin provided the world with the definitive history of the Jewish-American experience, and as if her readers could not seriously challenge that “whiteness,” whatever it is, is the force that moves all of American history.

Tamkin’s brand of emotivist universalism . . . knows only two modes: solidarity with victims and iconoclastic rage at villains. It cannot bear the thought of heroic Jews who are neither.

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