A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities
A lively, thoughtful history of America’s Jews, exploring their complex relationships with national culture, identity, and politics—and each other.
Selected as one of the New Statesman’s ‘Best Books of 2022’
You can be called a Bad Jew—by the community or even yourself—if you don’t keep kosher, don’t send your children to Hebrew school, or enjoy Christmas music; if your partner isn’t Jewish, or you don’t call your mother enough. But today, amid fears of rising antisemitism, what makes a Good or Bad Jew is a particularly fraught question.
There is no answer, argues Emily Tamkin. Several million now identify as American Jews; but they don’t all identify with one another. American Jewish history, like all Jewish history, has been about transformation—and full of discussions, debates and hand-wringing over who is Jewish, how to be Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish.
Bad Jews is a rich, absorbing reflection on 100 years of American Jewish identities and arguments. Tamkin’s fascinating, diverse interviews explore the complex story of American Jewishness, and its evolving, conflicting positions, from assimilation, race, and social justice; to politics, Zionism, and Israel. She pinpoints the one truth about Jewish identity: It’s always changing.
‘[Tamkin’s] honesty is appreciated, and her sense of being an outsider seeking acceptance, knowledge and understanding propels this book.’ — The Washington Post
‘[Tamkin’s] historical analysis is illuminating and her lightly sketched-in personal story moving… [she] paints an admirably nuanced picture, including much that is disturbing.’ — Times Literary Supplement
‘A fascinating and important history.’ — The Jewish Chronicle
‘Journalist Tamkin illuminates in this vibrant study the multifaceted nature of the Jewish experience in America…Heartfelt, nuanced, and empathetic, this revelatory ethnography is a must-read.’ — Publishers Weekly, starred review
‘Engaging…reflects the author’s experience as a skilled journalist and storyteller.’ — Kirkus Reviews
‘An incisive look at Jewish identity in the US, entangled with this country’s long, long history of antisemitism.’ — Book Riot
‘[Bad Jews] reminds us, again and again, of something too often forgotten: Jewry isn’t homogenous, and its ethnic character hasn’t always been static.’ — UnHerd
‘Thoughtful.’ — Jewish Boston
‘Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews is a fascinating and compelling exploration of Jewish American history, and the fault lines that have divided every generation of American Jews along lines of class, ethnicity, theology and ideology. Thoughtful and moving, Tamkin’s own personal journey anchors the reader through complexities that few others are willing to contemplate. And as Tamkin shows, to answer the question “who are the bad Jews?” is, more than a description of others, to define oneself and what it means to be Jewish.’ — Adam Serwer, author of The Cruelty Is the Point
‘Anything Emily Tamkin writes will be thoughtful, well-researched, and engaging. Her new book is no exception. It grabs you from page one and every time I put it down, it was with reluctance. This book is so smart, timely, and relevant, that you forget Tamkin is sounding a clarion bell about the very real dangers of our time.’ — Celeste Headlee, author of Speaking of Race
‘With compelling narrative and piercing historical analysis, Emily Tamkin grapples with the big questions of group identity and authenticity and their relationship to inclusion in a diverse nation. She invites readers on a journey of the Jewish experience in the United States and explores the ways culture, intolerance, and perseverance have shaped it. An essential commentary on identity and belonging in America, Tamkin’s Bad Jews is necessary reading for a changing country struggling to live its creed.’ — Theodore Johnson, author of When the Stars Began to Fall
‘Like the host of the world’s greatest Passover seder, Emily Tamkin invites everyone in—the idealists, the skeptics, and the dreamers—and gets them talking about all the thorniest issues. With curiosity, chutzpah, and a lot of heart, Bad Jews welcomes us all into the conversation American Jews need to have right now.’ — Josh Lambert, Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, Wellesley College, author of The Literary Mafia and co-editor of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish
‘The world may think that Jews are a homogeneous group. They are anything but. Tamkin’s compelling narrative illuminates as it entertains, distilling Jewish in-fighting to the bone in the process. An essential read.’ — Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish
‘To take stock of one’s own people as a journalist and historian is no simple task, but Emily Tamkin rises to the occasion with aplomb. In Bad Jews, Tamkin has pieced together a vital, sober, and—most importantly—empathic accounting of the American Jewish story. The volume of Tamkin’s research was clearly astounding, and it pays off in the form of a book that is both eminently readable and appropriately provocative. Whether you’re Jew or Gentile, radical or conservative, kosher or lobster-loving, Bad Jews is sure to enthral and educate you.’ — Abe Riesman, author of True Believer
Emily Tamkin is Senior Editor, US, at The New Statesman, based in Washington, DC; and the author of The Influence of Soros. Previously a foreign affairs staff writer at Foreign Policy and BuzzFeed News, her work has also appeared in The Economist, The New Republic, Politico, Slate and The Washington Post.