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 discerning and insightful enough to add to the considerable conversation on Jewish religious, cultural and political identity that already exists ... Unfortunately, while she adeptly offers a serviceable overview of that debate, she misses the chance to fully analyze it and provide fresh thinking ... I began to think, when reading this book, that the writer is imprisoned by the title. It sets up the reader to expect fresh thinking about who is a Bad Jew, when really Tamkin is earnestly trying to understand how many in this crazy quilt of a nation are trying to be Good Jews.
Tamkin writes in a very accessible, conversational tone, and enlivens her historical narrative with anecdotes and personal comments. In addition to key political episodes — Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s equivocal role as an advocate for Jews during the Holocaust; the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — she animates her account with frequent references to popular-culture figures...It’s an inviting introduction to American Jewish history ... To her credit, Emily Tamkin is also self-aware ... Readers, especially those with progressive leanings, will find a lot of food for thought in her honest, sobering reflections.
Focusing on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the book draws from scores of interviews to make its various points. Some, like the discussion with Susannah Heschel, the daughter of civil rights icon Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, are enlightening. Others, like those with Heschel’s other family members, are less so. Though Tamkin raises a wealth of questions about everything from religious observances to neoconservatism versus liberalism, there are not many answers, and that, ultimately, is the point when it comes to the identity of a group as diverse in beliefs and practices as American Jewry. This book is very wide-ranging, not always very deep, but always thought-provoking, and it offers many ideas for readers to explore further.