Good Jew, Bad Jew
Current LABA fellow Jared Hoffman discusses which club he’d want to be a member of.
This summer, I heard a phrase come out of my mouth that gave me pause. I was eating lasagna at a restaurant called Elegante (it was not particularly elegant) on the Rockaways with my friend Jen and her daughter. Somehow the topic of my Jewishness came up. I mentioned that I’d like to raise my kids Jewish and that it was an important part of my identity. But I certainly wasn’t ready to answer for all Jews, or all of Judaism. So I hedged: “I am Jewish, but not really religious –I don’t go to temple or anything like that.” Jen joked: “so you’re not a good Jew?”
“Yeah”, I laughed, “I’m a bad Jew.”
Historically, the term “good Jew” referred to a Jew who assimilated into the dominant racial-religious-cultural group. The good Jew didn’t stir trouble. In contrast, the bad Jew was a pariah. The bad Jew knew the power of their Jewishness and knowingly cultivated it as a tool to reshape and activate society.
In secular, urban America, this terminology has flip-flopped: now, being a bad Jew is the tamed down version, whereas being a good Jew signals a threat. In other words, a bad Jew assimilates. In contrast, a good Jew integrates their Jewishness into their personality and self-knowledge and doesn’t shrink from, but rather embraces, the role of pariah.
We employ these terms — good Jew, bad Jew — not for ourselves or our fellow Jews, but for the non-Jewish masses whose nerves calm to the tonic of knowing that this Jew is, ironically, not a good Jew and therefore not a threat.
In this dynamic, Jewishness is acceptable as long as it is a form of non-religious Judaism. Sometimes it feels easier to joke that we are bad Jews than to look a friend or coworker in the eye and own our Jewishness.
Underneath this downplaying lies the pressure to conform to rigid standards of belief, appearance, and social behavior. We feel that being accepted, respected, and dignified within a society of our peers is the marker of true success. So when people signal – explicitly or implicitly – that Jewishness causes them concern, we seek to quell their fears by minimizing who we are. We joke: “I may be Jewish, but I am not a good Jew.”
That shame spirals outward to influence stereotypical American Jewish behaviors. We perform our Jewishness with an air of ironic distaste; as if we are ashamed by or at least not excited about being Jewish. It extends into our relationship with humor, which lets us do a double speak. We self-deprecate, calm an anxious public and keep a winking distance through it all. Perhaps underneath many of our jokes lies this deep-seated discomfort with recognizing ourselves as Jews. It reminds me of Groucho Marx’ resignation from the Friar’s club, punctuated by his famous quip that “I wouldn’t want to be in any club that would have me as a member!”
This minimizing of our full Jewishness attests to the immense power of being a Jew — in that the Jew does constitute a threat to the common order: a threat of cultural reform, political activism and individual outspokenness.
I am at the beginning of my journey recognizing myself as a Jew and grappling with the implications of that self-recognition. I realize that my self-recognition does not change the historical record. I see in that record a window into the pain and trauma of other minority groups. It is not enough to see pogroms, discrimination and the Holocaust in the rear-view mirror. Recognizing oneself fully as a Jew involves accepting that anti-Semitism exists today.
This is scary and powerful. Opening up the discomfort of identifying as a Jew can strengthen our resolve to act in solidarity with oppressed peoples. American Jews do not need to simulate artificial support of African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and other minority groups. Supporting minority groups in the fight for recognition, acceptance, and dignity in the larger culture is not their fight, it is our fight. For we who want acceptance, love, dignity and respect – but whose religious identity in the eyes of society prevents the full realization of that effort – have no true pathway to dignity through the accumulation of wealth or fame, nor even through personal cultivation. If a Jew is an other, then dignity can only be received when all Jews – and all others – are recognized as fully human.
Now I am thinking back to that dinner with Jen and wondering what – if anything – I would do differently. What would it be like to say it without a qualifier? “I am a Jew.”