Tuesday, January 17, 2012

OK, one more genre: The "Bad" Jew, Redux

It's like Philip Roth, Woody Allen*, that entire generation, that entire outlook, never happened, and it's still provocative - still fresh - for a Jew to be "bad." It's as if there are still secular Jewish parents who care about intermarriage, and that you finish your gefilte fish. Last month, a Facebook friend posted something intended to be edgy about how don't tell his ancestors but he was putting up a Christmas tree with his non-Jewish wife. I wanted to be like, dude, you're fifty years too late, but restrained myself. Mostly because I don't make a habit of leaving potentially inflammatory wall comments, let alone for acquaintances I haven't talked to in years. But also because this attitude is at once incredibly dated and so-very-now.

We are seeing a revival - and, I hope, a last hurrah - of the "unapologetically paranoid, guilt-ridden, self-loathing Diaspora kvetch." A touch of nostalgia for a time when "Jew" meant Ashkenazi, male, and with an overbearing mothah. ("Howwwwahd, somebody's at the doaaahhh.") It feels stale, yes, but motifs are persistent.

The mystery, it would seem, is in how the "bad" Jew can persist, when it's not as if anyone's secular Jewish parents care if they stray in this or that capacity from traditions the parents probably never even observed. We need to remember that if multigeneration secular Jews are not interested in being "bad," there are always going to be the newly-secular children of observant Jews - and lots of them, what with the observance-babies connection. Another source would be our friends the former-Soviet Jews. Thanks to them, we have a new cohort of Ashkenazis prepared to talk about the intersection of the immigrant and Jewish experience. We have, that is, Gary Shteyngart.

And because we're living in a women-are-like-so moment, and because it's probably easier for men than women to defect from orthodoxy, do not expect to hear much about secular Ashkenazi Jewish women's particular concerns. (Didn't you know? We're all either nagging our Jewish husbands or complaining to Mary Richards about our perpetual singledom while engaging in futile battles with our inherently Jewish weight problems.) So by all means, expect more and more NY-centric fiction (sorry, Amber) by neurotic male protagonists preoccupied with blond or East Asian women; the Holocaust; and their own inability to fix things around the house.

A note, for the sake of clarity: This kind of "bad" Jew is something else entirely from the kind of Jew whose Jewish identity compels him or her (remember l'Affaire Benedikt!) to become a serious critic of Israel, or an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian cause. (On the distinction, presented in different terms than I'm using here, see Marc Tracy on Matt Gross as versus Philip Weiss.) These are not the "ASHamed Jews" of The Finkler Question. No, the "bad" Jew is proudly non-observant, proudly unaware of what's going on in the Middle East, and thus incapable of being a supporter or harsh critic of Israel. The "bad" Jew doesn't simply marry out (as many of us secular Jews do, because there isn't much compelling a non-believer outside of Israel not to do so), but inscribes his (always his) marriage to a non-Jewish woman (the "bad" Jew is heterosexual, the revival of a "type" that came about before LGBT issues were on the mainstream agenda) into a pre-set narrative.

*Trivia of the day: the Mariel Hemingway character in Manhattan was based on an affair Woody Allen had with a Stuyvesant student. Shteyngart's alma mater! Seinfeld's fling with a Nightingale girl, fair enough, but geez!


Flavia said...

I wonder whether this revival is about nostalgia--about a desire for a kind of Jewish identity (secular and conflicted though it is) that, for the people reviving it, feels like the only available one? That is, if you're secular, and your parents and grandparents are secular, and you're not interested in the Middle East, etc., etc., but you still want some kind of Jewish identity, it's the only one that feels remotely possible (and of course familiar, from fiction and maybe the stories of one's parents).

I've had this thought about ethnic/cultural Catholicism, too, and about how weird it is that certain mid-century tropes like nuns in habits (seriously, why are they everywhere in movies? American-born nuns haven't worn habits for 50 years), the Friday-night fish fry (which lots of restaurants in my neck of the woods still serve, year-round), references to "Catholic guilt," etc., are still so cherished long past and far in excess of their meaningfulness or even existence today.

I also think it's what's at the root (as I've written recently) of the attachment many totally non-observant Christians have for things like nativity scenes on the lawn, prayers before football games, etc.

Withywindle said...

Did you ever read Melvin Bukiet's After? I'd be curious as to your thoughts.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: a new Linneaus for the whingers and assorted self-loathers and self-lovers of her tribe.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That's an interesting way to think about it! I suppose I never noticed this with Catholicism, not just because I'm not from a Catholic family, but also because my husband is, and item by item, what you describe sounds not so far from Belgian Catholicism. (Even in secular Paris, there are special fish stands on Fridays.)

But yes, it makes sense that if "Jewish" means something that kind of froze in 1965, this kind of anachronism would persist. And, while not all Jews are Ashkenazi, i.e. not all Jews have that Polish-German-Russian-inflected culture, the fact is that most in America are of that background. In places with more diversity among Jews (Israel, France), there are alternative cultural options. Children of secular parents looking to figure out their identities, as well as children of orthodox parents who've made a break, will sooner or later find "Seinfeld" and "Annie Hall."

Where it gets unsettling - and the reason I see this development as not just quirky and anachronistic - is where it interests with gender. In this narrative, there basically aren't any Jewish women. Or if there are any, they're nagging-hag mothers or grotesque, husband-hunting blind dates that self-deprecating but actually quite charming Jewish men are forced to contend with early in the evening, before later heading out to meet women they actually find appealing. When it comes to misrepresentations of Catholics, I can't think what the gender angle would be. With representations of other groups - African-Americans come to mind - it's more obvious.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Never even heard of the author! So, for now, no thoughts on the book.


Someone's gotta do it!

But in all seriousness, I do think there's a major distinction between the kind of left-wing Jew who feels that as a Jew, it's his responsibility to worry about the Palestinians, and another kind of Jew who shudders at the thought of anything Jewy, and who also dislikes Israel, but because Israel's a place that the Jewier Jews seem fond of. The former position isn't unreasonable, even if you or I would have political disagreements with those who hold it. The latter isn't a position that one can engage in debate - it's precisely about not caring, and instead being proudly uninformed.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

I agree that there is an important difference but am not sure about which is more objectionable.
I suspect the latter of not being bothered (at least not primarily) by the “Jewy” nature of Israel as much as the Israeli nature of the Jews there: i.e. loud, obstinate, brutal, contradictory, shameless, up to their armpits in the mud of history, as well as a load of other things.
I also suspect that it’s not so much about not caring as believing yourself to be above all that, so *beyond* the tediousness and messiness of struggles over national rights, etc.
Anyway, that’s just an intuition that I wouldn’t struggle too hard to defend until I’ve thought about it a bit more.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I disagree, because your prototypical "bad" Jew has never been to Israel, and hasn't interacted with many Israelis. "Israel" represents a place one's parents or grandparents support, that one's dorkier Jewish peers seem to like. What actually goes on in Israel is intentionally left a blank slate.

Flavia said...

Hm, yeah, the gender angle is more muted when it comes to Catholic-retro-nostalgia--or maybe it's more accurate to say that the nostalgia intersects with live, ongoing gender-related problems in the contemporary church: priestly celibacy, the ban on women in the priesthood, etc. (i.e., plenty of people may think that the historical/theological reasons behind those issues are bullshit, but still don't feel comfortable with the idea of a married or female priest, because that's not what they grew up with and it doesn't fit their midcentury image of the church.)

I guess the only equivalent I can think of to what you're describing are variants on the madonna/whore complex, or the "I went to Catholic school, which is why I'm such a kinkster now" claim. There's definitely a type of dude who's invested in identifying himself as a "recovering" Catholic, and who blames his sexual complexes on the repression of his schooling in ways that to me seem tiresome and outdated. This isn't to say that a religious upbringing can't produce complexes, of course, but it's suspicious that it's always the dudes who make this claim--somehow all the women I know who went to Catholic school got over it and have healthy sex lives, or not, but in any case don't see it as being ABOUT being raised Catholic.
For men, "Catholic guilt" often means something specifically sexual. I'm not sure I've ever heard a woman use it that way (maybe because the larger culture already works to make women feel uncertain about their expressions of sexuality, so it doesn't feel like an exclusively religious phenomenon).

However, even so, the gender angle isn't as pernicious as what you're describing in retro-"bad Jew"-ism.

Anonymous said...

"We're all either nagging our Jewish husbands or complaining to Mary Richards about our perpetual singledom while engaging in futile battles with our inherently Jewish weight problems.)"

Don't forget the dykish feminist rabbis.

OTBS, it looks as if Osama Bin Laden found jewish females to be very appealing, as he felt that all jewish females were his sexual property. If OBL offered had offered Phil Weiss a good deal, I have no doubt Phil would have jumped at the opportunity.