David A.M. Wilensky

Editor and reporter of religion, sci-fi, the Jews, etc.

Day 18/365: We all have our own orthodoxies

Having recovered from the brief mental health spiral that resulted from the widespread batshit reactions to this column, I recounted the tale of hate mail and scandalized hyperbole to my friend Aaron.

I maintain that the reaction from many of my progressive observant Jewish friends was tone-deaf and unnecessarily antagonistic. Trefa Banquet 2.0 was a Jewish event celebrating treyf and examining its role in attendees’ Jewish lives and in American Jewish history. In my column, I talked about the very Jewish family traditions around treyf that many attendees talked about. Yet a staggering number of Jews, from Reform on down the line, immediately perceived the event as public mockery of kashrut, as a nasty insult.

Can they not hear themselves? It’s exactly what a fair number of Orthodox Jews say to them (us) about any number of practices.


Anyway, Aaron quoted a friend of his: “We all have our own orthodoxies.”

It’s a great line. I’m definitely going to make use of it going forward.

And it got me thinking: What are my orthodoxies?

To be honest, I don’t have many left. Sometime between when I decided not to be a rabbi and when I headed off into Jewish journalism and writing, I became more interested in describing and seeing as many Judaisms as I can than defining hard and fast rules about what counts.

One of my final unreasonable demands of other Jews is the Amidah. I’ve got a strong attachment to it. A summer spent studying it kicked off my interest in liturgy when I was 16. I don’t care what else happens in the service, if the Amidah doesn’t fall within my parameters, I’m miffed.

Here are my rules:

  • It has to be done standing (those who can), all the way through
  • It has to at least make room for the possibility of a person saying of the traditional number of things (e.g. 19 on weekdays), which should be provided in writing
  • Each part has to be about roughly the traditional theme (e.g. #4 has to be about knowledge/wisdom on weekdays, and about the holiness of Shabbat on Shabbat)
  • No interruptions; once the Amidah is going, it’s going; I don’t want to pause between two pieces while a rabbi shares some clever thought about the next one

That’s it. Out loud, silent, whatever.

And yet… even that is starting to weaken. If I go to a Shabbat meditation service, I don’t expect it. When I went to my first Karaite service… well, I had no idea what to expect. (Though I will say that the vast majority of even the most far out Jewish communities I check out satisfy my Amidah orthodoxy.)

Gender egalitarianism is the really big one, the unchangeable one. Other than for work or some kind of special occasion, I don’t do mechitza shuls (I think I make exceptions for shuls with a maharat/rabba/etc.?). (Trichitzas are fine.) I grew up with women rabbis and cantors and got fully indoctrinated into egalitarianism. I’m cool with other people not saying imahot, but I will never not say it.

Beyond that, I’ve become very open out there in the Bay, thanks to my spiritual/journalistic practice and the Jewish communities I get to dabble in.


Gosh, that was a smug and sanctimonious stream of consciousness. What has this coast done to me?!

Days 14-16/365 (observed): The Jew in The Pew goes to church!

Jan. 14-16, I fulfilled my quota working on a piece that has now been published.  Here’s a bit of it:

When Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed in 1986, there was resistance and uproar from the KKK and other assorted racists. As a spiritual counter to that bigotry, two San Francisco spiritual leaders — Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church and Rabbi Robert Kirschner, then of Congregation Emanu-El — hatched a plan: a pulpit swap.

That year, and every year since, Third Baptist and Emanu-El have marked MLK weekend with a two-part event. On Friday night, Brown delivers a sermon at Emanu-El, and Sunday morning, a rabbi from Emanu-El delivers the sermon at Third Baptist.

So it was this past weekend at the 31st annual observance of this beautiful tradition.

You can read the rest over here.

Day 4/365 (observed): Wearing a kippah in the year of Trump

On Jan. 4 I said I’d written a one-year-later piece on Trump and my decision to start wearing a kippah every day. It has been published. Here’s a bit of it:

In November of 2016, a few days after the election of Donald Trump, I found myself reading story after story about hate crimes, especially against visible religious minorities, perpetrated by bigots emboldened by the hateful rhetoric of the presidential campaign.

My response, after a lifelong aversion to wearing a kippah, was to start wearing a kippah.

Here’s how I explained the decision in a J. column at the time: “I’m going to wear this visible symbol of my Jewishness all day, every day, for the foreseeable future. I’m not wearing it to remind myself that God is above me, one of the explanations for the custom. This isn’t about God. It’s about this: Since the surprise of Election Day, members of the alt-right, white nationalist groups and racists, misogynists, Islamophobes, homophobes, ableists (against the disabled) and, of course, anti-Semites of every stripe have been emboldened. As a Jew, I want the bigots and their victims alike to know that I stand with the outsiders.”

I called on other white Jews to join me and the dozen other Jews who told me they had begun wearing a kippah for roughly the same reasons: “Be a Jew. Show the world you’re a Jew. Show our fellow minorities that we are with them, that we are in this together.”

One year in, this daily practice has been a wakeup call for me in how I move in the world as a white Jew, and has changed my capacity for empathy with more visible minorities — including Jews of color. (I can take off my kippah, but they can’t change their skin color.)

The reactions have been varied.

Read the full piece over here at J.

Days 13-16/365

Day 13: Shabbos. Didn’t write.

Days 14-16: A piece for work that will be published tomorrow.

Good night.

Day 12/365: TV, my dad, Star Trek, binge-watching, etc

Note to my parents: Accuracy isn’t the point here. The beginning of this is hazy, but this is what I remember.


In the beginning, there was a black television set.

I don’t know how big it was. It seemed more than adequate to me, though I’m certain it’s minute compared with the thing in my current living room. In the earliest years, it was in what I have thought as the dining room for almost all of my life. There was a low wooden coffee table, a beige couch and a good deal of Lego.

It had ears and a hoop. Sometimes the picture was OK, sometimes not. And when it was bad, you could jiggle those three things — and sometimes, that would improve things. And by things, I mean thing. There was only one thing on the television: PBS.

I watched Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Lambchop, Barney — and Nova was often family viewing. I was born during the second half of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation; both of my parents were lifelong Trek viewers, so it must have been around me very early. But my first memory of Star Trek is the episode of Reading Rainbow where LeVar Burton — both the host of Reading Rainbow and a member of the cast of TNG — took me behind scenes of TNG. That idea that TV was made somewhere by people was mindblowing, and I’m still not over it.

I seem to have some recollection of being allowed to stay up late on Star Trek nights. Two of my earliest memories are of the series premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the series of finale of TNG. I recently learned that my dad flew back to Austin from a work trip in Dallas just to watch the premiere of DS9 with the family, and then went back to Dallas the next morning to complete his trip.

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Day 9/365: A list of things I worried about today

​I have enough daily anxiety to feed an army of people who eat anxiety for nourishment. It is with me always. If there’s nothing immediately in front of me to worry about, I find other stuff to worry about. I worry that I worry too much.  I rarely experience more than five minutes without a level of anxiety that makes focusing on the world difficult.

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Days 6-8/365: Tradition and transgression at the Trefa Banquet 2.0

Day 6: Gave myself the day off. I think I’m going to skip Shabbat in my daily writing regimen.

Day 7: Started writing up an event I attended last night.

Day 8: Finished writing it up. Speaking of which….


For my “Jew in The Pew” column this week, I attended the Illuminoshi‘s “Trefa Banquet 2.0,” which came complete with a bracha over treyf from Rabbi Sydney Mintz and a talk from my friend, Professor Rachel Gross. If you think you know the story of the Trefa Banquet, you’re probably at least somewhat wrong. Read the whole thing; it’s by far the funniest installment of my column.

Here’s a bit of it:

Az men est khazer, zol es shoyn rinen ibern moyl.
If you’re going to eat pork, eat it until your mouth drips.
— Yiddish saying

Last night at Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco, a foundational myth of American Reform Judaism was memorialized, deconstructed — and then eaten. This was the “Trefa Banquet 2.0,” a delicious spread of treyf (nonkosher food) made by local Jewish chefs and served up with a side of Jewish learning and — get this! — a communal bracha (blessing) for treyf led by a local rabbi.

Add to the liturgy and symbolic foods a narrative recounting of an important Jewish legend, and it was practically a seder.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the original Trefa Banquet (Yiddish for treyf), an 1883 event at which the early American Reform movement made a bold, antagonistic statement by serving treyf dishes at a banquet to commemorate the ordination of the first class of American Reform rabbis. As the story is often told, a group of rabbis stormed out in protest and ran off to start the Conservative movement.

But, as Jewish Studies professor Rachel Gross of San Francisco State University told the crowd Sunday night, that story is only kind of true.

Read the full piece over here at J.

Day 5/365: Kabbalat Shabbat with Americana by women artists

Same story as yesterday. Today’s 500 minimum was far exceeded at work. When the story goes up on our site, I will post a link here (and possibly a longer version of it). It is a follow-up to my February column on the “Americana Jam Band” service at Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation here in San Francisco.

That’s all for today.

Day 4/365: Year of Trump, year of kippah, year of empathy

Today’s writing well exceeded my 500-word daily minimum. It is a follow-up to my most read story of 2016: Wearing a kippah for solidarity and visibility. But it is also for work, to be published in our Jan. 12 issue, which will include several pieces reflecting on the Year of Trump. When the story goes up on our site, I will post a link here (and possibly a longer version of it).

That’s all for today.

Day 3/365: David learns about astrology

I promise I did actually write this on 1/3. But then I wanted to check with my friend about whether it’s OK to quote her directly. And she said it is, so here’s what I wrote yesterday.


A Facebook friend (we haven’t met in real life), posted the other day a call for people’s astrological signs, saying she wanted to do some readings.

I don’t know why I commented (yes, I do; she’s a joyful, supportive person, and I am becoming more open to taking certain things seriously on their own terms), but I did: “Pisces, 3/3/89.” What time of day, she wanted to know. 7pm. And where. Austin.

She did not respond, so I pestered her in a message this morning. We ended up on Facebook messenger for a good chunk of the morning. She’s new to astrology, she told me. Since earlier this year, she has been opening herself up to spiritual systems she hadn’t messed with before.

She told me her measure is: “Does it improve my life, and the lives of people around me, if i engage with this? In which case, who cares how or why it works?”

So far, tarot and astrology work. Crystals do not. (I figured.)

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