Archive | April, 2012

Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to Jewschool

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven’t even looked at.]

Comments from Conservative rabbis

I don’t believe the Conservative position to be unreasonable — it’s cogent, I get where they’re coming from — I just think they’re wrong. But I have been surprised by how many Conservative rabbis I know personally and consider to be reasonable (where “reasonable” means, as it so often does to many of us, “generally in agreement with me”) have come out in disagreement with me. For instance, this comment from a C-rabbi I know, received via email: Continue Reading →

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My JTA op-ed: ZOA has it all wrong when it comes to college

Crossposted to New Voices and Jewschool.

JTA has published a new op-ed by me, a response to a piece by some Zionist Organization of America honchos published by JTA earlier this week:

Op-Ed: Title VI should be used only on true hatemongers, not political opponents

By David A.M. Wilensky

NEW YORK (JTA) – In the eyes of the Zionist Organization of America, the most depraved enemies of the Jewish people are obnoxious college campus loudmouths. As the editor of New Voices, a national magazine by and for Jewish college students, I have a different perspective.

The ZOA led the campaign to have discrimination against Jewish students recognized as a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, originally passed in 1964 to remedy racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. But in its charge to circle the Jewish communal wagons, the ZOA has overreached.

ZOA President Morton Klein and Susan Tuchman, director of the group’s Center for Law and Justice, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed that Jewish college students today face “harassment and discrimination at schools receiving federal funding.” The ZOA pitched a six-year fit about it, which the group credits with this triumph: “The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, finally clarified in October 2010 that Jewish students finally would be afforded the same protection” that other minorities have under Title VI.

The ZOA campaign capitalizes on and needlessly exacerbates the Jewish community’s already unwarranted paranoia about what’s happening to our young men and women on campus. As a member of the class of 2011 and as the editor of New Voices, I can say with confidence that there’s never been a better time to walk the halls and lawns of American academia as a Jew.


If you’re so inclined you can read the rest of it over here at JTA.

And if you’re not tickled by the fact that the ad below appears on the same page as my op-ed, you’re probably dead inside.

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I’m in the Forward — and I’m coming out of the closet!

From my Bar Mitzvah 10 years ago

That’s right folks, I’m a patrilineal Jew! I underwent a conversion last year and converted to, er, Conservative Judaism.

Here’s my Forward op-ed:

I have always been a Jew — and after a cursory dunk, the Conservative movement agrees.

Shortly before this past Rosh Hashanah, I was joined by three rabbis and my father, Harold Wilensky (he just happened to be in town), in the waiting room of a suburban New Jersey mikveh.

I was there on that gloomy morning to convert to Judaism. It was something of an unexpected turn.

My roommates, non-Jews who know me as nothing if not a Jew, had a pertinent question: What, if anything, was I converting from?

Until my baptismal dip I was a patrilineal Jew — in some eyes a non-Jew.


The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

It is time for them to do that again; 1983 was a long time ago. We are growing up, we are starting families and, yes, some of us would like to join your synagogues.


Now go read the whole thing.

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More ritual is always better: my latest thinking on two-day yom tov

If you’re a long-time reader, you might’ve been surprised by a few words in my piece for the Sisterhood blog at the Forward:

But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.

Emphasis mine — to point out that this piece, posted yesterday, assumes that Pesach ended yesterday. We initially planned to post it on Friday and that bit about when chag ended was added after I saw the last draft.

This might have troubled me… except that I’m now prepared to come out as in favor of observing a second day of yom tov. (Before we go into my thinking on this you can go read this stuff from fellow Jewschooler BZ about why two-day chag makes no sense.)

I have five reasons:

  1. I am always (I’m gonna regret using the word always later — I just know it) in favor of more ritual, rather than less.
  2. I like these elements of Jewish ritual that make their own internal sense — even if they don’t really make sense — elements that accrued over time that add texture and oddity to Jewish practice.
  3. When this blog began I was an ideologue, of sorts, a Reform ritual ideologue. My faith in the idea of liberal modern Jewish religious ideologies has since wavered and I’m now in pursuit of a personal approach that is less suspicious — but still somewhat suspicious — of the human propensity for attraction to ritual on purely aesthetic terms. This reason is, I suppose, a meta-reason that covers the above two.
  4. I really like singing Hallel. A lot.
  5. Two days off is better than one day off.
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The feminist case for translating God in all His Kingly glory

A page from the 'New American Haggadah' | Little, Brown & Co.

In the past I argued vehemently for translating God in gender-neutral language. After going a long time without thinking about it, I found myself recently making a feminist case for a more direct way of conducting liturgical translations.

You can read this in full at the Forward’s Sisterhood blog:

No Haggadah in recent memory — or, perhaps, ever — has generated the kind of interest that the “New American Haggadah” has. When I began looking it over in preparation for a review of it, I was surprised by the unabashedly masculine way that Nathan Englander’s compelling translation refers to God. But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.

I was raised in a Reform household. Our congregation had the older version of the Reform siddur, “Gates of Prayer,” the big blue one without the neutered translations. But it was the tradition there to improvise, de-gendering the English readings on the fly, often with charmingly chaotic results. Talk of the He-God makes me uncomfortable, and I sympathize with the discomfort expressed by some here at the Sisterhood with these masculine translations.

In her recent Sisterhood post, Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes about the widespread pairing of Elijah’s cup of wine with a cup of water for Miriam. In some corners of the left-of-Orthodox world, it has become downright traditional. Then she notes: “At the same time, the ‘New American Hagaddah,’ edited and translated by young literary lions Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, seems to purposely go in an opposing direction.”

At the moment there are three small errors in the post, all of them entirely my fault. But I think my main argument will still be intelligible. [All the problems were removed. Thanks, Gabi!]

Anyway, check out the whole thing over here.

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Making Miriam’s Cup make more sense

Commenter Rich suggests:

It is set to the table filled.  At the end of the Maggid, after the recounting of the plagues (and of the splitting of the sea if the haggaddah contains it) we recount the Midrash in which Miriam’s well appears, and pass the cup around, adding a bit of its water to our glasses to represent sustenance from our tradition.

He then explains something special they do with Elijah’s Cup that I could take or leave.

I replied to his comment:

Oh, that’s terrific! I’ve always been bothered by the presence of Miriam’s cup without an accompanying act.

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Boycott non-union Chazeret! (This post in honor of Cesar Chavez and his stand against seder plate nonsense)

I was just chatting with my friend Bob and I don’t remember how this came up, but it suddenly came to me that there actually is a good reason for having chazeret on your seder plate: In memory of Cesar Chavez!

This is a joke, obviously — and something of a follow up to “Ha Tomato Anya.”

See also ASC’s hilarious suggestions of more additions to the seder plate (“Apple: Expresses our admiration for Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Asparagus: A reminder to support SPUTI, the Society to Prevent Urinary Tract Infections” and so forth).

Of course, chazeret is actually nonsense. It accomplishes nothing that either maror or karpas does not already accomplish and there’s little agreement on whether it should really be there.

In short, if you were thinking of buying me a seder plate as a gift, don’t bother if it has a spot for chazeret.

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‘A Pesach miracle’: The traditional Wilensky whitefish procession went off as planned

The Shiebers, a very laid back Orthodox family, live near my dad’s house in Austin, the house I grew up in. Beginning when I was 13 and every year after that until I moved away for college, I attended at least one seder — some years both seders — at the Shieber household.

One year, my dad called them up in advance and asked if there was anything he could pick up for the seder. Rivka, the Shieber wife/mother/undisputed leader, said yes. So, as ordered, my dad reported to the kosher HEB (it’s a Texan grocery store chain, not a misspelling of Heeb) to pick up the whole smoked whitefish that Rivka had ordered from them.

And also a jar of nuts.

The fish was indeed entirely whole: skin, eyeballs, the whole nine yards. It was also completely stiff, and when laid down on one side its tail was cocked upward at 90 degrees: It would not fit in any of the available bags at HEB. The guy behind the counter tried to just sort of hand it to my dad. After some discussion it was crammed most of the way into the largest ziploc on hand, which was in turn put into a regular plastic grocery bag.

Also he picked up the jar of nuts.

The following day I was asked to please walk the fish — the whole smoked whitefish that did not fit in its bag and had its tail kinked up at right angle — over to the Sheibers.

And also could I please remember to take the jar of nuts with me.

It was difficult to carry because of it precarious situation in the bag that it didn’t really fit in. So I carried it laid flat across my two upturned hands.

And the jar of nuts was on top of the fish.

Along the way I passed walking the opposite direction a human being take for a walk by its dog. She gave me an odd look. Before she had a chance to realize I was looking at her and quickly glance somewhere else I said, “It’s a whole smoked whitefish. We borrowed it from the neighbors and now I’m bringing it back.”

I didn’t mention the jar of nuts.

I believe this whitefish procession has taken place during the week preceding Passover every year since. The other day my dad sent me this dispatch via email with the subject line “A Pesach miracle”:

I may have mentioned that the normal path of the Allandale Pesach Whitefish Parade has been blocked for months due to seemingly never-ending construction on Bull Creek Rd. As a matter of fact, I was fully prepared to cancel this year’s parade. But then, on the actual day of the parade, there was a parting of the barricades and a laying on of the asphalt and, behold, the parade route was re-established accompanied by loud noises from the heavens!

As there was much lightning and thunder in the area, our safety team advised us to to travel in a covered parade float lest the whitefish get smoked a second time. Turnout was lower than expected.

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Eat Passover dessert the rest of the year?

I’m always looking for a good Passover dessert and my litmus test for whether something is ‘good’ is whether you would also eat it the rest of the year.
Shannon Sarna, @shasarna

I don’t know anything about the mousse concoction she’s touting here, but it did remind me of that awesome icebox pie thing my mom used to make for Passover. (Mom, I know you’re reading this. You still make that?)

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Ha tomato anya: This is the tomato of our affliction

from an image by flickr user photon_de

Our weekly(-ish) editorials at New Voices are created by the New Voices editorial board, which consists of myself and two other editors. This week, as longtime readers of this blog’s predecessor will no doubt suspect, the idea to use our editorial as a chance to discourage people from putting the whole damn produce section on their seder plate was entirely mine. But, as always, the editorial we ended up with was a team effort.

Anyway, read it:

Behold the tomato: the new world fruit, the staple of Italian cuisine, juicy, red and a member of the nightshade family.

And, because of the often mistreated migrant workers who pick them, some say it should be the latest addition to that growing pile of produce on your Passover seder plate. (And when we say “that growing pile of produce on your seder plate,” we mean, that bushel overrunning your seder plate, overflowing its edges, truly in need of an auxiliary seder plate.)

If you follow the suggestion of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (a branch of the Israel-based organization that is exactly what it sounds like) by adding a tomato to your Passover shopping list, your tomato will be “a symbol of the farmworker who picked it.” And perhaps it will join the already relatively venerable Miriam’s Cup or some of these other foods that have been suggested over the years:

  • Potato peelings (what Jewish ritual would be complete without some extraneous bit of Holocaust-obsession tacked on?)
  • A fourth piece of matzah (which has variously been used to represent DarfurSoviet Jewry, and others)
  • More potato (for Ethiopians, obviously)
  • An olive (to symbolize the hope for peace in the Middle East)
  • An orange (in recognition of the historical exclusion of women — its origin, by the way, is not what you think it is)
  • An artichoke (for interfaith families)
  • A plantain (for oppression in Cuba — no word yet on whether it’s for internal Cuban-on-Cuban oppression or the economic oppression of the U.S. trade embargo)
  • And — are you ready for this? — an oyster (for Deepwater Horizon)

And the list grows beyond food: There is also the brick that a Civil War soldier used in place of charoset and the empty picture frame for the Chinese law that prohibits the display of images of the Dalai Lama!

Passover and the seder are unique among Jewish holiday rites. It is by far the most complex Jewish in-home ritual. And it is by far the most widely observed Jewish holiday — not just by Jews, but by non-Jewish members of intermarried families, non-Jewish friends of Jewish families, African American groups who often cosponsor “freedom seders” with Jewish groups and, of course, the (somewhat misguided) efforts of church groups trying to understand what Jesus’ last meal was like.


Now go read the rest of it at New Voices. And like our Facebook page while you’re at it.


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