My latest for the Forward: ‘Just File Your Forms, Mort!’

Remember that time when the ZOA’s Mort Klein went on a tear about me, observing that I was “young and inexperienced,” and thus unqualified to critique them? Here’s what I wrote at the time.

It seems that Mort is now presiding over some rather silly attempts at governance over there at the ZOA, as the Forward has been reporting. They’ve lost their tax exempt status on account of forgetting to file some forms with IRS for three straight years.

Since the organization I head doesn’t have any trouble maintaining its tax exempt status, I thought I’d help Mort out with an explanation of how to file your taxes:

If you’ve never worked at a non-profit or served on the board of one, you might not know why this all sounds so completely bonkers. As the executive director of a non-profit organization, I, like Klein, work closely with a board of directors. This qualifies me to explain why all of this is, in fact, completely bonkers.

I feel safe in these assumptions despite Klein’s lack of confidence in me. He published anattack on me in May, in which he called me “young and inexperienced” and my writing “amateurish.” Despite these handicaps, I shall press on, given my meager knowledge of such things.

Go read the whole thing over at the Forward.

By the way, the version of this piece that got published is somewhat tamer than my original. I can’t help but include this little gem that we had to cut: “(Note that I did not, in turn, point out that he is a grouch with a constituency of octogenarians and a soapbox that reeks of irrelevance.)”

Shabbat shalom, shanah tovah, etc.

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Two posts for the Forward: ‘Whither Occupy Judaism’ and my first crack at food writing

In news that is recent enough to be called news, there’s a new post by me at the Forward’s “news and views” blog, Forward Thinking. And in news that is a couple of weeks old already, I also did a bit for the Forward’s food blog, the Jew and the Carrot, which was having hummus week at the time.

 

 

Whither Occupy Judaism?

Whither Occupy Wall Street? And whither Occupy Judaism?

September 17, the one-year anniversary of the launching of the movement/mood/fracas, has been declared the Occupy National Day of Action. September 17 — or #S17, as it has inevitably been hashtagged — also happens to be Rosh Hashanah. And so, inevitably, Occupy Judaism has announced that there will be a Rosh Hashanah service and potluck in Zuccotti Park as the new Jewish year of 5773 opens on the preceding night, September 16.

As soon as Sieradski got done humoring my questions about attendance, he said this: “We’re still doing this without a permit, as an act of civil disobedience. We’re still doing prayer as an act of protest, praying with our legs, as it were. That’s still pretty powerful.”

My favorite part:

“It’s still incumbent on us to get out there and speak up,” he said. “I still think the most powerful thing you can do with your prayers is uphold the dignity of those who are in need, and that’s what we should be doing instead of having spectator sport-style congregations where we just sit down and listen to a cantor and phone it in.

Go read the whole thing. And click on some ads.

 

 

 

Shabbat Meals: My Catholic Dinner

In my experience, there’s often a token non-Jew at Friday night dinner or at the Seder — the Shabbos Goy or the Passover Goy, some call them (affectionately).

Last Friday, however, I experienced the unfamiliar sensation of being the Shabbos Jew at a Friday night dinner with several Catholic friends. And when I call them Catholic, understand what I mean: One is a seminarian in Rome and another is a playwright studying at Catholic University – and our host for the evening, Sarah, has a degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

This is followed by amusing anecdotes and an actual recipe. Go read the whole thing. And click on some ads.

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Life updates: wardrobe changes, behind the scenes at The Forward, etc.

If you had some notion that you might like to know what the bathroom at The Forward looks like, here it is.

Hey, everyone. It’s been a while. Since I last posted, a few things have happened:

  • I stopped wearing tzitzit. Actually, that happened in December, but I don’t think I ever mentioned it here. Sorry.
  • I started dressing kind of like an adult.
  • I don’t grumble under my breath to myself when I put a kippah on before going to services anymore. (Which is not to say that I don’t immediately rip it off when I leave the building. The only reason I put it on before I get there is that I’m afraid I’ll forget and then the USCJ kippah patrol will set the dogs on me.)
  • Back in the fall/summer, when I started working semi-normal hours in an office (like a normal adult), I was doing a lot of pants/untucked-collared-shirts-with-buttons-all-the-way-down/sport-jacket kind of things.
  • But then I realized I lost all this weight (it was on accident, I promise; no one congratulate me — because people always do that, but it’s undeserved because it’s not like I sit on my ass any less than I did before). Having lost weight, I could now tuck my shirt in, which I’ve always hated doing. (Just ask my dad.)
  • So I started doing that for like a week, but it still bugged me so I bought a waistcoat.
  • Yes, I know, normal people call it a vest, but calling it a waistcoat achieves two excellent things: First, you get to say a silly word. Second, you get to use a more arcane word with overtones of eccentric pomposity.
  • I now have three waistcoats and I wear one every day. (Read: I wear one every office day.)
  • It took me some time, but I’ve made my peace with tucking my shirt in.
  • T.M.I. alert… in 3, 2, 1….
  • Here’s the one thing that still bugs me, the little extra bit of complexity this newfound tucked-in-and-put-together-ness has brought my life: Going to the bathroom is way more complex now. (Not the standing version, obviously.)
  • Wearing tzitzit and going to the bathroom was like a cakewalk compared to this craziness.
  • I had plans to relate at least a couple other things in this post, but it’s pretty clear this post has gotten away from me.
  • And that I have no idea what
  • bullet
  • points
  • are
  • really
  • for.
  • If you didn’t read the caption on the photo above, but you did read the headline, and you are now disappointed that this post is coming to an end without any hint of anything “behind the scenes at The Forward,” the photo above is from the bathroom at The Forward. In case you had a smoldering desire to know what the bathroom at The Forward looks like.
  • Or something.
  • OK. Bye now.
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ZOA response to my ‘irresponsible’ op-ed: I am ‘young and inexperienced,’ my writing ‘amateurish’

Crossposted to New Voices and Jewschool

Not to get too overwrought, but here’s my blog post in response to a Zionist Organization of America press release in response to my JTA op-ed in response to their JTA op-ed. Throughout the press release, notice how many of my points are avoided by going on an ad hominem rampage against me.

NEW YORK, May 1 – David Wilensky’s op-ed on “the correct use of Title VI” (Apr. 27, 2012) was an amateurish attempt to condemn an important new legal tool for Jewish students who are now protected from anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  He claims that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) – which spearheaded the effort to achieve this civil rights protection – is misusing Title VI “to stifle legitimate discourse” and as a “bludgeon” to advance “far-right political viewpoints.”  These ridiculous charges are baseless.  Wilensky cites no evidence for his claims, merely engaging in silly name-calling.

I don’t know where they got “‘the correct use of Title VI’” from, but it doesn’t appear anywhere on the version of it on the JTA website. Given that they got the date wrong by about week (it was published on 4/18, not 4/27), I’m gonna guess that the mystery phrasing and the incorrect date were taken from the publication date and headline that accompanied my op-ed in one of the local Jewish papers that runs JTA material on about a one-week delay. (I could take a cheap shot at the ZOA for being so web incompetent that they don’t have a Google alert set up for the name of their own organization, but that would be “silly name-calling.”)

Speaking of which, can anyone point me to the part of my op-ed where I engage in “name-calling” of any sort — “silly” or otherwise? (Rest assured, when I do engage in name-calling I take it quite seriously.)

As for my writing being “amateurish,” I guess the “-ish” suffix lends that some validity as an opinion. As it turns out, I make my living doing this writing thing so I’m technically the opposite of an amateur. I hasten to point out that Klein and Tuchman are the amateurs here. I don’t know much about Tuchman, but she’s lawyer. Klein on the other hand is a well-known pillar of the professional reactionary community. I don’t think much of this screed, but since I’m no professional paranoia-peddler, I’ll refrain from passing judgement on its level of amateurishness.

The ZOA has never used Title VI to stifle free speech or to advance a particular political viewpoint. We have called on university leaders to exercise their own First Amendment rights and publicly condemn speakers and programs that demonize Jews, compare Jews to Nazis, and call for the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel – all of which is anti-Semitism according to U.S. government standards.

The claim that the ZOA is capable of taking any action that is not designed to advance their political viewpoint is suspect. That’s not a criticism, but a recognition of the ZOA’s purpose. Advancing a particular viewpoint is just what they do.

The ZOA has also called on university leaders to enforce their own rules. Thus, when a Jewish student is physically threatened or assaulted, the wrongdoers must be held accountable and punished. Contrary to Wilensky’s nonsensical accusations, Title VI is all about protecting Jews and ensuring them a campus environment that’s physically and emotionally safe and conducive to learning.

Things are not so simple. There are dissenting opinions in all of the cases I’ve read about. Notice how Klein and Tuchman are unable to address the fact that all of the Title VI complaints filed on behalf of Jews at the college level have been unsuccessful so far. They’ll get no disagreement from me about punishing people who threaten and assault Jews; where we differ is which attacks on Jews qualify as anti-Semitic.

Notice how Klein and Tuchman went for a salt shaker of fun adjectives to spice up their writing. Too bad they didn’t give much thought to their meanings. There are so many negative adjectives that would have done swell job here, but their choice of “nonsensical” is just… (I hate to do this) nonsensical.

A dozen national Jewish organizations across the political and religious spectrums have supported the ZOA’s Title VI efforts, so that Jewish students would be afforded the same legal protections that other minority groups have had for almost 50 years. They joined the ZOA in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education, urging that Title VI be enforced to protect Jewish students.

Forty Members of Congress, including 31 liberal Democrats, also sent a letter to the Education Secretary, expressing concern about campus anti-Semitism and urging that Title VI be enforced to protect Jewish students.

Notice how they ignore the parts of the op-ed where I agree with them that this is not only a positive development, but point out ways in which it has already been used admirably and successfully.

Wilensky is young and inexperienced.

Despite all of the “silly name-calling” Klein engages in here, despite the personal nature of his attacks on me in this press release, marvel at my restraint in not pointing out that he is the old and out of touch yin to my “young and inexperienced” yang.

Hopefully he will learn that fighting anti-Semitic bigotry on campus is not a “right wing” or “left wing” issue.

I always try to be full of hope when I learn things. By the same token, I hope that Klein and Tuchman will learn to understand the arguments of those they disagree with a little better. A close (and by close I mean ordinary) reading of my op-ed will reveal that I don’t think fighting anti-Semitism is a right-wing or left-wing issue, but that the ZOA’s misuse of that fight is a tactic designed to advance their political cause.

The ZOA is proudly doing the same kind of work that other civil rights groups do, such as the ACLU and the NAACP.

Don’t flatter yourselves.

We filed a Title VI action against the University of California, Irvine, where Jewish students were physically threatened and assaulted. Recently, we filed a Title VI action against Rutgers University, where a Jewish student was physically threatened by other students and even by a university official!

Again, the facts in some of these cases are not as settled as Klein and Tuchman make them out to be. In some cases they are, but it’s still not clear that doing anything to anyone because of their stance in Israel is covered under Title VI; so far there is nothing to indicate that the Office of Civil Rights sees it as such.

There’s little doubt that Wilensky would support legal efforts by the ACLU or the NAACP to address the Irvine and Rutgers situations if African Americans were the victims.

Not that they’re putting words in my mouth or anything.

Here’s the issue: If an African American on campus is attacked because they’re an African American, that is racism and that is covered under Title VI. If a Jew is attacked because they are a Jew, that is anti-Semitism and that is now covered under Title VI as well. But if the same attackers would welcome a non-Zionist Jew into their fold (a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace, for example), that’s different. An attack on an Israel-related campus event is anti-Israel, while an attack on religious service is anti-Semitic. There’s a big difference.

It’s sad, shameful and embarrassing that Wilensky is so critical of these efforts on behalf of his own people.

Morton A. Klein
National President
Susan B. Tuchman, Esq.
Director, Center for Law and Justice
Zionist Organization of America
4 East 34th Street
New York, NY 10016

Cry me a river.

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‘Q&A: Harvey Pekar Publisher Josh Frankel’ — my latest for the Forward

My latest piece for the Forward is a Q&A on the Arty Semite blog with my fellow Drew alum, Josh Frankel:

This is Josh Frankel. Courtesy of Josh Frankel, of course.

Josh Frankel is an unlikely publisher and an even more unlikely entrepreneur. Yet he’s the founder of Zip Comix, the publisher of ” Cleveland” — the critically acclaimed posthumous work by underground comics legend Harvey Pekar, author of the long-running autobiographical series American Splendor.

Both Frankel and I went to Drew University, where he was a year ahead of me. At Drew, Josh was mostly known as the founder of the Comic Book Club, which boasted an impressive string of high-profile guest speakers from the comic book industry. But mostly people dismissed him as a nerd — or worse, afanboy, that particular species of comic book nerd that can spend hours discussing an obscure inconsistency in an early issue of “Superman.”

Then Frankel surprised everyone by securing an investor and starting Zip Comix; he not only published his own one-shot comic book, which was accepted by Diamond, the comic book distributor without whom it’s nearly impossible to sell a single issue of any comic, let alone a self-published one. It was called “The Schizophrenic,” about a superhero whose adventures are really his own hallucinations come to life. When I ran into Josh at a party earlier this year he told me that he was the publisher of Pekar’s book, and he’s now contemplating a second printing. I sat down recently with Frankel to ask him about Yiddish storytelling, the industrial middle class and his relationship with Harvey Pekar.

David A.M. Wilensky: How did you end up publishing “Cleveland”?

Josh Frankel: It all started with my own comic called “The Schizophrenic,” which was fun, but it didn’t sell well and I knew it wasn’t gonna sell well. You never sell an individual floppy well when you sell it yourself. When it got accepted by Diamond, which is the big distributor, I realized we could do more things and make some money.

You can read the rest of it over here. We get into some pretty deep stuff. I’m just sayin’.

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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 forward.com, 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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