Tag Archives | the forward

My latest (The Forward): ‘Can Digital Badges Save Hebrew School?’

The Forward’s new special education section is out, which means my new article on the growing use of digital badges in Jewish education is out. The first I heard of digital badges was when my editor contacted me about this story — but, once I got started, I found the whole thing fascinating. Here’s what I learned (or, at least, the beginning of it):

While purveyors of childhood Jewish education as a whole struggle with enrollment and relevance, a small number have become pioneering practitioners of “digital badging,” a new pedagogical model in which learners in a wide variety of learning environments earn digital badges that indicate their accomplishments, skills or knowledge.

With help from associations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and, in the Jewish arena, the Covenant Foundation, digital badges are booming. Open Badges, an open-source standard created by Mozilla, allows badges earned in one venue to be collected in a “digital backpack” and displayed in different places online, such as on one’s Facebook or LinkedIn profile.

“There are now international conferences looking at how to use badging in education, but Jewish education has serendipitously become a real leader in this field,” said Sam Abramovich, a professor of education informatics at Buffalo University. “It’s amazing how Jewish education has managed to grab hold of something that clearly has an enormously transformational pedagogical potential.”

Read the rest of it over here.

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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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‘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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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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SIWIW: On uses for slivovitz

"It's been compared to paint thinner, lighter fluid and jet fuel, and has been pressed into service as a home cough remedy. In an air disaster scenario it might serve to disinfect a wound, or sterilize makeshift surgical tools."
Ezra Glinter, Forward food section, 3/30/12

There were so many sentences I wish I wrote in this piece. A few more:

Cossa was introduced to it by Bill Radosevich, a lead contamination specialist from Minneapolis whom he met at an environmental trade show in 2002, and whom he credits as “the foundation for slivovitz in this country.”

Though Cossa was reluctant to divulge the Drinkers Association’s precise procedures for naming judges, he did say that “every journeyman’s path is different, and customized to their distinct needs in traversing towards slivovitz and enlightenment.”

Judges are instructed to determine is the slivovitz tastes like old socks or a chemical waste dump, and whether or not it makes the tongue go numb.

The piece is full delightful tidbits (“According to the score sheet, it is mandatory to make a toast before each round.”) It’s things like this that restore my faith in humanity’s capacity to hold at bay the oppressive onslaught of the forces of boringness.

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Don’t just rewrite ‘Hatikvah.’ Go further.

Crossposted to Jewschool

I tip my hat to Philologos, the pseudonymous author of the Forward’s language column, for two reasons:

  1. In a recent column, he cited a column he wrote in 1998 about an incident in which an Arab Israeli member of the national soccer team declined to sing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. In ’98, he wrote that it sucks for Arab Israelis and that he understood their reluctance to sing it. But in ’98 he concluded that there was no way around it. In this more recent column, he admits that he was wrong and….
  2. In this one he reacts to the recent silence of Salim Joubran during the singing of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” by going further than the other commentaries I’ve read on the incident; Philologos went so far as to make specific suggestions about how the song could be changed.

So bravo to you, Philologos for admitting you were wrong and for making some nicely conceived suggestions for rectifying the problem of “Hatikvah.”

And with that, let me explain why he’s still wrong this time. As identified by Philologos, the basic problem with “Hatikvah” is contained in this rhetorical: “How, really, can one expect an Israeli Arab to sing about a Jew’s soul stirring for his country?” But I’d go one step further: How can one expect a group with an equally valid claim on the land to sing a national anthem that is a clearly not just an Israeli song, but a Jewish song?

He concludes that “Hativkah” should not “be abandoned for another anthem, or sung to the same tune with new words” because “there’s not point in accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Again, I’d go even further, but we’ll come back to that. First, Philologos’ specific problems with “Hatikvah”:

  1. the word yehudi (Jew) in the first stanza;
  2. the word tziyon (Zion), also in the fist stanza — he points out that this word is uncomfortably close to tziyonut (Zionism), but I’d add that it’s also a term fraught with Jewish religious symbolism);
  3. in the second stanza, “That leaves us with… no Arab ever having yearned 2,000 years for Palestine”;
  4. and another appearance of the word tziyon, also in the second stanza.

If we accept his premise that the song should stay, receiving only minor textual alterations, these four are indeed the chief problems. I’d add a fifth: The geographical perspective of the song is distinctly western, since it refers to Israel as “the margins of the east.” That sweeps the Arab perspective under the rug and takes the perspective of Israel’s various African and Middle Eastern Jewish minorities right along with it.

In other words, the problem is not a few words, but the entire origin of the song. It is not an Israeli song, but a Jewish song. And it’s not simply Jewish, but Ashkenazi. I had never noticed the syllabic emphasis before, but Philologos points out that even in contemporary Israel the emphasis falls on the penultimate syllable as if the singers all spoke Ashkenazi Hebrew. (The pronunciation and syllabic emphasis of Sephardi Hebrew is the way Hebrew is spoken in Israeli society today.)

To solve the four problems he identifies, Philologos proposes these solutions, all of which he convincingly argues will fit the existing melody just fine (though he doesn’t go into whether they would fit into the existing Arabic lyrics, which seems to be a glaring omission):

  1. Replace yehudi  with yisra’eli (Israeli).
  2. Replace the first instance of tziyon (as le’tziyon) with le’artzeinu.
  3. Restore the original words written by poet Naphtali Herz Imber for the penultimate line so that “hatikvah hanoshana” (“Our ancient hope”) re-replaces “hatikvah bat shnot alpayim” (“Our 2,000-year-old hope.”)
  4. And restore the original words for the last line of the second stanza so that “b’ir ba David, David chana” (“In the city in which David, in which David encamped”) re-replaces “be’eretz tziyon ve’yerushalayim.”

For reasons that aren’t unclear, when he unveils his complete revised version of the second stanza at the end of the column, he has made on additional change. In the current version “lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu” (“To be a free people in our land”) replaces the original line, “lashuv le’eretz avoteinu” (“To return to the land of our fathers.”) Philologos restores avoteinu from the original so that (including the original and the current with strikethroughs) he ends up with:

Od lo avda tikvateinu
Hatikvah hanoshana bat shnot alpayim hanoshana
Lashuv le’eretz avoteinu Lihiyot am chofshi be’artzeinu be’eretz avoteinu
B’ir ba David, David chana Be’eretz tziyon ve’yerushalayim B’ir ba David, David chana

So replace yehudi with yisra’eli — fine. But the rest of his suggestions leave something to be desired. The situation doesn’t call for a of generic recognition of Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. To rewrite this song so that each word is equally appropriate for both groups leaves both dissatisfied, exactly the problem that Philologos worries about when he talks about “accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Instead, revise to song so that it recognizes the two peoples on equal footing.

For example, tziyon doesn’t have to get the boot entirely. But why not acknowledge both Arab and Jewish terms for the land? “Tziyon veQuds,” maybe? (I have no idea if that makes any sense, nor do I have a strong sense of all of the implications of Quds for all parties is, but you see my point.)

Philologos suggests that one virtue of restoring the line about David is that “David, after all, belongs to Christian and Muslim traditions too.” Indeed, but he does not belong to the Christian and Muslim imaginations the way he does to the Jewish imagination. Further, he is the first Jew to conquer the city of Jerusalem. If he is to be the only individual to make an appearance in the song, perhaps he’s not the best choice. However, what if the song cited Jerusalem as the city where David encamped and the city to which Mohamed journeyed or the city where he ascended?

Perhaps these suggestions — Philologos’ and mine — are flights of fancy, but every proposed improvement to the situation in Israel and Palestine sounds fanciful these days. My truest, loftiest hope for Israel’s national anthem is even more fanciful: Do away with it altogether, this Jewish song, with it’s European tune, pronounced in a dead accent no one truly speaks in anymore. Get an Israeli song, something that recognizes the distinct and different yearnings of these two peoples, something with a mix of Hebrew and Arabic lyrics (or at least teach everyone both versions, like the Canadians).

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