torn up and apart

92NY Splits With the Cultural Elite

A venerable institution digs in.

Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine; Photos: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine; Photos: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine; Photos: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Eleven days after 92NY disinvited from its stage the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen for signing a controversial open letter critical of Israel, the Y’s CEO, Seth Pinsky, meets me for breakfast at Nice Matin, the Upper West Side brasserie on the ground floor of the Lucerne Hotel, not far from where he lives. We are joined by Rabbi David Ingber, who heads the Y’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, and Jonathan Rosen, co-founder of the top-shelf PR shop BerlinRosen, whose role here very much falls under the firm’s “crisis management” tab. We are still three days away from the circulation of a follow-up open letter decrying the Y’s reaction to the original open letter, which would be signed by prominent authors Tony Kushner, Leslie Jamison, and John Banville, but the Y is already in chaos following staff resignations and the dissolution of its vaunted literary program.

Pinsky, 52, who made his reputation as an ultracapable technocrat in the Bloomberg administration, has a mild, thoughtful demeanor. But the Y under his watch has been getting pilloried, and he seems eager to publicly reply to the critics for the first time. “I just want to start by saying that this has been excruciating,” he says. “This is much harder than anything I’ve faced ever before. I was in government right after September 11. But there were very few people in New York who were pro–Al Qaeda. We were all in together in terms of rebuilding. During COVID, there were very few people who were pro-pandemic. We were all in that together.”

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Leaving unsaid who in the current moment represents Al Qaeda or the pandemic, Pinsky’s point is that, regarding the Israel-Hamas war, New Yorkers are conspicuously at one another’s throats. If a thousand Ukrainian flags bloomed across the city in response to the Russian invasion in 2022, this conflict has been characterized by dueling protests and posters and people tearing them down. The ideological combat broke out in especially acute fashion at 92NY, a secular temple of arts and letters that also happens to be an explicitly Zionist community organization with deep ties to Israel — a microcosm of a city that in important respects remains politically and culturally Jewish. “For most of our history, the 92nd Street Y has been able to be a liberal institution and a Jewish institution,” Pinsky says. “Those core values were not in tension.” Now, it seems, they are.

Ingber’s and Rosen’s very presence at this breakfast — strategic or not — underscores the point. Ingber is the founding rabbi of the inclusive synagogue Romemu; he keeps the Israeli and U.S. flags up in his temple in a practice he calls “raising our flawed flags.” Rosen was an architect of Bill de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign and belongs to Congregation Beth Elohim, the progressive Park Slope synagogue led by Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who last month wrote a New York Times op-ed about the abandonment Jews felt watching the justifications and outright celebrations by some on the left of the Hamas attack on October 7. Like Timoner and many of the Y’s patrons, Rosen and Ingber are liberal Zionists critical of Benjamin Netanyahu and now find themselves alienated from their erstwhile allies. “The same people who are feeling so hurt by this moment and so scared,” says Rosen, “have also spent, like, the last year marching in front of the Israeli Embassy protesting judicial reform and calling Bibi a fascist.”

Lest anyone think Pinsky is going to apologize or placate, he’s actually here to aggressively defend the Y’s position. Which suggests the schism over the Gaza conflict, especially within elite institutions in New York already riven by competing ideological factions and financial pressures, will not be a passing disturbance but an enduring fault line.

To much of its ticket-buying public, the 92nd Street Y represents a certain New Yorker–reading, Nora Ephron–esque ideal of upper-middle-class enlightenment. In the month leading up to the Nguyen event, the Y would host Michael Lewis in conversation with Walter Isaacson, the Broadway stars Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, Oprah Winfrey, Nancy Pelosi, and Michelle Obama. Although Pinsky’s father is a Reform rabbi, his interest in running the Y stemmed from his passion for classical music (he had previously applied to lead Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic), and he wasn’t drawn by the Jewish aspect of the job in particular before taking the post in January 2020.

At the same time, the Y was founded close to 150 years ago by German-Jewish immigrants as a literal Young Men’s Hebrew Association. And despite its recent rebrand to 92NY, it retains much of its original purpose. It has a senior center and a pool; offers ballet and ceramics and Torah lessons; and rents nine floors of dormitories to college students and 20-somethings. Perhaps the world’s most prestigious community center, it symbolizes a long assimilative arc: a melding of Jewish identity and the highest ranks of culture.

Among its billionaire-studded donor class — Leonard Lauder, David Rubenstein, Matthew Bronfman, Jonathan Tisch — some are prodigious givers to Jewish and artistic causes. Others may be angling to get their grandkids into the Y’s exclusive nursery school, which was for a time attended by the children of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. (Citigroup chair Sandy Weill infamously helped secure admission for a colleague’s twin daughters timed to a $1 million donation to the Y.) The board is not, as a rule, conservative — it includes, for instance, former Planned Parenthood chair Jill Lafer — but it would not include vocal advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement either.

That delicate balance began to tilt in 2022, when Pinsky and the Y sought to “revitalize” its Jewish identity, hiring the charismatic Rabbi Ingber to try and address the twin trends of declining youth affiliation and rising antisemitism. This happened not so long after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at a moment when Kanye West said he would go “death con 3 on Jewish people.” Citing FBI statistics on rising hate crimes against Jews, Pinsky explains the Y’s instinct to “come together as a people and protect ourselves … I think that if we’ve learned anything as Jews, it’s you don’t put your money on the good outcome.”

In other words, a clash was probably already brewing. The Y was reemphasizing its brand of Jewish values at the very time the cultural elite was moving further left on an array of issues in response to Trump’s election and its aftermath — issues that we are now seeing intersect, sometimes clumsily, sometimes to resonant effect, with the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The left’s list of historic oppressors and villains — capitalists, cops, colonizers — increasingly also includes the Israeli state.

So amid a frenzy of petition-signing in the aftermath of the October 7 attack, the Y was primed. On October 18, two days before Nguyen was scheduled to promote a memoir at the Y, Pinsky says he became aware of a five-paragraph open letter the author and several hundred others signed in the London Review of Books. The letter expressed “grief and heartbreak” for Palestinian and Israeli families alike while condemning the Israeli military’s retaliation against Gaza as constituting “grave crimes against humanity.” Anodyne stuff, perhaps, to the disinterested observer. But for Pinsky and other critics of the letter, it contained glaring omissions: It did not mention the October 7 attack and referred to Hamas not by name but as “armed groups of the people under occupation.”

Pinsky began hearing from board members and ordinary patrons expressing discomfort with the letter, as well as subsequent Instagram posts by Nguyen criticizing Israel. That day, Pinsky says, he met with Bernard Schwartz, the well-regarded 42-year-old head of the Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center — the division that has run the organization’s highbrow literature programming since 1939 — and asked him to postpone the event to a time that was “a little less hot.” He says his choice on the Nguyen talk was “between bad and bad,” guaranteed to enrage members of his constituency either way. But the Y has patrons who knew victims of the Hamas attack, he says, and it has patrons who survived the Holocaust. “This isn’t academic or theoretical for us,” he says. “This was a generationally unprecedented moment in the history of Jewish people, and we are a Jewish institution.”

“I question why the literary community can’t have greater understanding to this moment. If you go back to 9/11, everybody understood that,” one board member tells me, referring to the postponement of cultural events in its wake. “Well, if you’re Jewish, this is the Israeli 9/11 for many of us.” I ask another board member if he thinks there would have been a donor revolt had the talk gone on as scheduled. “We didn’t have enough time to figure out if we had a donor problem,” he says. “How about this: I think there would have been a stakeholder revolt and it would have included donors.” (The Y is sensitive to the perception that big money forced its decision. Says a source familiar with the Y’s thinking, “There were definitely significant major donors who opposed the decision too,” though he declined to name them.)

Schwartz refused to postpone, and when the Y officially pulled the event, hours before it was to take place, he scrambled to move it to the Seaport branch of the bookstore McNally Jackson, where he called the decision an “unacceptable” affront to the mission of the Poetry Center. Many in the literary Establishment have joined him in seeing the Y’s move as a straightforward suppression of speech, while one trio of writers announced they were pulling out of their upcoming Y appearance “as writers of conscience, as anti-imperialist, anti-racist and anti-colonial thinkers.” Within days, Schwartz’s deputies at the Poetry Center announced their resignation, triggering the indefinite cancellation of the Y’s literary programming. (The Y says Schwartz resigned, too. Schwartz declined numerous times to comment for this story and would not confirm or deny his resignation, saying only that after 18 years, he no longer works at the Y.)

Colm Tóibín says he was slated to promote his forthcoming novel, a sequel to 2009’s Brooklyn, at the Y next May. After the Nguyen decision, he wrote a pointed email to Pinsky threatening to not return to speak or teach writing courses at the Y. Later, on the phone with Pinsky, “I tried to explain to him how Viet was not some sort of strange radical figure who had these radical ideas anathema to public order. I kept saying this is about America, that I have a vision of America that means something,” he says. “My position was, ‘Don’t underestimate the importance of what you’ve done. We won’t come back.’”

The author Roxane Gay says much the same when I reach her. “What they did was so antithetical to what I thought they stood for it’s probably best they canceled the series,” she says. “I just don’t know of any writer who would want to do an event with them until they change their stance.” Screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner, who has a long association with the Y, tells me he was “horrified” by the Nguyen decision. “Last week, I was at the New York Public Library gala,” he says. “Both Chuck Schumer and Kathy Hochul got up and both spoke about conservatives banning books and about free and open speech. Nobody mentioned the Y, of course.”

The irony Kushner is noting cuts the other way too. The recent impulse to deplatform “harmful” speech has generally come from the left, and it is jarring to see many in this crowd on the other side of the debate. “I was actually invited to sign the Harper’s letter” asserting the sanctity of free speech, Nguyen once said. “My gut instinct was to say ‘no.’” For others, free expression was beside the point. Malcolm Gladwell, who went through with a conversation three days after the Nguyen talk, tells me over email, “I love his books, and he has every right to speak out on whatever issue he chooses. But this wasn’t about free speech. It was a question of manners. If you have been invited to speak at the home of Jewish intellectual life in Manhattan, you don’t sign a petition the day before accusing Israel of ‘grave crimes against humanity.’ For goodness’ sake, there would be people in the audience who had loved ones killed in the Hamas attacks.”

The Y argues it isn’t only what Nguyen, a BDS supporter who has spoken at the venue before without incident, said or signed. It was when he did so. “As a rabbi, when you’re in a pastoral moment, there are things that you might say after four, five, or six months that you would never think of saying in front of a family sitting shiva,” Ingber tells me. “Our community, the entire Jewish community, is sitting shiva.”

Pinsky articulates the point in a more charged way. “Imagine that we had a speaker who’s a well-known and vocal proponent of Second Amendment rights,” he says. “And a week before he appeared was the Sandy Hook massacre. And at that point, we decided, ‘You know what? Maybe this isn’t the day to have that person speak. Maybe we should postpone this event to another time.’ It’s hard for me to believe that many people would accuse us of censorship.”

Virtually every trademark of the American dispute over the war in Gaza can be found within the Y drama: the epistolary mania that keeps producing open letters and counter-letters; the scrambling of sympathies on free speech; the contested border separating anti-Zionism from antisemitism; the intense scrutiny paid to semantics, as in the Y’s repeated insistence that the postponement of Nguyen’s reading was not the same as a cancellation. (As an ex–Y employee close to the situation tells me, “It was not a postponement. It takes two people to make a postponement.”)

The Y is the most storied literary venue in the city, and it’s unclear when the home court of Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and Susan Sontag will again host a great novelist or playwright. In this way, it’s astonishing that all this took place over a few missing words in a letter Nguyen didn’t himself write — ahead of an event that had nothing to do with Israel. Columbia University Shakespeare scholar and longtime Y collaborator James Shapiro tells me he considers the LRB letter “ignorant of a lot of the geopolitical context and the actual reality in Israel.” But also: “It’s just a letter. He signed … a letter.”

At the same time, it’s a testament to the seriousness of the matter and the depth of feeling on the part of prominent Jewish New Yorkers that the Y was willing to jeopardize its secular reputation, built over many years as its donors and patrons helped build this city, over a few absent but crucial words. And if the Y is not backing down, then it’s a sign that its brand of adamance, mingled with regret, is widespread in New York.

The week after the breakfast at Nice Matin, I head to the Y, where the most noticeable thing is the added concrete NYPD barriers on Lexington Avenue and extra lobby security in the form of retired cops. The second-most noticeable thing is how many kids are populating the floors of a supposedly crisis-racked edifice. It’s not just after-school activities that remain, or dance and music events, but other conversations that aren’t housed under the Unterberg Center — more middlebrow, but also more seat-filling talks delivered by journalists or actors. When I reach out to
speakers scheduled to appear this fall — Ken Burns, David Brooks, Rachel Maddow, Brian Stelter, and others — only one, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, says he pulled out in response to the Nguyen decision. And no one conveyed much indignation at the Y. Earlier this month, the journalist Kara Swisher (a contributing editor at this magazine) moderated a talk on Stelter’s new book about Fox News. “People are welcome to think whatever they want,” she emails me. “I agreed to do it, so that speaks for itself, I guess.”

Whatever this suggests about the political differences between mainstream journalists and the literary vanguard, it’s a reminder that the Y’s Unterberg offerings were highly prestigious but proportionally small in number and that the suspension of its slate poses a greater reputational problem than a financial one. Perhaps authors will eventually come back; it’s not easy to sell books. A version of this situation played out in 1962 when the Y’s longtime president yanked a book prize from the poet Frederick Seidel, fearing his provocatively titled collection Final Solutions contained material inappropriate for a Jewish institution. The move triggered a writer boycott and the resignation of the Poetry Center’s administrator Betty Kray, who took her authors and extensive Rolodex with her.

“We know we have to rebuild the Poetry Center, and we know that’s not going to be easy,” Pinsky says. “My hope is that with a little bit of time, when people hear what we actually said and not what they think that we said or they wanted for us to say, that there will be the opportunity to repair relationships.”

In the meantime, the Y has codified one new policy change. “For a long time, we’ve made the decision that we’re not going to welcome people who are racist to our stage. We’re not going to welcome people who are homophobic or people who are misogynistic to our stage,” Pinsky says. “We have adopted a policy of continuing to welcome diverse perspectives to our stage, including those of people who are critical of Israel. And we’ve essentially drawn only one red line. The red line is that if you actively call for the destruction of the State of Israel, or question its legitimacy, then you’re welcome to have that opinion in the world, but we’re not going to give it a platform.”

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92NY Splits With the Cultural Elite