“I don’t drive,” author Ilana Kurshan told me in a recent phone interview, “because I pretty much try to avoid anything that can’t be done while reading a book.” (“Swimming is an exception,” she admitted, “but I memorize poetry while I swim.”)
And what, exactly, does the Jerusalem-based Kurshan read while she’s riding the bus, or walking, instead of driving? Novels and rabbinical literature, sometimes. But as she recounts in her new memoir If All the Seas Were Ink, the Talmud has been her most frequent text of choice for many years. The book is a record of her beginning the vast task that is reading daf yomi—all 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud, one page every day for seven-and-a-half years—and the life she led while doing so. “Life and text constantly inform each other,” she told me. She said that she tries to live with the Talmud embedded “into the fabric of my life,” and calls the Talmud her soundtrack, which “my life unfolds against.”
For instance, Kurshan writes about her trips during her first year of marriage to her second husband: “In the Tower of London we studied Sanhedrin’s laws about how a person is hanged, and at the Palais de Justice we reviewed the procedure for interrogating a witness.” Even the food she describes has Talmudic connections: She describes making a dish she dubs “Reish LaQuiche,” a quiche named for Talmudic sage Reish Lakish, or referring to a dessert containing a cup of pomegranate seeds as “Rabbi Yohanan” since, as she explains in the book, “Rabbi Yohanan’s beauty is compared to a glass of pomegranate seeds in the sunlight.”
If All the Seas Were Ink started as a series of blog posts that Kurshan wrote about her studies, beginning with limericks on the text of the day. Kurshan has always learned by writing poems; in high school, she wrote poetry about math that was published in magazines for math teachers. “Things resonate in an uncanny way, in light of the Gemara,” she told me. For her, the pages of the Talmud “mark milestones in my kids’ lives,” she said. The first birthday of her twin daughters fell at the time she began writing the book, for instance. When one of her twins got teeth before her sister and would bite her repeatedly, Kurshan said, “I was in the midst of the Talmud’s discussion of the shor muad, the ox which is known to have gored at least three times, and which the rabbis of the Talmud invoke to refer to one of four general categories of damages.” This understated sense of humor, comparing a 1-year-old biter with a goring ox, is typical of Kurshan’s oeuvre.
Kurshan started learning Talmud after a painful divorce from her first husband; as the memoir unfolds, Kurshan adapts slowly to life as a single woman again, falls in love with someone who also studies daf yomi, has four children, and keeps studying throughout her lived milestones. So for Kurshan, studying Talmud is more than a religious exercise. “A lot is very personal,” she said, “a way of marking time.” She writes: “It took me a while—quite a few tractates—before I found my stride. And yes, like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who measured out his life in coffee spoons, I have come to measure out mine in tractates, referring to periods in my life by what I was up to in the Talmud.”
Kurshan grew up on Long Island as the daughter of a Conservative rabbi and an executive at the New York Jewish Federation, and attended Jewish day school through eighth grade. She grew up in “a home filled with Jewish books,” but did not see anyone learning Talmud regularly. In college at Harvard, she majored in the history of science and then went to Cambridge to study literature before moving to New York to work in publishing. Only when she came to Israel in 2004 did she take what she calls a “very introductory level” Talmud class at Jerusalem’s Conservative Yeshiva that she considers her “first introduction to rigorous Talmud study.” She is now a teacher at that school. Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb of the Conservative Yeshiva said of Kurshan’s teaching that “she presents text well, either because she knows it or learns it well, text and context.”
“I do not think of myself as a teacher,” Kurshan explains in her book. “I tend to prefer to work in quiet solitude, alone in the library with a book I am reading, translating, or editing. But the Talmudic sages extol the value of teaching, asserting that one who learns but does not teach resembles a fragrant myrtle tree in the deserted wilderness (Rosh Hashanah 23a)—perhaps the rabbinic equivalent of the Buddhist koan about the tree falling in the forest with no one around.”
Kurshan also works at a Jerusalem literary agency as a professional translator of books by Ruth Calderon (whose first speech teaching Talmud in the Knesset went viral) and Rabbi Benny Lau (whose classes she also takes at Jerusalem’s Ramban synagogue), as well as fiction by Dalia Betolin-Sherman, the first Ethiopian woman to publish fiction in Hebrew. Her boss (and agent for this book), Deborah Harris—whose clients include David Grossman, Yuval Noah Harari, Dorit Rabinyan, Sayed Kashua, Meir Shalev, and Evan Fallenberg—said that Kurshan “is truly brilliant, funny, and knows thousands of poems by heart, which she can quote at any given opportunity.”
Kurshan is part of a new group of women scholars and teachers in Israel and America at universities and women’s learning institutions who are reading Talmud in a different way. Rabbi Gail Labovitz, professor of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of American Jewish University, told me: “Women always read at one degree of remove because we are not the intended audience” for the text.
“When a learned and sensitive and wise woman like Ilana reads [Torah], new sides of the learning itself are revealed,” said Calderon. “Ilana meets the Torah in an extremely meaningful fashion and also in a fashion that is personal and free.”
Today online, one can find different approaches to Daf Yomi: Adam Kirsch’s in Tablet; Jeremy Brown’s Talmudology, which discusses scientific issues on the page of the day; haiku daf yomi; or artist Jacquelline Nichols’ Draw Yomi blog. What makes Kurshan’s memoir unique is her explication of the text and the ways she relates it to her personal life. One learns much about the vastness of the text; as Kurshan writes in her introduction about her first journaling and writing limericks on the day’s learning that she “was doing just what the sages of the Talmud had done—I was trying to make my learning so much a part of me that I, like Rabbi Eliezer, might someday be able to refer to ‘my two arms, like two wrapped Torah scrolls’ (Sanhedrin 68a)—as if I, too, could inscribe Torah on my heart.” When Kurshan begins the story she is divorced and alone; by the end, she is happily married and a mother of four children. What accompanied her in the transition is the text, as she writes: “The Talmud surprised me at nearly every turn, and while there were topics I found less interesting than others, there was something that caught my eye on almost every page—a folk remedy employed to heal an ailing sage, a rude insult leveled at one rabbi by another, a sudden interjection from a rabbi’s angry wife.”
Jeffrey Rubenstein, Skirball Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at New York University, praised Kurshan’s memoir: “I know of no other book that brings the Talmud to life by making its traditions so relevant to modern times.”
If one knows a bit about the Talmud, one will learn more from this book; if one knows nothing, this is an introduction by someone who is trying to live both with and in the text. Readers will be exposed to a huge variety of literary allusions and poetry as well as some of the pleasures and difficulties of living as an Anglo immigrant in Israel.
One frustration in reading a memoir about life in Israel is a total absence of a mention of Arabs and others who live there. Nonetheless, part of the liveliness of Kurshan’s memoir comes from her life in the country where she has lived for a decade, a place where “billboards are ads for shiurim [classes],” she told me, because “Jerusalem is the capital of Jewish learning.”
“I live close to where the beit hamikdash once stood, the place of the rabbis’ greatest love and longing,” said Kurshan. She then recounted a section of the Talmud that discusses a rabbi who comes from Babylonia to Israel and discovers that the very air of Israel makes a person wiser. “I never wrote creatively in America,” she said, noting that her learning in Israel has given her “so much to say.”
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Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novel Questioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.