If All the Seas Were Ink

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By Ilana Kurshan

This is a collection of eloquent essays about Ilana Kurshan’s seven-and-a-half year journey through the Talmud as a daily participant in Daf Yomi.

As she read Talmud, she kept a journal that evolved into this poignant, funny, spiritual and enlightening commentary on how her modern life resonated – and clashed — with the writings of rabbinic sages from the beginning of the Common Era.

When she began, she was 27, recently divorced from her rabbinical student husband of less than nine months and living in Jerusalem. She left behind in New York her father, a Conservative rabbi; her mother, an executive with the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York; her siblings; her friends and her colleagues in publishing.

With the divorce, she found herself lost: should she return to New York – or stay in Jerusalem? In Jerusalem, she had few friends, limited funds and lived out of boxes in one tiny apartment after another. On the other hand, she had a job with a literary agency that was the only stability in her life.

She learned about Daf Yomi (daily page in Hebrew) from Andrea, a friend with whom she went running. “The Andrea I knew enjoyed hanging out in bars, reading paperback thrillers and staying in shape,” Kurshan recalled. Yet Andrea had joined Daf Yomi, a daily practice of learning the front and back sides of a page of the Babylonian Talmud each day.

When she began Daf Yomi, Kurshan listened via daily podcasts as she ran. Then she saw a flier about a group meeting in a synagogue in her neighborhood. She plucked up the courage to start attending, the only woman present.

The arguments and debates the ancient rabbis had with each other, their neighbors, their wives or their students infused her daily life. She carried her volume of the section she was reading with her everywhere. Standing in line at El Al at London’s Heathrow Airport, returning to Israel after a book fair, she pulled out her book, causing a stir among the nearby Chasidic men, also studying Talmud. A Chasidic woman, tense with curiosity, looked over her shoulder and whispered, “Is that Talmud?! Can you understand it?”

As she progresses in Talmud, her life is changing. She gives up her Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 planner for a Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah planner. When her employer tells her that after working for them for three years, they can’t continue unless she becomes a citizen of Israel, it echoes her Daf Yomi reading. The Talmud says that if one member of a couple feels compelled to return to Israel, they must both go. But if one member of a couple feels compelled to leave Israel, he or she cannot compel the other to leave.

She becomes a citizen and celebrates by buying bookcases for her books, crowned by her collection of Talmudic tractates.

Sometimes her life and her Daf Yomi study are dissonant. She’s unmarried as she studies tractates in Seder Nashim, which deals with relationships between men and woman. She struggles with Yevamot, which suggests that without a man a woman is greatly to be pitied. She finds the general focus on men challenging, but she also finds spirited, assertive and intelligent women throughout. Rav Hisda’s daughter, for example, who selects for herself her two husbands, becoming at last Rabbi Rava’s willful wife.

Other times the resonance is apt. She meets, dates and marries her husband Daniel against the backdrop of learning Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra, once a single tractate now divided, which deals with civil law, “specifically how people interact with one another and share space.” It proves to be a perfect counterpoint to Kurshan’s questions about trusting again and doing the work of protecting – and giving — oneself in an intimate relationship.

By the end of the book, she is married and the mother of a son and twin daughters. Reading Talmud has to be snatched in the moments before her children wake up. She meets a man while she’s taking her children to their gan. He tells her that he knows her, she’s the “tehillim woman.” At first confused, she realizes that in her pressure for time in the morning, she had been chanting the morning service to her daughters as they went to gan, which the man had overheard as psalms.

She confesses that while studying comes easily to her, prayer does not. Studying, she says, is about “conquering new territory, synthesizing more and more information and coming up with insights that cast everything that came before in a whole new light.”

Prayer is about repetition. Waking, morning, afternoon, evening . . . Shabbat, holidays, seasons . . . prayers repeat. Prayer is about taking the familiar, Kurshan says, and saying it “with such concentration and fervor that it is as if we are renewing each day the miracle of their creation.”

She adds that prayer is about “standing still and looking inward . . . focused and present and at peace.”

This is a wonderful book to read if you are drawn to reading Talmud yet are held back for any number of reasons. Kurshan brings the issues debated in the Talmud to a human and modern level. In the process, she reveals her own fears and insecurities.

This is a perfect book for Shabbat reading. It’s easy to pick up and put down. It’s intelligent, eloquent, moving and instructional.

About the Author: Ilana Kurshan

Raised on Long Island, Ilana Kurshan was the daughter of a Conservative rabbi and an executive at the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York. she is a graduate of Harvard College, where she studied the history of science, and Cambridge University, where she studied English literature.

She worked as an editor and literary agent in New York before marrying a rabbinical student and moving to Jerusalem for his studies. Although the marriage lasted less than a year, she stayed in Jerusalem working as a translator and foreign-rights agent.

In addition to her own books, Kurshan has translated books of Jewish interest by Ruth Calderon, Micah Goodman Binyamin Lau.  She is the book review editor for Lilith magazine. Her first book, published in 2008) was Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights? The Four Questions Around the World, which translates the Passover seder’s four questions into 23 languages and provides capsule histories of the Jews in the countries where those languages are spoken.

She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children.


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