Weeks after first reading “If All the Seas Were Ink,” Ilana Kurshan’s piercingly intelligent memoir about her life with the Talmud, I can’t take my mind off the Cheerios.
It’s fall, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, late at night, and they’re sitting on her keyboard. Kurshan is in her sophomore year at Harvard. She has a paper due the next morning and for each paragraph she writes, she has decided, she’ll reward herself with a single Cheerio. Ten paragraphs later, she has succumbed to sleep and vowed to skip breakfast the following morning as a penance for her indulgence.
By November, she is hospitalized. She has been diagnosed with anorexia — “marked by its ravages and shaped by its torturous toll.” The sickness and its aftermath occupy less than seven full pages of this memoir. They are emphatically not what she wants to draw the reader’s attention to. Yet they are, in some ways, the key to understanding the text, as they illustrate how reluctant Kurshan is as a memoirist — a riveting tension throughout — and they show how she, in this instance discussing Tractate Nedarim, the laws relating to vows, is able to consistently make her life a commentary on the Talmud.
Kurshan, a literary translator and former publishing employee and literary agent, says that she likes to think of her book as being a bit like “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. Both are memoirs. Both are told by women. Both focus on a challenge that is meant to heal the author, righting a life that has begun to keel.
But Kurshan’s voyage — with all due respect to Strayed’s monstrous pack and the savage heat of the California desert — seems far more arduous. She, newly divorced at the outset of the book, marches day by day, page by page, for seven and a half years, through the Babylonian Talmud.
Religiously observant readers will recognize the path she has taken: daf yomi, a page of Talmud per day. It is an undertaking shared by tens of thousands of studiers worldwide — a synchronized trek through 2,711 double-sided pages of discourse and disputation, written mostly in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Judea at the time of Jesus. It is the fundamental text of Jewish law. It has been zealously studied and commented on for 1,500 years, producing mountains of scholarly text.
And yet what Kurshan has produced is entirely novel. It is a memoir that is reluctant to reveal. It is a commentary that is compelling rather than academic. And it is a deep dive into a body of literature that is frequently misunderstood, seen for its trees of opinion rather than its forest of pluralistic ideals.
The following is an edited and condensed version of The Times of Israel’s conversation with Kurshan, whom this reporter knows socially, and who skips nimbly and with great velocity, on the page and in person, from Rabbi Eliezer to Keats and back again.
What’s your background and when did you first encounter the Talmud?
I grew up on Long Island as a rabbi’s daughter and went to a Solomon Schechter school through the eighth grade. So I did have some exposure to rabbinic texts but they were all cut and pasted onto source sheets and I never experienced Jewish texts, certainly not rabbinic texts, in context. For me that was what was so eye opening and revolutionary about daf yomi — the flow of the rabbis’ logic, how they transition, how the arguments unfold.
Basically the Talmud is like a recording, as if the tape recorder had been left on in the study hall
Basically the Talmud is like a recording, as if the tape recorder had been left on in the study hall, and we get to hear the rabbis’ conversations. And that’s lost when you just look at famous lines or stories. You don’t get the richness of the dialogue, the way it invites you into the conversation. And I’m an editor, I’m really interested in structure of text, how text unfolds, where you place what, how an argument is advanced — and the way that’s done in the Talmud, the way arguments are laid out, is such an art form. We don’t live in an oral culture anymore and so in a way it’s a lost art form and having exposure to that is what really drew me to those texts. So, yes, anyway, I didn’t have that. I went to public high school.
Was there a moment that you remember being first drawn to the Talmud?
I remember that when I was in Solomon Schechter we used to learn mishnayot, not gemara. The Mishna consists of lots of case studies [the spine on which the discourse of the Talmud rests], and we were learning Nezikin, the laws of damages, and so we’d learn what was to be done if one man is carrying a long pole and he bumps into another man carrying a barrel and I would organize my friends and we would act out skits, because this is a text that is so dramatic and alive. You can’t appreciate it if it’s just inert on the page. It’s a text that emerged out of real-life scenarios. And that always seemed clear to me.
In grade school you were interested in the repercussions of an ox goring another ox?
The text was alive to me though I’m not sure I was able to connect it to my own experiences. Now, though, if I read about an ox goring another ox I immediately think back to a couple of years ago, when three of our kids were toddlers and they were all biting each other and I knew which kids were more likely to bite than others and I was like, no, no, no, he is a shor muad [an ox more prone toward goring], don’t go near him, but she’s a shor tam [an innocent ox]… That notion of the Talmud furnishing me with the terminology to understand my daily experiences, that came much later. In the beginning it was just a feeling that this was a text about lived experience.
Yet it’s so old and discursive and so….
It’s old but it also speaks to the human dimension of experience and in many ways that does not change. The fact that halacha follows Beit Hillel [a more lenient group of sages, perpetually in disagreement with the more exacting Beit Shammai] is partially because they always put Beit Shammai’s ideas first, because they were humble and modest. That is such an important value principle for the way we argue today.
The Talmud is all about argumentation, it is a record of rabbinic disagreements about matters of Jewish law. What does it mean to really be able to listen to the other side, hear them out, and only then decide what you think? So many of us are so fast to come out with our talkbacks and our criticism and are so eager to talk, but the Talmud really appreciates the value of listening to the other side and hearing out what the other person has to say. Those ethical principles are just as relevant today, regardless of any religious sensibility.
Okay, so you were down and out in Jerusalem, newly divorced, in a strange country, basically alone, and you started to study Talmud. And you loved it. But you’re such a private person that you generally refrain from giving people your last name, you have almost no social media presence, and you even bask in this sense of living behind a curtain, as you did sometimes when you were growing up as the rabbi’s daughter. So what made that love of Talmud morph into a memoir?
Mitch, the last thing I ever wanted to do was write a memoir. I did not write with an audience in mind. I think had I considered an audience I would have crawled under my desk and buried my head in my hands and given up entirely. I wrote this for myself, as my running commentary on the text while I was learning. I wrote because I felt like my years of study had essentially become a commentary. I felt compelled. Like mitzvah compelled. Like Rabbi Eliezer, not that I’m comparing, when he is on his deathbed imagines his arms as two Torah scrolls. I really felt like Torah had become mapped onto me, had filled me, had given me my shape. The text wrote itself through my notes on the pages of the Talmud. The question was would I submit it to publishers.
When you started out though on this subject of your life with the Talmud, it was written with a pseudonym and you basically told no one about it and did everything you could to make sure no one would read it, correct?
Yes. But at some point I realized that my writing was less about me than about the Torah I was studying. The poet Peter Davison has this line: “Courage! What you have to say is more important than your inadequacy at saying it.” And in my own head I paraphrased it to: Courage! What you have to say is more important than your own angst about sharing it. There are things I was very reluctant to share and yet I felt that my life is just an example of how a life can be leaved against the backdrop of the text. It’s not that my life is unique or particularly in sync with the Talmud it is just one way of living alongside it.
And I felt that to divorce the text from human experience is to not fully understand it and not truly appreciate it. The Talmud has to be understood in light of one’s experiences, because the text is about human experience. That is how the rabbis of the Talmud composed the text, bringing examples from their own lives. For me at least it doesn’t make sense to read Talmud in any other way. And so just as the Talmud is a commentary on life, my life became a commentary on the Talmud. Why didn’t I just write a commentary? I did. But the commentary was my life.
Tell us about hezek reiya. What is it? How did it inform your life?
It is the damage of being seen. The notion that being seen by someone else can constitute real damage. And for me that has always been true – I know what it is to feel the invasiveness of someone else’s gaze. This was true when I grew up as the rabbi’s daughter, sitting with my family in the front of the synagogue and feeling like everyone else was watching us. This was especially true when I was living alone after my divorce, and I didn’t want certain people to come into my home because I didn’t want them walking around in the world with the knowledge of the interior of my home. It’s like you don’t let just anyone see you naked. In the story of Joseph, what does he accuse his brothers of doing? Ki ervat ha’aretz batem lirot [to see the nakedness of the land have you come] — why is the accusation about nakedness? It’s privacy. And this concept of nakedness was very powerful for me.
There is a certain proprietary aspect to that knowledge about a person. It doesn’t belong to everyone. And I felt that way about the book, too. I shared more than I would have liked to because it seemed necessary for the Torah that I was trying to teach. That’s where the book is more of a commentary because ultimately I shared details in spite of myself, because I felt that either they illuminated the text or made an argument for a way of studying the text. So yes, I shared. But for the sake of the commentary, and I guess that’s why it had to become a memoir, because that was the way to write a commentary on the Talmud. Could my publisher have published it if it were called “If All the Seas Were Ink: A Talmud Commentary?” I would have liked that, but I think it would have had less commercial potential. The memoir is secondary. The way I happened to write this commentary on the Talmud is through my life. Now do it through your life, my dear readers. I challenge you. I’m trying to model a way of reading that is not a way of reading that many have adopted thus far.
The way I happened to write this commentary on the Talmud is through my life
Did you sense that the struggle to reveal would be part of the engine of the narrative? Your hesitation was very compelling.
The Sotah chapter, where I talk about Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes”…
The lowering of the fragrant bodice?
Yes. That section is my ars poetica. The manifesto for the book. It very much speaks to the tension of the book. But I was not trying to write a book that would be commercially interesting. I think I was trying to model a way of reading of the text. And let’s be honest, I was also striving for beauty. I often feel that if I could not render something compellingly then I would not share, and if I could, and if I could do it well enough, then I would do it even if it meant sharing something I did not want to. So there were aesthetic and exegetical considerations that guided me. And if I felt I could say something beautifully then I would do it. And then if I couldn’t do it nicely enough, then it wasn’t worth it.
Was the anorexia section particularly difficult?
I didn’t share that because I wanted people to know that I struggled with anorexia. I didn’t share because I wanted to help struggling anorexics. I shared because I wanted to show that all these questions of vows, this obsession with self-denial, the whole idea of becoming a Nazirite — this is all the rabbis’ equivalent of diet culture. That is to say that this stuff is so relevant if we can think about it a bit more creatively. So that is why I wrote this book. That is why it was worth revealing. Do I really want the whole world to know that I went through a hard time when I thought I didn’t deserve to eat? Do you think I want people saying — “Ooh, I see she still exercises a lot?” I really hope that if I have to speak about the book, I won’t have to talk about my anorexia. I want to talk about how it is a good metaphor for Tractate Nedarim.
Okay, let’s talk about the learning. How did you do it? Nuts and bolts. How did you study?
For the most part it would be more fair and honest to say that I read the Talmud rather than studied it. For me it was important to know what was on every page of Talmud and to have either read or listened to every word. I was more interested in the flow of the argument than every back and forth… but what that meant, well, the problem with studying Talmud is that you can’t study it until you know the whole Talmud. That’s why it starts on the second page. There’s no first page. There can’t be one! The first line of the Mishna is, “From what time may they recite the Shema [prayer] in the evening?” It starts in media res. Completely in media res. And it assumes that you have been part of this study hall for your whole life.
I’m in my second cycle now. And on this cycle I have come up with a new trick. Because before I had kids I could carry my Talmud with me wherever I went. But now when I have water bottles for each kid and a diaper bag and a change of clothes, it’s simply impossible to carry around a Talmud on top of all that. So I bought myself a whole set of these paperback mishnayot, and I always have the current daf yomi tractate in my bag. It’s a lot less heavy than carrying a Gemara. Whenever I’m on the bus or just walking I just look at the Mishna and that helps a lot with the study. Or I listen on a podcast. I never listen to music. Talmud is the soundtrack for my life.
You mention the diaper bag. How was it to study this text as a woman?
Well, the example I keep coming back to is during my maternity leave with the twins. At the time I was up to [Tractate] Shabbat, lamed gimmel [page thirty three] where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai studies with his son in secret and then he starts to fear that his wife will mistakenly betray them to the Romans. He says ‘nashim da’atan kala alehen‘ [women are light-minded] and so they go to a cave and for 12 years they just study.
First, they shed all of their clothes and stay there buried up to their necks in sand and study Torah. And God creates a carob tree and a spring of water to supply all their nutritional needs so they can just sit there and study. When finally they leave they are utterly bewildered by the outside world, and they say what are these people doing, rushing all around, forsaking the eternal world of Torah and engaging in the temporal world, and they retreat back into cave for another year of study and the father says to the son, the world is enough with me and you.
And I realized at the time, holed up at home with my twin daughters, that is so much like the way I feel — here I am on maternity leave and I’m barely getting dressed and basically buried up to neck in sand trying to just feed my babies and keep up with Daf Yomi and I realize that I’m the carob tree and the spring and the study partner all rolled up into one and I’m the nurturer engaged in this act of intimacy and on rare occasions when I managed to get the girls in the double stroller and pack a diaper bag I would go out and see people rushing for the bus and to work and I’d be like: What are they doing? What world is this? That world felt so foreign to me. And I’d go home and I’d look at the girls and look at them and say, the world is enough with me and with you. You’re all I need. You constitute my world.
And even though feminist scholars may dismiss that story as misogynistic because it portrays women as lightheaded and frivolous, I don’t read that story and say, oh I’m offended because I’m a woman. I read that story and I think I’m empowered because I’m like Rabbi Shimon! I’m a Torah scholar studying with my child! I identified with the Torah scholar and not with the woman. And I don’t know if you want to talk about this now, but.
I’m empowered because I’m like Rabbi Shimon! I’m a Torah scholar studying with my child!
Yes. I do.
Well, people say how can you study Talmud? How are you not put off by all the misogynistic things said about women like a man who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her frivolity and all these statements that people love to quote and I say to people, I am not a woman! I don’t read the Talmud and think of myself as a woman. What was a woman? She was someone who lived either in her father’s house or her husband’s house and if she wasn’t living there she was completely unprotected and in a very dangerous place. She was someone who had no recourse. She was completely dependent on her father or her husband.
That’s not how I see myself. I study Jewish texts. I live independently. I could live completely independently. I have a bank account. I live in a society in which a woman can have children out of wedlock. We live in a different world and the women of today are much more similar to the men of the Talmud than the women of the Talmud. So yes you can say I am a woman and they are women but the category has shifted so much over time and I don’t identify with Talmudic women. I view them as historical curiosities more than anything else, and for me that has been very liberating.
You do share anatomy with them.
The Talmudic rabbis think they are experts on women’s bodies and psychology and anatomy. And I read those texts and I think: isn’t it great that women can read these texts now and annotate them and correct them because they got it wrong a lot of times. And not only that, but when they use metaphors to describe various parts of the body, I just take it as poetry. Wow, that’s beautiful or not beautiful. But it doesn’t offend me.
I don’t identify with Talmudic women. I view them as historical curiosities
And yet while women have little voice in the text they are the subject of a whole lot of discussion — their bodies, their minds.
Yes, that’s exactly the point that Virginia Woolf makes in “A Room of One’s Own.” But I question the assumptions of the rabbis. They said it was so important for a woman to be married that she would do so even if her husband is the size of an ant, because that way she will not lack for lentils in her pot. And I looked at my single friends and thought to what extent is this still true. Is there a sense that a woman would do anything to be married?
Years ago, when I first came across that statement in the Talmud, a friend bought me a vase and she said that next time you have a boyfriend and he brings you flowers you can put them in the vase and I was like, no, I think I’ll use it for lentils, because I buy lentils by the kilo and for me that was really empowering. I copied out that line from the Talmud onto a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the vase. She doesn’t lack for lentils if she has a man. Well, you know what, I’ve got plenty of lentils.
There’s a poignant passage in the book in which you are carrying your Talmud on a plane quite full of ultra-Orthodox Jews and both the men and the women are curious, if not suspicious of you. Did you ever feel that you were transgressing?
I felt, no. Not transgressing. I never felt like I was doing something transgressive but it was rather a kinship, a bond. We were all on the same page. We couldn’t daven [pray] together, we probably couldn’t eat together, but we could all learn the same page of Talmud. Daf yomi is basically the world’s largest book club.
What about God? Early on in the book you describe your relationship to God as something like the moon seen through the trees and for your first husband it’s something else — it’s sunlight. Did that notion change during the course of your study?
I definitely found that part of what I loved about this text is that I felt I was part of this sacred tradition. And all Jewish texts are commentaries on what came before. And the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai in fire and thunder. So I am commenting on a text given by God at a profound and dramatic moment in human history.
When God spoke at Sinai it was so ear piercingly incredible that the people died and came back to life and we still are trying to make sense of the echoes of the echoes, and that’s what my book is, an echo of an echo of an echo, and for me, the way I have religious experience, well, it is very much mediated through text.