ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Interview'A love of our heritage' or 'Crude and a disgrace'?

Raunchy TikTok Talmud tidbits spark slut-shaming and heated discourse

Miriam Anzovin’s ‘Daf Reactions’ cause as many disputes as their source material; some find them sacrilegious, others refreshing, but their creator says they’re simply heartfelt

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Miriam Anzovin posts her reactions to the Daf Yomi page-a-day Talmud study regimen on TikTok, and people either love it or hate it. (Courtesy)
Miriam Anzovin posts her reactions to the Daf Yomi page-a-day Talmud study regimen on TikTok, and people either love it or hate it. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — As Miriam Anzovin TikToks her way through the Talmud, she hopes to make the ancient Jewish text sparkle for everyone — religious and non-religious Jews alike. And if that involves employing a bit of profanity, she reasons, then so be it.

Whether she’s punctuating a point with a makeup brush, unleashing a few choice words at something she finds particularly egregious, or tackling something more serious like her recent post on tractate Mo’ed Katan about mourning, Anzovin approaches the texts with a preparedness many Talmud students would envy.

But while the visual artist and content producer for JewishBoston.com has gained a sizable fan base with her “Daf Reactions,” she also has her share of detractors, some of whom dislike her salty language when referencing sacred topics, others who disapprove of a woman weighing in on Torah.

To them, 36-year-old Anzovin says they’re missing the point: Her TikTok posts are celebrating, not skewering, the Talmud.

“I’m not teaching it. I’m reacting to it in my authentic way, with a little millennial slang. If people want to learn a little more afterward, that’s great,” Anzovin said in a video call with The Times of Israel.

Anzovin was first drawn to the idea of Daf Yomi, the page-a-day Talmud study cycle, after hearing the late UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks speak about it during a “Lunch and Learn” program at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, where she works as a visual artist and content producer for JewishBoston.com.

“I did not anticipate being this moved by Jewish learning, but the seed was planted that day. I thought about all these other Jews around the world from different backgrounds and of different ages participating in this worldwide book club. I thought about how they were all reading the same page of the Talmud on the same day and how unifying that experience was,” said Anzovin.

At the time it was the middle of a 7.5-year cycle and so she waited until January 5, 2020, to get started. She then waited a little more than a year to start posting reaction videos.

Anzovin, who holds a degree in Judaic studies from the University of Massachusetts, listens to Rabbanit Michelle Farber’s Daf Yomi podcast and reads about it on MyJewishLearning.com. She then reads the text itself on Sefaria.org and goes over it with a study partner.

Although Daf Yomi is a daily regimen, Anzovin doesn’t post daily.

“It’s hours of preparation. Before I can say anything about it I have to actually learn it and let it roll it around in my mind. Then I can distill it down into what I want to say,” she said.

Anzovin, who attended a Chabad Hasidic school through eighth grade and then was homeschooled until college, was formerly Orthodox but now identifies as an atheist.

“The thing that I believe in is the Jewish people. I often say I’m not ‘on the derech,’ on the path, but I’m there showing people where it is with a flashlight,” she said. “If people want to be observant, I support them entirely. I am not trying to influence anybody to say that my take on the Talmud is definitive. It’s not religious. It’s not spiritual. It’s about the intellectual heritage of my ancestors and our collective ancestors.”

It’s that kind of honesty that has won over people such as Shlomo Felberbaum, an active Twitter user who describes himself on the platform as a Hasidic father and husband.

“I must admit that when I wrote my initial Tweet in support of Miriam, I wasn’t aware that she considers herself an atheist. I thought she was a Conservative or Reform Jew,” Felberbaum said. “Once I read that she was an atheist, I thought, ‘Wait a moment, maybe the critics are right that she’s here to belittle the Talmud and to create irreverence.’ So I rewatched several of her videos, and I came away with the same conclusion that I had before, that Miriam presents a love of our heritage and the Talmud, and does it in a brilliant modern way.”

One of her more vocal critics was Avishai Grinzaig, an Orthodox Israeli activist and writer, who has received rabbinic ordination.

“This is a particularly provocative and crude use of texts sacred to Judaism to rake in likes. This is not traditional, this is not religious continuity, this is not accessibility. It’s just a disgrace,” Grinzaig tweeted.

Felberbaum disagreed.

“Personally I am not bothered by the profanity because the Talmud itself has its fair share of profanity. One example I remember at the moment is in the tractate of Arachin, where the Talmud talks about forcing someone to pay his debt, and uses the expression, ‘pull him by the balls,’” Felberbaum said.

As David Zvi Kalman, scholar in residence and director of new media at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, sees it, there is an underlying sexism to the backlash.

“I don’t doubt that some of the criticism she’s receiving is because she’s a woman and any time women teach Torah or talk about Torah in a public space they are held to a higher standard than men,” Kalman said.

Indeed, according to a blog post by Robert Kaiser, the founder of Coffeehouse Torah Talk — an online havurah, or study group — some critics have accused Anzovin of tiflut, which means promiscuity in traditional rabbinical literature.

Those critiques inspire rather than discourage Anzovin.

“I’m doing this on the backs of all those — women especially — who have strived to make women’s Talmud learning possible,” Anzovin said. “I get messages from people who say they now feel inspired to engage with Judaism.”

“The thing I find the most meaningful is when people send me videos of their own teenage daughters doing Daf reactions in their style,” she said. “When I see these I get literal chills because that’s the change we need to see. It’s about women and other groups that have historically been disenfranchised from the world of Jewish scholarship and learning.”

Kalman describes Anzovin not as a rabbi or scholar, but as someone talking about what they are learning — and he says that’s a plus.

“TikTok in general is kinder to non-Orthodox perspectives in Judaism. It’s more grassroots,” Kalman said.

With tens of thousands of followers on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, it appears Anzovin is on to something.

“Miriam showcases the relevance of the Talmud, and the richness of its pages. For someone who [had previously] never opened the Talmud, she reveals the human debates and considerations that our sages had, and I hope it’ll help people realize how much fun and beauty one can find in the Talmud,” Felberbaum said.

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