A page of the Talmud is dense and noisy, with lots of text and typefaces representing the voices of sages arguing and commenting on the central text, over several centuries.
In an unusual memoir, Ilana Kurshan adds her voice to the mix. With seeming ease and poetic style, she draws connections back and forth between the folios of the Talmud, with their commentaries on commentaries, and the events, people, thoughts and memories of her own life, as well as literary references to Shakespeare and others. For her, the ancient pages are alive with ideas, and in them she finds both light and a new lightness of spirit.
“If All the Seas Were Ink” by Ilana Kurshan (St. Martin’s) recounts the 7 ½-year period in which she participated in daf yomi, learning a page a day of Talmud. The details of her life unfold, not in a linear way, but through her engagement with all the tractates of the Talmud, the vast compendium of Jewish religious and commercial law and legends. Kurshan, who grew up on Long Island and now lives in Jerusalem, writes beautifully about the complexities of love, loss, shame, growth and the things that matter. Her voice is refreshingly modest, gently confident and profound.
Other works with fresh literary takes on the Talmud include “Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud” by Joseph Skibell and Jonathan Rosen’s “The Talmud and the Internet,” both memorable and original works. Kurshan’s is the most personal; her entry into the world of daf yomi was sparked by grief over her divorce after less than a year of marriage. While running the hills of Jerusalem, she learns that her running partner, who is not particularly observant, has just begun day yomi.
At first the idea seems daunting — Kurshan has a hard time getting through each day, and wonders how she might commit to getting through the Talmud in its entirety. But, as she writes, “I thought about how moving on is about putting one foot in front of the other, or turning page after page. If every day I turned a page, then eventually a new chapter would have to begin.”
In that first year, she had many “trapdoor days” — “When I just wanted to fall through the floor and escape my life.” While many suggested therapy, she resisted. She says that the closest she came to therapy was her friendship with an elderly homebound blind woman she visited weekly — Sarah was born in Iran, deeply religious and superstitious, and a witness to all that went on in Kurshan’s life, from just after her divorce through her new marriage and the birth of a child. Kurshan compares the wise and unflappable Sarah’s optimism to that of Rabbi Akiva. She admits that she didn’t tell her friend everything, like the fact that she read Torah in an egalitarian minyan, and she didn’t follow all of Sarah’s advice about a new boyfriend, like “Clean his floors and cook him dinner every night.”
Kurshan, now the mother of four, is involved in her second cycle of daf yomi. In late summer she visited her family in New York City in advance of the book’s publication, and we met on the Upper West Side. No surprise to learn that she had listened to a daf yomi podcast on the way over.
“I’m trying to model a way of reading the text, where the personal is paramount. Not many people have done it — I wonder if that’s because women read in a different way, in the context of life.”
As she explains in the memoir, “My writing about the texts I study is deeply personal, baring truths about myself that I’d otherwise conceal. But I write because more than I seek to guard truth, I strive for beauty. When it comes to lived life, I am a deeply private person. But when it comes to written life — to life refracted through artistry — I unclasp the whalebone stays and turn away with lowered eyes and my loosened bodice rustles to the floor.”
She says that by nature she’s a storyteller, loves libraries and is now passionate about children’s books. Admittedly, she has spent most of her adult life walking through the world with a book, reading as she walks. She never leaves the house without something to read, as well as her planner, journal and a siddur — the books of her life (she has all of the journals she has kept since second grade).
The author grew up in Huntington, Long Island, where her father, Rabbi Neil Kurshan, served as spiritual leader of the Huntington Jewish Center for 31 years. Her mother Alisa Rubin Kurshan retired after a distinguished career at UJA/Federation.
For several years, Kurshan blogged anonymously about her Talmudic studies. When her twins were born in 2013 and she was at home on maternity leave (she works as a translator and foreign rights agent), she began taking inventory of all the essays to see where there were gaps.
“After living and breathing these texts for so long, I felt this was my calling. The book wrote itself —welled up from inside me.”
One of her guiding principles is “I can reveal things about myself, but I’m very careful when other people are involved. I’m a rabbi’s daughter; I was inculcated in being protective of other people’s privacy.”
“The main thing I take away is the value of humility,” she says. “For the rabbis of the Talmud, the highest praise is to say something that someone said before you. There’s not so much striving for originality as authenticity.”
She adds, “The more you learn, the more you realize how much more you need to learn. You never become full; the world can never be boring.”
Ilana Kurshan will discuss “If All the Seas Were Ink” on Sunday, Nov.r 12, 7 p.m., at JCC Harlem, 318 W. 118th St. Tickets $10. Please see ilanakurshan.com for information about other appearances in the New York area.