The Talmud, the seminal text of rabbinic Judaism, has almost everything in it.
It’s got closely reasoned logic and wildly fantastic lore, leaps of imagination and magic realism and strictly constructed legal proscriptions. It’s got multigenerational time-defying conversations, and it understands the compulsive need to argue with absolutely everything as the most basic Jewish cultural assumption.
It’s like an old-fashioned hard suitcase when you’ve shoved absolutely everything you can think of in it, in a jumbled mess that’s logical to you, and then you remember lots of other things, and then you have to sit on it to get it to close, and some random things still stick out, but then you can fasten it and it’s ready and you can bring it with you wherever you go.
It’s culture defining, and has been for millennia.
But it’s rarely seen as a vehicle for memoir.
In her brilliant, beautifully written, sensitive, original new book, “If All the Seas Were Ink,” Ilana Kurshan writes about how Daf Yomi, the worldwide seven-year program that encourages Jews to study a page — the same page — of Talmud every day, took her from life as a not-very-happy, still-searching-for-equilibrium 27-year-old to a 35-year-old mother, still searching — she’ll always be searching, that much is entirely clear — but in a different, older, although equally smart way.
Ms. Kurshan — who will talk about her memoir in Teaneck on November 9 (see box) — started her talmudic explorations soon after she made aliyah, but she already had an impressive intellectual background from which to draw.
The oldest of the four children of Rabbi Neil Kurshan, the Conservative rabbi of the Huntington Jewish Center on Long Island, who has just retired after 30 years in the pulpit there, and Dr. Alisa Rubin Kurshan, who retired as a senior vice president of New York’s UJA Federation, Ilana graduated from Harvard and then spent a year as the John Harvard fellow at Cambridge University in England. She’s always been — and still is — the kind of person who literally cannot put down her book. When she lived in Manhattan, you could run across her on Riverside Drive. She’s easy to spot — she was the tall thin blonde reading as she walked. It could be alarming.
When she moved to Jerusalem, she said, she did the same thing, and eventually people recognized her as yes, that young woman with the book.
She is also an avid runner; she listens to podcasts, often of Talmud talks, as she runs, and so she associates different streets, vistas, hills, stores, shapes, and even smells with very specific bits of text.
Ms. Kurshan also reads widely; she loves poetry and writes it herself. Her understanding of the Talmud often is filtered through English writers; her ability to bring together Jewish and English sources, in ways that illuminate both of them, is idiosyncratic and valuable.
“As I learned, I found myself hearing echoes of other texts that I had learned and loved over the course of my life,” she said. “I would read about the cure for leprosy — it started out with something like ‘Take a cauldron,’ and it totally was like ‘eye of newt.’ I could find myself thinking ‘Did Shakespeare read Talmud?’ It seemed like there were so many echoes because they were responding to the same human influences.
“I was very drawn to the sorts of ideas that brought up my historian of science side and my historical side and my romantic side, and I explored a lot of that.
“The romance of the Temple was very real for me. The nostalgia for the Temple, and the love of talmud Torah — I would hear echoes of Keats.
“I couldn’t think about Rabbi Yochanan being sick without thinking about Keats and beauty and evanescence. I would have those associations and not be able to disassociate them, so I clearly had to write about them.”
Talmud is highly gendered, and historically it has not been accessible to women (or, to be honest, particularly kind to them). “When I read the text, I often find myself identifying far more often with the male characters than with the women,” Ms. Kurshan said. “That because by talmudic definition, I am more a man than a woman.” She’s independent, has a job, can support herself, was unmarried during much of that first seven-year Dof Yomi cycle.
When she moved to Israel, Ilana was a newlywed. That marriage lasted for about six months, and it ended with a combination of inevitability and great sadness. “I started reading Daf Yomi as a coping mechanism,” Ms. Kurshan said; when she began, she was living alone in a small apartment, “and it was a way of putting one foot in front of the other.” She found herself writing about what she was reading, first as marginal notes in the text itself, then as anonymous blog posts, and then more and more as pieces to be read. “At some point, I made the conscious decision to put all this stuff together,” she said.
She found that the talmudic text often triggered associations with painful periods in her life; she writes about both her doomed first marriage and her college-era eating disorder.
And she also writes about the joy that she’s found in her second marriage. Her husband, and the father of her four children, is Daniel Feldman, who is from Teaneck; his father was Dr. Charles Feldman and his mother is Rella Feldman.
Ms. Kurshan often writes limericks that sum up the daily page of Talmud. In their brevity, concision, insight, originality, and wit — as well as their deep respect for the text they elucidate — they provide nutshell views of her thoughts. We have reprinted some here.
Ilana Kurshan and Daniel Feldman have embarked on their second cycle of Daf Yomi; now, as she reads the text again, she has vivid memories of the first time she read it. Now, as she, her husband, and their children make a life for themselves as a family in Jerusalem, she remembers the foundation she built on as she moves forward.
These are a few of the limericks that Ilana Kurshan wrote to sum up that day’s learning:
A person who learns and reviews
A full hundred times — still he will lose
Out on what he’d have learned
Had he once more returned,
Said Bar Hey Hey. For knowledge accrues.
A student of Hillel of fame:
Yonatan ben Uzziel was his name.
When he learned, when he read
Any bird overhead
Would spontaneously burst into flame.
This sugya’s about “number two”
For what is a person to do
When he goes on Shabbat
Can he carry, or not?
Just three stones may be brought to the loo.
Ulla tasted in Bavel a date.
It was yummy. He filled his whole plate
He said, “Why don’t they learn more
In Bavel. They earn more.”
His bowels, alas, met their fate.
Rebbi used to read Eicha and sigh
With the book on his lap, he would cry
He could bear it no more —
The book fell to the floor
He cried, “We who sink low were once high.”
On Wednesdays the virgins should marry
So their husbands can wake and not tarry
To go Thursday to court
(If they wish) and report:
“There’s no blood on the sheet that I carry!”
How to dance before a bride
Who is lovely, but on the inside?
Hillel says: “Say she’s pretty”
Says Shammai: “A pity
To lie.” “But you must!” Hillel chides.
(Bava Metzia 2a)
Two are holding a tallis they find
Each one cries out, “This tallis is mine!”
Each guy swears that at least
He owns half the whole piece.
Then they split it. Both parties don’t mind.
(Bava Kama 27a)
Someone falls off a roof and he lands
In a woman (Er… not in her hands)
What was done has been done
(And perhaps it was fun)
Are they married? This was not the plan!
“Be my wife with this loaf of fresh bread.”
A dog’s chasing her! Soon she’ll be dead!
She throws bread to the beast
It slows down for the feast
She escapes. Is she single, or wed?
(Bava Metzia 58b)
If a convert comes by, you can’t say
“It was ten years ago to the day
That your Dad ate some pork
With a spoon and a fork”
Do not torture or turn him away.
Who: Ilana Kurshan
What: Will talk about her new book, “If All The Seas Were Ink”
Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., in Teaneck
When: On Thursday, November 9, at 8 p.m.
Co-sponsored by: Congregation Keter Torah, also in Teaneck.
For information: Call (201) 837-2795 or go to www.rinat.org