Author’s daily Talmud study shapes her life journey
Ilana Kurshan, a seeker of complexity and ever-deeper meaning, weaves together intensive Talmud study with personal pain, work, spiritual seeking, and literature in her new book “If All the Seas Were Ink” (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). She traces her path from divorce to renewed wholeness and a second marriage, and her path through daf yomi, the study of the entire Talmud by learning one page every day for seven years.
She grew up on Long Island and graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in the history of science and earned a master’s in English literature at Cambridge University. Kurshan has worked as a translator, a book-review editor for Lilith magazine, and a foreign rights agent. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four young children, ranging in age from 1 to 6.
Kurshan is the granddaughter of long-time Princeton residents Jerry and Phyllis Kurshan, who died in 2016, leaving vacant their regular Shabbat morning seats to the right of the rabbi at the Jewish Center. Jewish textual study is in her blood; she is the daughter of Neil Kurshan, rabbi emeritus of the Huntington Jewish Center in Long Island, and granddaughter of Rabbi Mordecai “Mel” Rubin at Wantagh Jewish Center.
Prior to her Nov. 10 author talk at the Jewish Center, NJJN spoke with Kurshan over Skype from Jerusalem about God’s place in her life, learning the entire Talmud, and the evolution of her memoir:
NJJN: Tell me about your relationship to Judaism.
Kurshan: I think my connection to Jewish life is very much mediated through texts. I’ve always been a lover of text and literature, and I feel fortunate that I was born into a religion with such a rich text tradition. I always sit in shul with a book. When I should be davening, I’m often learning.
NJJN: Has your observance evolved since beginning your daily Talmud study?
Kurshan: I don’t think my Jewish practice has changed at all over the years. I prefer to daven in egalitarian synagogues. I prefer to daven without a mechitza, without separate gender roles, without men can do this and women that. Davening is not about men vis-a-vis women, but about people vis-a-vis God. Anything else is a distraction.
I read Torah a lot, and when I read I try to bring one child with me to shul. It’s a special treat — they get to hear Ima, and they get to come up with me. It’s important to me that my kids see this as a model: women taking leadership roles in shul and women conversant in Torah and in Jewish text.
The rabbis knew the whole Tanach. When they are quoting a verse, they have a whole matrix of associations — the verses that come before and the verses that come after. We are living in a culture where so much is written and we really don’t value memorization because we walk with little computers in our palms and can summon any text in the world. I think this really impacts our reading of these texts in the way they were meant to be studied, and reading Torah is an antidote to that.
NJJN: What does God mean to you and how does that fit with your Jewish observance?
Kurshan: I love encountering the God of the rabbis of the Talmud. The rabbis of the Talmud were very bold and very heretical in what they dared to say about God. They often put their views of God in the mouths of other personalities, like a Roman matron who said, “Your God created the world, but what is God doing all day long?” You can see this is an anxiety of the rabbis — there is evil in the world and what is God doing about it?
For the rabbis, belief in God was a given, but that’s not the case in our world today. For me, I don’t think much about…does God exist? Who is God? What is God doing? I’m more interested in finding opportunities to encounter God in my life. Anytime we have a chance to do a mitzvah, it is an opportunity to let God into your life. If before you dig into a pizza you make a brachah first, you have let God in. If you let Shabbat into your week, your week has a different dimension.
I wrote an essay about the concept of helicopter parenting. I was thinking about how for me I’m a much better parent when I’m in public and people are watching — I want to not lose my temper, to be patient, and to be a good listener to my children. For me, a sensitivity to God’s presence is a constant reminder to act in a certain way…. Those moments when I am alone and no one is watching are potent moments of the greatest intimacy with God if we take the opportunity. Living with the image of a divine helicopter makes me a better person — what kind of a person am I if I live my life infused with faith in God?
NJJN: Tell me about the process of writing the book.
Kurshan: When I began learning daf yomi, it was more of a coping mechanism, putting one foot in front of the other and seeing the way forward. When I was studying, I found myself writing about what I was learning. There’s so much material, and it goes by at such a rapid pace, it was the only way I could maintain my sanity and absorb the material. After I finished a tractate I would go back and write limericks about each page, because limericks are short and easy to remember. It was a way of reviewing what I was learning. Sometimes I would want to write more, so I would write a sonnet or an essay. Something would happen in my life that would reflect what was happening in what I was learning.
After a while, I began writing regularly, all on an anonymous blog. A friend asked where I was writing, and I said, “in a journal, on the back of a tissue box, on my computer.” The friend said, “You should make a website and put everything there.”
Four-and-a-half years ago when the twins were born I was complaining — I don’t do well with maternity leave — what is my project?… I realized I had a continuous narrative, about May 2006 through February 2014 — and the table of contents would be the massechtot [tractates] of the Talmud. It was finished when the twins were 1 year old. I associated periods of my life with what I was learning at the time, and pages of Talmud were where I was when I was learning. I thought I was writing my commentary on the Talmud using my experience to explain the meaning of what I had learned.
NJJN: How would you characterize your book?
Kurshan: My book is a memoir. It’s truth refracted through memory, through text, and through a shaping of experience; it’s not a chronicle of what happened, but a work of art.