Book Review If All The Seas Were Ink


If All the Seas Were Ink

Ilana Kurshan

St. Martin’s Press, 2017, $26.99

If All the Seas Were Ink is a marvelous weave of personal memoir, study of Talmudic texts, and evocation of the classics of English and world literature. If you are a fan of all these genres, as am I, you are in for an irresistible read.

The book is structured around the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud as read in daf yomi (the one-page-per-day study of the Talmud in sync with study groups around the world), but Kurshan’s lively narrative voice provides the energy that carries the reader along. In every book of the Talmud, even the abstruse ones such as Zevahim or Middot, she finds a link to some aspect of her life and interprets the ancient text through her personal insights from life and her reading of world literature.

How did a translator, literary agent, and graduate student of literature come to do daf yomi? Kurshan was at a low point in her life, alone in Jerusalem after a painful divorce following a brief marriage, when her jogging partner mentioned that she was learning a page of Talmud a day. Kurshan took up the idea, both as a way to provide herself a reason to get up in the morning and as an extension of her lifelong love of text study. Having been raised in a Hebrew-speaking American Jewish home, she was able to study the text in the Steinsaltz Hebrew translation and commentary edition. As a student of literature, she could appreciate (rather than be frustrated by) the way the rabbis transition from one topic to another. Seeing her commitment to daf yomi as a sort of neder (vow), she found a way to keep up with its relentless pace  as her life moved from singlehood to marriage to becoming the mother of three small children. Thus, employing her impressive intellect, she overcame many of the challenges to learning daf yomi that have defeated others.

Kurshan brings a strong feminist sensibility to her reading of Talmud, aware that “for fifteen hundred years [this text] has been regarded primarily as the province of only the male half of the population.” She questions, for example, the rabbinic dictum of tav l’meitav tan du m’l’meitav armelu (a woman would prefer to be married [to any sort of man] than to be alone). She wonders whether that principle is applicable in an age when a woman can own property, support herself, and even have a child on her own. Tongue in cheek, she concludes, “It soon became clear to me that by the Talmud’s standards, I am a man rather than a women—if ‘man’ is defined as an independent, self-sufficient adult, whereas ‘woman’ is a dependent generally living in either her father’s or her husband’s home.”

Rather than getting angry or offended by the Talmud’s historically conditioned stereotypes of women, she digs into the text as “fertile ground for gleaning new insights and fresh perspectives.” She brings to tractate Ketubot, with its discussion of how much various brides are worth, Virginia Woolf’s observation that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” When Kurshan arranges her bookcase, she puts her volume of Ketubot next to A Room of One’s Own, and Yevamot goes next to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

This arrangement of her library is but one of many laugh-out-loud passages in the book. She names the two pieces of salmon she is cooking Rav and Shmuel to represent the sages’ conflicting views of the meaning of the verse “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free,” (Numbers 11:5), and the conclusion in Yoma that “Ha v’ha havay”—both are right. She calls the dish prepared for a pot-luck Shabbat lunch Reish LaQuiche after the Talmudic scholar Reish Lakish. And a young man who sees her studying her daf on the plane to Israel asks, in a memorable pickup line, “Brovender’s or Drisha?”

The book is subtitled A Memoir, and Kurshan is open and honest about her life, loves, and struggles. Her story is told not as a straightforward chronological narrative, but as a weaving back and forth from the Talmud text, revealing herself in layers. She can be wonderfully descriptive of her everyday life—shopping for vegetables in the shuk, jogging the hills of Jerusalem, nursing a baby with one hand holding the Talmud and the other cradling the infant.

On the other hand, Talmud study provides her with a structure for examining the meta-questions, ancient and contemporary, personal and societal. For instance, she compares the problems of life in the diaspora, dwelling among non-Jews, as described in tractate Avodah Zarah, to the difficulties in Horayot, when Jews had sovereignty—and how those pros and cons play out today. In Erkhin, a distinction made between Levites who were gatekeepers (m’shoarim) and those who were poets (m’shorerin) sparks in her a bit of a midlife crisis—as she questions her career as a literary agent (thus a gatekeeper) and considers devoting more time to the creative work of translating (like a poet). This volume could be the product of that desire to be creative and at the same time “to enable the words of Torah to reach a wider audience.”

This engrossing book could be seen as the first woman’s commentary on the Talmud. It employs “women’s way of knowing”—seeking the personal significance of a text rather than a timeless rule or principle. Kurshan is not Rashi, explaining, hair-splitting, and resolving ambiguities. Rather she is a seeker of a broader truth, a weaver of insights gleaned from literature and life, and a poet. “Go and learn.”

Roselyn Bell is the editor of the JOFA Journal. She recently completed an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Rutgers.

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