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Divorced and battling illness, rabbi’s daughter finds her lifeline in the Talmud

September 07, 2017
By SSLI Communications

Please click here for original Post in The Times of Israel

 

Divorced and battling illness, rabbi’s daughter finds her lifeline in the Talmud

Ilana Kurshan's Talmudic commentary/memoir is a striking account of a contemporary life lived alongside an ancient text.

 

Weeks after first reading “If All the Seas Were Ink,” Ilana Kurshan’s piercingly intelligent memoir about her life with the Talmud, I can’t take my mind off the Cheerios.

It’s fall, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, late at night, and they’re sitting on her keyboard. Kurshan is in her sophomore year at Harvard. She has a paper due the next morning and for each paragraph she writes, she has decided, she’ll reward herself with a single Cheerio. Ten paragraphs later, she has succumbed to sleep and vowed to skip breakfast the following morning as a penance for her indulgence.

By November, she is hospitalized. She has been diagnosed with anorexia — “marked by its ravages and shaped by its torturous toll.” The sickness and its aftermath occupy less than seven full pages of this memoir. They are emphatically not what she wants to draw the reader’s attention to. Yet they are, in some ways, the key to understanding the text, as they illustrate how reluctant Kurshan is as a memoirist — a riveting tension throughout — and they show how she, in this instance discussing Tractate Nedarim, the laws relating to vows, is able to consistently make her life a commentary on the Talmud.

Kurshan, a literary translator and former publishing employee and literary agent, says that she likes to think of her book as being a bit like “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. Both are memoirs. Both are told by women. Both focus on a challenge that is meant to heal the author, righting a life that has begun to keel.

But Kurshan’s voyage — with all due respect to Strayed’s monstrous pack and the savage heat of the California desert — seems far more arduous. She, newly divorced at the outset of the book, marches day by day, page by page, for seven and a half years, through the Babylonian Talmud.

Religiously observant readers will recognize the path she has taken: daf yomi, a page of Talmud per day. It is an undertaking shared by tens of thousands of studiers worldwide — a synchronized trek through 2,711 double-sided pages of discourse and disputation, written mostly in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Judea at the time of Jesus. It is the fundamental text of Jewish law. It has been zealously studied and commented on for 1,500 years, producing mountains of scholarly text.

And yet what Kurshan has produced is entirely novel. It is a memoir that is reluctant to reveal. It is a commentary that is compelling rather than academic. And it is a deep dive into a body of literature that is frequently misunderstood, seen for its trees of opinion rather than its forest of pluralistic ideals.

The following is an edited and condensed version of The Times of Israel’s conversation with Kurshan, whom this reporter knows socially, and who skips nimbly and with great velocity, on the page and in person, from Rabbi Eliezer to Keats and back again.

What’s your background and when did you first encounter the Talmud?

I grew up on Long Island as a rabbi’s daughter and went to a Solomon Schechter school through the eighth grade. So I did have some exposure to rabbinic texts but they were all cut and pasted onto source sheets and I never experienced Jewish texts, certainly not rabbinic texts, in context. For me that was what was so eye opening and revolutionary about daf yomi — the flow of the rabbis’ logic, how they transition, how the arguments unfold.

Basically the Talmud is like a recording, as if the tape recorder had been left on in the study hall, and we get to hear the rabbis’ conversations. And that’s lost when you just look at famous lines or stories. You don’t get the richness of the dialogue, the way it invites you into the conversation. And I’m an editor, I’m really interested in structure of text, how text unfolds, where you place what, how an argument is advanced — and the way that’s done in the Talmud, the way arguments are laid out, is such an art form. We don’t live in an oral culture anymore and so in a way it’s a lost art form and having exposure to that is what really drew me to those texts. So, yes, anyway, I didn’t have that. I went to public high school.

Was there a moment that you remember being first drawn to the Talmud?

I remember that when I was in Solomon Schechter we used to learn mishnayot, not gemara. The Mishna consists of lots of case studies [the spine on which the discourse of the Talmud rests], and we were learning Nezikin, the laws of damages, and so we’d learn what was to be done if one man is carrying a long pole and he bumps into another man carrying a barrel and I would organize my friends and we would act out skits, because this is a text that is so dramatic and alive. You can’t appreciate it if it’s just inert on the page. It’s a text that emerged out of real-life scenarios. And that always seemed clear to me.

Weeks after first reading “If All the Seas Were Ink,” Ilana Kurshan’s piercingly intelligent memoir about her life with the Talmud, I can’t take my mind off the Cheerios.

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It’s fall, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, late at night, and they’re sitting on her keyboard. Kurshan is in her sophomore year at Harvard. She has a paper due the next morning and for each paragraph she writes, she has decided, she’ll reward herself with a single Cheerio. Ten paragraphs later, she has succumbed to sleep and vowed to skip breakfast the following morning as a penance for her indulgence.

By November, she is hospitalized. She has been diagnosed with anorexia — “marked by its ravages and shaped by its torturous toll.” The sickness and its aftermath occupy less than seven full pages of this memoir. They are emphatically not what she wants to draw the reader’s attention to. Yet they are, in some ways, the key to understanding the text, as they illustrate how reluctant Kurshan is as a memoirist — a riveting tension throughout — and they show how she, in this instance discussing Tractate Nedarim, the laws relating to vows, is able to consistently make her life a commentary on the Talmud.

Kurshan, a literary translator and former publishing employee and literary agent, says that she likes to think of her book as being a bit like “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. Both are memoirs. Both are told by women. Both focus on a challenge that is meant to heal the author, righting a life that has begun to keel.

But Kurshan’s voyage — with all due respect to Strayed’s monstrous pack and the savage heat of the California desert — seems far more arduous. She, newly divorced at the outset of the book, marches day by day, page by page, for seven and a half years, through the Babylonian Talmud.

‘If All the Seas Were Ink’ by Ilana Kurshan. (Courtesy)

Religiously observant readers will recognize the path she has taken: daf yomi, a page of Talmud per day. It is an undertaking shared by tens of thousands of studiers worldwide — a synchronized trek through 2,711 double-sided pages of discourse and disputation, written mostly in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Judea at the time of Jesus. It is the fundamental text of Jewish law. It has been zealously studied and commented on for 1,500 years, producing mountains of scholarly text.

And yet what Kurshan has produced is entirely novel. It is a memoir that is reluctant to reveal. It is a commentary that is compelling rather than academic. And it is a deep dive into a body of literature that is frequently misunderstood, seen for its trees of opinion rather than its forest of pluralistic ideals.

The following is an edited and condensed version of The Times of Israel’s conversation with Kurshan, whom this reporter knows socially, and who skips nimbly and with great velocity, on the page and in person, from Rabbi Eliezer to Keats and back again.

What’s your background and when did you first encounter the Talmud?

I grew up on Long Island as a rabbi’s daughter and went to a Solomon Schechter school through the eighth grade. So I did have some exposure to rabbinic texts but they were all cut and pasted onto source sheets and I never experienced Jewish texts, certainly not rabbinic texts, in context. For me that was what was so eye opening and revolutionary about daf yomi — the flow of the rabbis’ logic, how they transition, how the arguments unfold.

Basically the Talmud is like a recording, as if the tape recorder had been left on in the study hall

Basically the Talmud is like a recording, as if the tape recorder had been left on in the study hall, and we get to hear the rabbis’ conversations. And that’s lost when you just look at famous lines or stories. You don’t get the richness of the dialogue, the way it invites you into the conversation. And I’m an editor, I’m really interested in structure of text, how text unfolds, where you place what, how an argument is advanced — and the way that’s done in the Talmud, the way arguments are laid out, is such an art form. We don’t live in an oral culture anymore and so in a way it’s a lost art form and having exposure to that is what really drew me to those texts. So, yes, anyway, I didn’t have that. I went to public high school.

Was there a moment that you remember being first drawn to the Talmud?

I remember that when I was in Solomon Schechter we used to learn mishnayot, not gemara. The Mishna consists of lots of case studies [the spine on which the discourse of the Talmud rests], and we were learning Nezikin, the laws of damages, and so we’d learn what was to be done if one man is carrying a long pole and he bumps into another man carrying a barrel and I would organize my friends and we would act out skits, because this is a text that is so dramatic and alive. You can’t appreciate it if it’s just inert on the page. It’s a text that emerged out of real-life scenarios. And that always seemed clear to me.

Click here to read complete article.

The Best Night Ever!

June 15, 2017
By SSLI Communications

The Best Night Ever!

Last night was an incredible night at Eisenhower Park. 

Thank you to everyone who attended.

he performances by Schechter School of Long Island AriNotes, the Long Island Cantors Ensemble and of course, David Broza, were just spectacular!

Click here to continue reading.

Posted in JCRC

The Williston Post - Sixth Annual Interfaith Seder...

April 28, 2017
By SSLI Communications

Please click here for The Williston Post.

Sixth Annual Interfaith Seder Brings Together Students for Cross-Cultural Exchange. 
Editor Frank Oliveri 

Posted in The Williston Post

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