(I’ve fallen in love with memoirs. Tweaked the byline to reflect.)
An intimate, enlightening memoir on the meaning of life stirred by seven-and-a-half years studying and embracing the Talmud (Jerusalem, present-day): Ilana Kurshan has written a remarkable, soul-searching memoir.
Scholarly yet wonderfully accessible, spiritual yet infused with the “simple pleasures” of everyday life. For someone who is an extremely private person, it’s remarkably self-exposing. A bold, beautiful leap, though Kurshan says it’s “less an act of courage than a leap of faith.” Her faith, Judaism, is profound. As is her eloquent memoir.
If All the Seas Were Ink is rooted in the wisdom of an ancient, sacred text set down and revisited by rabbis at least fifteen centuries ago. Considered one of the most questioning bodies of literature in the world, the Talmud, also referred to as the Torah, is “a text for those who are living the questions rather than for those who found the answers.” Kurshan purposefully and cogently probes these questions seeking deeper understanding of the beauty and hardships of life. Fervent, “obsessed,” about the power of literature and poetry as a driving life force, she rises above her self-doubts to practice what she wholeheartedly believes: that it’s her divine obligation to impart what she’s learned, in striving to be the best person she can be.
If you’re wondering how the teachings of very-old rabbis, studiers of the Torah – the basis for all Jewish life – have any relevance to your life today, whether you’re Jewish or not, I encourage you to read If All the Seas Were Ink. I can’t imagine there isn’t something going on in your life that’s not questioned, touched upon, here. “The Talmud surprised me at nearly every turn,” the author says, who surprises us by making writings you might otherwise find “dry” so relatable and relevant, thus compelling. “The text will illuminate your soul, and your soul in turn will illuminate the text.”
Studying the Talmud – the Babylonian Talmud, not the Jerusalem Talmud, for it’s the most examined and determinative – takes an incredible commitment of time, discipline, and reflection. You don’t have to be as learned as Kurshan, a literary agent, translator and editor of Hebrew and English works who literally walks around with a book in her hand to the point of breaking bones; or raised in a rabbinical home situated on the property of a synagogue; or as dedicated to your faith (“an anchor, if not a life raft”). But you do have to be strongly motivated and inquiring for the long-haul as Torah study is a seven-and-a-half year journey called daf yomi, which means daily page in Hebrew. Those pages total 2,711 double-sided, organized in thirty-seven volumes called tractates, covering five hundred years of Jewish legal, religious, philosophical, ethical judgments, beliefs, and traditions.
Daily study suited the author’s intellectual and industrious disposition exceedingly well. “I cannot help but engage the text because the text engages me.” Still, it took her a year to commit even when her life was aching for direction and comfort. That she found “the most meaningful way to study Torah is by searching for the interconnections and resonances between Torah and the rest of one’s reading, learning, and living” fits all she reveals to us about herself and where she was during a painful period in her life.
“Learning Torah, like falling in love, is supposed to set us on fire.” It sure did for Kurshan. We are the beneficiaries of that elation, fueled by her needs, zeal, and view that “only religion can inspire us to connect with other people in meaningful ways so the universe does not seem so vast and lonely.”
The year before Kurshan undertook Torah study she was 27, depressed and lost, alone and abandoned in a foreign land after moving to Israel from New York for a marriage that lasted only a year. She speaks candidly and movingly about her feelings of loneliness, sadness, failure, and shame, harkening back to an earlier time when she suffered from anorexia. The characteristics of young women afflicted with this disease match up with her frank admissions of “compulsiveness” and “self-denial,” making her story even more uplifting because when she completed the first cycle of her studies she was joyfully remarried and the mother of a toddler and twin baby girls. Today, the author is the mother of four, counting her blessings.
Ilana Kurshan is a resourceful, multi-tasker who aims to make every minute count. (She laminates poems to pull out and memorize when she swims in the pool her literary office overlooks!) But she didn’t come up with this creative approach to studying the Torah, though it would be plausible if she did.
Invented in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro “as a way of unifying the Jewish world,” the process means that on any given day in the multi-year program of study Jews (and non-Jews) from around the world are open to the exact same page. Imagine having an interest in common to unite us with strangers? A concept the author expresses as a “worldwide web of conversational threads.” One tiny slice of how she brings the spiritual world right into our contemporary one.
Kurshan wraps herself up in the teachings of the Torah to guide the choices she makes and how she lives. Dedicated to running too, she chants prayers amidst the old, hilly streets of Jerusalem. Her literary passion is ingrained in her spirit and soul, more than anyone I know. So besides lighting up rabbinic literature, If All the Seas Were Ink is suffused with an eclectic assortment of references to classical and modern writers and romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickenson, Edna Dt. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Nancy Milford, Margaret Drabble, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and more. It’s a treat to see how she blends sacred and secular words and thoughts.
Ilana Kurshan’s staunch feminism is another treat. She grew up in a conservative synagogue – men and women sat and prayed together – versus her ultra-orthodox husband’s tradition of separating the genders. She explains that it’s only been in recent decades that women are tackling the Talmud, also male-dominated in attitudes and customs, owing in part to daily podcasts and online free resources translated in English. (This translator translates all Hebrew for us; she wants us to understand.)
“Learning daf yomi is like zooming through a safari on a motorbike; there is so much to take in, but you are moving at an impossibly rapid clip” so the author kept a journal and wrote poems that would jog her memory. “These journal entries unfolded as a record not just of my learning but also of my life.”
That life, now 37, is full yet still questing. The memoirist asks “how much can we reasonably be expected to change ourselves?” in response to the Talmud’s questioning what we can and cannot change. Kurshan provides us with an answer to this one: quite a bit. As long as we’re willing to take risks, push ourselves with grit and determination, and take stock of, be grateful for, what we have. I, for one, feel grateful for her insightful memoir and think you will too.