- Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books
When I went to Jerusalem in the late 1980s to meet the remarkable women teaching Judaism's sacred texts to women (Nechama Leibowitz, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg and Malka Bina were among the best known), I visited the new yeshivot for women that I had heard about. These were considered daring and revolutionary institutions, in that they opened the entire Jewish canon to women and gave women the skills to open the books up for themselves. At such schools, women could go beyond learning the required law and lore necessary for practice. They could become real scholars, acquiring the skills needed to understand the old questions the ancient sages had asked, and to ask new questions of their own. If Beruria of the Talmud was practically alone in her day as a scholarly woman, I anticipated that I would encounter the excited buzz and heavy purpose of many modern-day Berurias in these schools. Instead, I entered apartments haphazardly converted into temporary classrooms, and found in them young women—mostly American girls—sent there for a year of "strengthening" their faith between Jewish high school and a secular college. They displayed not scholastic zeal, but a thick ennui. Their lassitude was occasionally enlivened by a Torah insight, but more often they brightened when conversation turned to Sabbath plans ("Who will you be with for shabbos?") or the announcement of an engagement. Though they wore many layers of long underwear in the winter months, they were always shivering, and they talked of their hunger, not just for food, but for the comforts of home.
Ilana Blumberg, author of the eloquent, poetic and always thoughtful memoir Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books, was herself a student at one of these schools in that era, and she confirms my observations, which initially so [End Page 222] surprised and saddened me that I doubted what I saw. Parents were indeed sending their daughters to such schools, not so that they would blossom into Talmud scholars, but with the wish that "a year of intensive Jewish study might succeed in blunting the future temptations and dangers of unadulterated secularity, the pleasures that awaited us on American secular campuses" (p. xiv). Blumberg was sorely disappointed in her school. She had yearned for the same hallowed study halls the boys had, for Torah lishmah—study for its own sake, study that pushed the mind—for "words written in black fire on top of white fire, words that would soar above us like birds pushing against the wind" (p. 3). She was unfulfilled by what was offered to women: only Binah, the kind of earthy, bodily wisdom that was said to emerge naturally in women and sustain them.
Blumberg takes us on a tour of the various houses of study she has inhabited, bringing us to the places and texts, sacred and secular, that have shaped her. Granddaughter of the author of the familiar Hebrew textbook Ivrit hayah: Modern Hebrew, she attended first a Conservative Jewish day school and then a Modern Orthodox one, where, from morning to night, she was supposed to acquire a grounding in both Torah and mada' (science)—in theory, "the remarkable synthesis of Jewish learning and Western secular knowledge."
But was such a synthesis really possible for a young woman who, her imagination thoroughly seized by the work of George Eliot, would go on to pursue the academic study of English literature? In fact, it eventually would be, as she explains:
I believed that to learn was to live. . . . Today I can see that this deeply held faith made me what I now am: both an avid learner of Jewish texts in the style and language of the Beit Midrash, and a professor of English literature and Judaic Studies. (p. xvii)
The university offered Blumberg, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, something she could not get anywhere else: "knowledge, the capacity to teach it at the highest levels, and a degree that did not differentiate on the basis of...