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  • One Day Wiser
  • Ilana Kurshan (bio)

The house was quiet and the world was calm. The reader became the book. . . The reader leaned above the page, Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be The scholar to whom his book is true. . .

—Wallace Stevens

It is early in the morning. The house is quiet and the world is calm, and I steal out of bed and tiptoe to the bathroom. I wash my hands and reach for my toothbrush, but in the pre-dawn light it is hard to distinguish my turquoise one from my husband’s white one. I put on my slippers and open the door as quietly as possible. My twins sleep in the bedroom across the hall, and if one of them stirs, my gain will be canceled by my loss. The rabbis say that every night is divided into three watches: In the first, the donkeys bray; in the second, the dogs bark; and in the third, the mother nurses her child and whispers to her husband. But my husband and children are blessedly still asleep; no dog whets its tongue, and I can’t even hear the first honks of morning traffic from the highway down the hill as I open the volume of Talmud waiting for me on the couch to the first few pages of tractate Berakhot. This quiet is part of the meaning, part of the mind, my access to the perfection of the page. King David, too, used to study while it was still dark, roused by the dancing of the wind on the strings of his Aeolian harp at exactly midnight—as I learn from the page before me. But David, like all kings, had the luxury of sleeping three hours past dawn, whereas I must soon begin my day. I know that I have to learn quickly, that the Talmud page is like a ruined Temple and that Elijah will hurry me along if I linger. I lean over the page, want to lean, want most to be the scholar to whom this book is true. And just when the reader is becoming the book—just when I think I can hear the Holy One Blessed be He wailing like a dove, moaning over the destruction of the Temple and the banishment of His children from His table—I realize that the moaning is in fact my daughter, and she is hungry and crying, and it is time for another watch to begin.

My commitment to daily Talmud study began nearly a decade ago, on another early morning, when my friend Andrea and I were running hills—the only kind of running one can do in Jerusalem. The air was cool and crisp, but we were already sweating in [End Page 133] the knee-length shorts we wore in deference to the city’s unwritten modesty code. As we huffed and puffed up the steep hill to the Knesset, I turned to Andrea and joked, “We will ascend Jerusalem at the height of our joy” (cf. Ps. 137:6)—a line recited at traditional Jewish weddings. I thought briefly about how I’d recited that verse at my own wedding one year earlier, a moment I winced to recollect. But my quotation made Andrea think of the text and not its marital context, or so it seemed, because she turned back to look at me, a few paces behind, and casually remarked, “Did I tell you? I’ve started learning a page of Talmud a day.”

My jaw dropped. “What did you say?” I pushed myself to keep up because I wanted to hear more. Andrea was learning Talmud? Since when? The Andrea I knew enjoyed hanging out in bars, reading paperback thrillers and staying in shape. But the Talmud requires sustained intellectual focus: A vast compendium of Jewish law and narrative dating back to the first few centuries of the Common Era, it is famous for its nonlinear argumentation, sprawling digressions and complex analysis of the finer points of Jewish religious law. A far cry from the latest Stephen King. What business did Andrea have with the Talmud?

“It’s called daf yomi,” she told me, and...


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pp. 133-141
Launched on MUSE
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