- If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by Ilana Kurshan
If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2017. 299 pp.
Even in our time, with women around the world studying the holy tomes in mixed yeshivas, academic courses and shiurim, few of them dare take up the seven-and-a-half year project of reading the entire Babylonian Talmud, a page a day, in the worldwide Daf yomi project initiated in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of the Lublin Yeshiva. Far fewer are those who are able to synthesize that long-haul study program into a literary project revealing a life permeated, structured or even reinvented by art. In fact, for now at least, those individuals may boil down to just one: Ilana Kurshan, who reprises her journey in her inspiring memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink.
An English literature graduate of Harvard and Cambridge, already well embarked on a career as a literary editor, Kurshan followed her heart to Jerusalem in her early twenties, only to see her marriage to the man who had led her there quickly go up in flames. It was time for a new romance, but, notwithstanding her book-centered life, she had never dreamed of taking as her companion "a book I could imagine spending my whole life reading" (p. 7). And yes, reader, eventually her life of learning led her to romance with her ideal man of flesh and blood, and to a fulfilling life of love, marriage, motherhood and continued literary endeavor in Jerusalem.
Several years ago, in a chance meeting with Ilana at an event for editors at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, she told me about her book project and offered her Introduction as a candidate for publication in Nashim (where it was published in 2015, in issue no. 29). I was captivated from the opening lines, which, characteristically, play on the opening pages of Tractate Berakhot—the first in the traditional order of the tractates—and simultaneously on the poem by Wallace Stevens quoted in the chapter's epigraph:
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 predawn light it is hard to distinguish my turquoise toothbrush from my [End Page 235] husband's white one, so I hold them up to the faint rays of sunlight struggling to make their way through the window . . . The rabbis of the Talmud say that every night is divided into three watches—in the first watch, the donkeys bray; in the second watch, the dogs bark; and in the third watch, the mother nurses her child and whispers to her husband. But my husband and children are blessedly still asleep . . . as I open the volume of Talmud waiting for me on the couch.(p. 1)
I could go on quoting in demonstration of Kurshan's mind-boggling talent at weaving together her life with talmudic and English literary motifs, interspersed with gentle touches of humor, but the pleasure of that discovery awaits the reader, who needn't have read the Talmud in order to enjoy her prose. The book is filled with explanations for the uninitiated, both in the Talmud and in Judaism—occasionally to the point of being pedantic; one wonders whether this is a consequence of Kurshan being a rabbi's daughter, or whether it was recommended by her editors in order to expand the book's potential audience. At any rate, Kurshan beckons and encourages, freely acknowledging her own use of the many study aids available for participants in the Daf yomi program, such as podcasts, daily classes and the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud, with Hebrew translation and commentary.
The podcasts allow Kurshan, who will never miss a moment that could be used for reading or learning, to study even while on her daily runs through familiar Jerusalem streets, or, later, while folding her babies' laundry or loading the dishwasher. Indeed, life and the Talmud's contents seem to overlap for her...