Rooms of Her Own (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Hard choices face an academic determined to establish her Jewish religious identity despite discouragement and indifference Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books By Ilana M. Blumberg University of Nebraska Press 173 pages; $24.95 The "houses of study" Ilana Blumberg enters in her lyrical yet dense memoir begin with the houses of her childhood in Ann Arbor and Chicago. Blumberg has returned to her childhood town of Ann Arbor where she is a professor of humanities at Michigan State University, together with her husband and young daughter. She aims to build her own house of study for her daughter, Priya, empowering Priya and her generation to claim leadership roles in prayer groups and text study. But it is those influential childhood houses that animate this memoir - Blumberg's first book and a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In those early houses, her father broke ranks with Jewish Orthodoxy and taught his daughter to chant Torah and lead prayer services. Her grandparents' houses were distinguished by the presence or absence of sagging bookshelves. Her paternal grandfather, Harry Blumberg, authored an early textbook on modern Hebrew grammar and was a scholar of Hebrew language and literature. Her maternal grandparents owned few books, but among them was Harry Blumberg's grammar book. Twenty years ago, Blumberg arrived in Jerusalem for her gap year - the year between high school and college - and attended a traditional women's Beit Midrash where she describes herself as one of the "Brovender girls." It was a place of intense learning, yet women were discouraged from learning Talmud and concentrated on more traditionally female subjects such as bible and midrash. For Blumberg, who had yearned to delve into Talmud and Gemara, the year was blurred by disappointment and depression. Although her writing captures the dislocation of that time, her dreamy, poetic language falls short of expressing her anger and betrayal, often choking her narrative. The shelves of this house of study had few books. The benches were uncomfortable. The girls lived upstairs in shabby rooms. Blumberg quickly understood from her surroundings that throughout the centuries there had been scarce opportunity for women to hand their stories down to future generations. She writes, "We looked around for clues in the ceiling, the floor, the used tables. Looked for a message, however cryptic, from the women who had preceded us, who had solved the mysteries in the room wiped clean of history." As an adult, Blumberg's houses of study ranged from an attempt to jumpstart an Orthodox women's service at Columbia University, to graduate seminars in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where her passion for George Eliot was equal to her love for Jewish texts. In Philadelphia, she was once again part of a community of women who were determined to lead prayers and read from the Torah for the first time. In each of these "houses," Blumberg was challenged to consider her own Jewish observance. Could she transcend her feelings of being sequestered spiritually as a more traditionally observant Jew, or would she opt for the egalitarian opportunities available in Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues. Although Blumberg's memoir begins in the late 1980s, one would not realize from reading it that Orthodox feminism had already taken root. For example, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, founder of the influential Maimonides School in a Boston suburb, introduced the practice of boys and girls studying Talmud together in high school classes in the late 1940s. Many modern Orthodox yeshivas in the United States and Israel followed suit. Judy Bolton-Fasman writes a weekly column for the Jewish Advocate in Boston. Hard choices face an academic determined to establish her Jewish religious identity despite discouragement and indifference