TikTok Talmud: How Miriam Anzovin brought Daf Yomi to young people

Anzovin succeeded at every educator's dream – making difficult material relevant to their audience.

 SCREEN GRAB from 'Daf Reactions!' (photo credit: YouTube; Twitter)
SCREEN GRAB from 'Daf Reactions!'
(photo credit: YouTube; Twitter)

Miriam Anzovin claims to be an atheist. However, she might have thought God was sending her a message via Moed Katan.

Anzovin, an artist and makeup aficionado from Boston, began studying Daf Yomi as a Jewish response to antisemitic attacks in the United States. Participants study a folio a day, completing the Babylonian Talmud over a cycle of seven-and-a-half years.

On 18 Shevat 5782 (January 21, 2022), the learners were in the middle of tractate Moed Katan, meaning “small time” or “small holiday.” The topic is how to treat Hol Hamoed, the intermediate days of the holidays of Passover and Sukkot. These are neither full-blown festivals that require refraining from activities defined as work, nor are they ordinary weekdays.

Miriam was blessed, you see, because the rabbis were discussing cosmetics.

Via her TikTok series #DafReactions, Miriam recounted the rabbis’ dispute from her makeup table. When Rav Hisda said his wife does her “glam routine” on Hol Hamoed, Rav Hinnana bar Huna countered that this leniency applies only to young women. In the Talmud, Rav Hisda called out Rav Hinnana in strong language. Miriam’s language was stronger.

 Miriam Anzovin (credit: MIRIAM ANZOVIN) Miriam Anzovin (credit: MIRIAM ANZOVIN)

Thanks to Miriam, Moed Katan 9 went viral.

Most Orthodox women I know, and many men, loved the clip. Some even decided to join Daf Yomi. And some complained. They didn’t like the language. They didn’t like the way she dressed. They said she’s disrespectful to the rabbis. 

It’s no accident that this #DafReaction went viral and was subsequently attacked, mainly by men. Rav Hisda and Rav Hinnana are discussing how we define beauty, something that people, and not only makeup experts, ask themselves all the time. Who determines whether someone is beautiful, and can you decide for yourself? Can you be beautiful even if you don’t meet current beauty standards, if you are old, for example? Do you wear makeup for yourself or for others?

How ironic that these men in the Orthodox world are trying to control Miriam’s exposure. You might think they would be glad the Talmud is getting attention. But instead of fulfilling the commandment of lehagdil Torah u’leha’adir, glorifying and elevating the Torah, they dishonor it.

While Rav Hisda’s ruling is woman-friendly, feminist if you will, this daf features the time-honored tradition of men controlling women’s behavior. If you listen closely, the reaction to the TikTok post is the sound of men refusing to let go.

Take the Israeli TV news segment by Yair Ettinger and Akiva Novick, two kippah-clad journalists. Ettinger told the audience about Anzovin’s series and aired the clip, including Hebrew subtitles. (For the record, the station didn’t beep out the “F” word.)

As I watched, I wondered why they didn’t Zoom Miriam into their studio from Boston. Nor did they invite her teacher, Rabbanit Michelle Farber of Hadran, who lives in Israel. Unlike Ettinger et al., Farber frames the Talmud from a woman’s point of view, allowing her to reach even formerly Orthodox Jews like Miriam.

The language that rolls off Miriam’s tongue is uncomfortable to me. I’m not a “stan” of Rabbi Hisda or anyone else, I have no glam routine and my daughter says I swear about once a year. But I’m not Miriam’s audience.

YET ANZOVIN succeeded at every educator’s dream – making difficult material relevant to their audience. Many young people – including religious ones – swear frequently. If you act like swearing is a moral failing, you lose them. As Anzovin herself told The Jerusalem Post, “on the day when there are no more agunot [Jewish women ‘chained’ to a divorce-refusing husband]... then I will consider listening to their criticism.” The way we treat agunot is a moral failing. Using the “F” word isn’t.

After the men on social media exhausted their complaints about her irreverence and swearing, one Orthodox rabbi with a huge following found a new tack: We should ignore her because she’s an atheist.

Excuse my language, but this is BS. Miriam isn’t preaching atheism; she is sharing how she found the text meaningful. As someone wrote on my Facebook wall, YouTube and TikTok are full of videos of well-mannered men and women explaining Jewish practice and interpreting texts. They are Christian missionaries.

Miriam stanned Rav Hisda for recognizing that women deserve autonomy in their religious practice. The negative reaction – mostly from Orthodox men – reminds me of other women who engendered controversy by observing Judaism in nontraditional ways: Women of the Wall.

The debate surrounding Women of the Wall is a litmus test. Can you tolerate people doing what you find uncomfortable or wrong even when it doesn’t affect you? Or do you feel you must protest it by any means possible?

Just like Anzovin, the women praying at the Western Wall are practicing Judaism in their own way in a public space. For years no one bothered them. No one made it a political issue. The women kept on praying in the women’s section, Rosh Hodesh after Rosh Hodesh. Yet in recent years they have been harassed and even violently attacked.

Like the women at the Western Wall, Miriam Anzovin isn’t bothering anybody. She’s not interfering with how men traditionally learn Talmud. But some men need to feel in control. Like Rav Hinnana bar Huna, they make extra restrictions on women. To them, women are something like the intermediary days of the festivals, neither here nor there, not quite aliens, but not fully human either.

A number of rabbis, even some male ones, got it right. Rabbi Ari Kahn said, “If you don’t like it, do better.”

Think how much effort we spent trying to get young people involved with Judaism. Then when someone does it well, it’s still not good enough.

Let women study, pray and observe the way they choose.

When women want your opinion we’ll ask for it.

The door has opened and can’t be shut again. Listen closely. ■

The writer is an Israeli lactation consultant and MA candidate in Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University. Her work on parenting, public health, women’s rights and sex abuse has appeared on platforms such as The Forward and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.