Reading between the lines: Ilana Kurshan’s moving new memoir

Much of the Talmud, which is the basis for all codes of Jewish law, is a record of rabbinical conversations between the rabbis who often shift gears abruptly as they engage with one another.

Talmud (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One gets the scary feeling that something extraordinary had to happen to save Ilana Kurshan from herself.
She grew up extremely self-conscious, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi in the United States. She was compulsively driven to achieve and accomplish. She was also a relentless perfectionist and wound up hospitalized with anorexia nervosa while in her early 20s. Her parents urged her to go to psychotherapy, but she refused, believing it would not help her. She recovered, taking with her the ravages of this insidious disease and continued studying at Harvard and then Cambridge, where she fell in love with English literature. Yet something was always missing.
She married early, a judgmental man named Paul, and followed him to Jerusalem. The marriage fell apart quickly, leaving her reeling. At 27, she found an apartment in Jerusalem and began working as a book editor and translator for a literary agency. On a run with a friend, she heard about daf yomi, a seven-and-a-half-year project where one attempts to master one page of the Babylonian Talmud each day. She was intrigued, but wondered if she was up to the task.
“It would almost be impossible to imagine my life in seven and a half years,” she wrote. “Would I still be living in Israel? Would I still feel saddled with the pain and shame I carried around with me? Would I finally manage to ‘move on,’ as everyone kept assuring me I would?”
The marriage to Paul had seriously eroded her self-confidence. She had always felt secure in God’s presence, but had trouble praying; something Paul found intolerable. She writes of his condemnation:
“Unlike Paul, I knew God – and I continue to know God – primarily in shadows cast by other people. I would see someone reach out to a stranger, or watch a friend marshal reserves of hidden strength and I would imagine that I was seeing the light of God reflected off human presences. Paul saw God the way some people can look straight up at the sun, and he felt that anyone who could not see the radiance was surely blind. I sought out God the way a traveler through the forest might seek out the moon through the trees; sometimes it was hidden, other days it was just a faint crescent, still other days it was a full orb with mountains and valleys of variegated hues. But it was still a play of shadows, as all moonlight is.”
She felt unable to defend herself against his displeasure, and swallowed her anger whole. Shortly after he left, she began daf yomi.
It soon became the central force in her life. She would scribble endless notes in the margins and took particular joy in finding the rare occasions when women were portrayed in a better light. She finds great pleasure in discovering how Rava’s wife figured out a way to secure a husband for herself of her own choosing. She often fell asleep at night studying.
When she began to teach for a short time, she was peppered with questions from her students about her devoutness, which some found distasteful. She answered them politely, explaining that she was certain that her life had already been immeasurably enriched by her talmudic studies, which she explained allowed her to feel closer to God. She is wonderful at explaining to us how she engages with the talmudic text; often writing her critiques in the margins, or question marks at things that puzzle her, or scribbling sonnets and limericks filled with happiness at passages that amuse her. A self-defined feminist, she was often disturbed by the discussions in the Talmud regarding women, but saw the text as reflecting the biases of its time. She did not allow her displeasure to distract her.
Much of the Talmud, which is the basis for all codes of Jewish law, is a record of rabbinical conversations between the rabbis who often shift gears abruptly as they engage with one another. Kurshan is drawn to the wild swings in their con- 320 pages; $26.99 versations.
“The Talmud surprised me at every turn, and while there were topics I found less interesting than others, there was something that caught my eye on almost every page – a folk remedy employed to heal an ailing sage, a rude insult leveled at one rabbi by another, a sudden interjection from a rabbi’s angry wife.
“Often I was less focused on what the rabbis were discussing than on how they transitioned from one subject to another, such that a discussion of sex with a virgin suddenly morphs into a discussion about how to avoid hearing something untoward by sticking one’s finger in one’s ears – as if they suggest that all acts of penetration are one and the same. I found myself carried along for the ride, caught up in the flow of argumentation and tossed around like a rough wave when the back-and-forth between the rabbis became especially stormy.”
Kurshan integrates stories about her talmudic learning with the intimate struggles of a young and modern single woman in Israel trying to resuscitate her life. She is a gorgeous writer; emotionally honest and perceptive, and unafraid to share with us her ongoing battles. She still fights urges towards perfectionism and overachievement and there are lingering food issues. She still has difficulty with prayer; sometimes finding it repetitive and unengaging. But she shows us how she has been able to channel her ferocious energy and intellectual hunger into her talmudic studies, which continue to fascinate her.
Kurshan says precious little about her parents and siblings or her first husband, and we yearn to know more about the forces that shaped her. But even without these personal details, we can sense the metamorphosis she is undergoing. The void that she has lived with for so long no longer seems so empty. She begins dating again; men she quickly senses are not her love match, but she is lonely and they are part of her healing. She becomes more and more enchanted with the intrinsic beauty and special rhythms of Israeli life, and stops thinking about returning to America.
A few years later, she does meet her husband, and four children quickly follow. Her husband Daniel is a gentle man who teaches English literature. She chronicles for us their growing bond; much of it centered around religious study. She is now into her second round of daf yomi, and tells us about the challenges she faces trying to study while raising four children. She rises early to accomplish her task, sneaking downstairs excited to begin.
“My husband and children are blessedly still asleep; no dog whets its tongue, and I don’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,” she writes.
“The quiet is part of the meaning, part of the mind, my access to perfection of the page. King David, too, used to study when it was still dark, roused by the dancing on the wind on the strings of the Aeolian harp at exactly midnight. But David, like all kings, had the luxury of sleeping three hours past dawn, whereas I must soon start my day. I know I have to learn quickly, that the Talmudic page is like a ruined Temple, and that Elijah will hurry 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, the destruction of the Temple and the banishment of His children from His table – I realize the moaning is in fact my daughter, and she is hungry and crying, and it is time for another watch to begin.”
Kurshan has written a beautiful and inspiring book. Both religious and secular readers will find themselves immensely moved by her personal story and the raw courage of the journey she has undertaken.