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Female Wisdom/Male Knowledge

Ilana M. Blumberg’s Houses of Study (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95) is a love affair with books — both those that open from left to right, and those that open from right to left. In this memoir, which spans two continents and nearly four decades, Blumberg describes the words and texts that shaped her as a feminist, a Jew, a professor of literature, and the mother of a young daughter for whom she now delights, not surprisingly, in selecting books.

Blumberg moves back and forth in time, beginning with the year she spent studying Jewish texts in an Orthodox seminary in Israel when she was 18. She contrasts the feminine form of wisdom that was expected of the young women, Binah, with the more serious and rigorous Hokhmah to which their male counterparts aspired. For Blumberg, binah was never enough; secretly she prayed, “Teach me more than I need to know. Help me find hokhmah, wisdom, acquired knowledge. And let the reward for my combined binah and hokhmah be something other than a good match.”

Blumberg devotes herself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of knowledge, beginning with her childhood years in Ann Arbor of the 1970s, where “the dictionary held down our house.” She learns to chant from the Torah not at the Orthodox day school she attended, but from her father. Her Hebrew comes to her from her fervent Zionist grandfather, author of one of the first modern Hebrew textbooks, who writes her letters from his home on Rehov Beit HaKerem in Jerusalem. Blumberg’s studies continue at Barnard, where she describes negotiating the space between Butler Library and the beit midrash (house of religious study) — a passage that recalls Virginia Woolf, whom she invokes along with Donne, Yeats, and her beloved George Eliot.

For Blumberg, the pleasure of knowledge is always meant to be shared, and she is not to be stopped by barriers to her full engagement: “Praying at my bubbe’s side, I have imagined jumping or falling over the railing of the balcony, wondering what a falling female body might look like from above, from below, surprised that no girl has yet had the courage or the decency or the fear to fall.” Blumberg allows herself to fall freely — first for the non-Jewish boyfriend she lives with during her graduate school years (much to her mother’s consterna- tion), and then for the idea of a Jewish family, which she cannot have with him. And so while all her friends are “simply, untroubledly married,” she finds herself neither here nor there, lamenting “how not having a family of my own makes Jewish life impossible, how faith seems stupid without children, husbands, mothers-in-law. How there is no joy, comfort, or pleasure in banding together with other single Jews my own age, pretending we are a family, assigning the postures we learned in our earliest childhood games of playing Shabbat.”

Ultimately, Blumberg finds her match, but the true moments of passion in this book, as in the Donne poem she quotes in full, “care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.” Her prose soars to a breathless lyricism when she enacts for us the pleasures and perils of conquering an uncharted page of Gemara; and the complicated, fascinating laws governing the treatment of holy books, which must be kissed when they fall to the ground; and the significance of her name, Ilana, spelled out in Hebrew on a gold necklace, with the letters lamed and nun “restraining the attraction of the magnetic characters [yood and hey, a name for God], whose union is believed sufficient to spark the divine fire.” This book is a union of letters and texts no less magnetic; to enter Ilana Blumberg’s houses of study is, invariably, to become ignited.

Ilana Kurshan is a literary agent and editor in Jerusalem