Talmud, One Page Each Fully Lived Day

From the moment I picked up If All the Seas Were Ink (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99), I was not able to put it down.

Ilana Kurshan deftly interweaves three story lines in this engaging memoir. A number of years ago, when living in Jerusalem, she joined the 7 ½ -year daf yomi campaign, which means she committed to learning one folio page of Talmud each day until she read through the entire corpus. Her daily dose of Talmud is the first and main story line. The second is her personal life. During the seven-year journey, Kurshan moves from devastation at the dissolution of her first marriage to supreme joy at the beginning of her second, with plenty of stops along the way. Citations of great world literature, as they relate to her life or her Talmud study, are the third strand. It is unlikely that anyone has ever before published a diary of daf yomi study. This is a volume of great originality.

Here is an example of what the author does: in her chapter on tractate Ketubot (marriage contracts), she tells the story of a man who made an unwanted pass at her when on an airplane, just as she was reading Talmudic passages on seduction; she discusses the Mishnah’s statements about spouses forcing each other to move to Israel, which leads her to tell the story of how she became an Israeli citizen; then, with a doff of the hat to Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own, she describes how she celebrated her new status—by building bookcases to house the growing collection in her little studio apartment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I note that I am a professor of Talmud and have known the author. But that is not why I found myself, again and again, nodding with pleasure. Her felicity of expression and ability to make the Talmud irresistibly addictive means that even a non-Talmudic reader who has never met Kurshan will experience the same delight.

I wish the author had shared with the reader more of her life outside herself. The chapter on Sarah Ivreinu (Sarah, the blind woman), a word play on Sarah Imeinu (Sarah, our foremother), is one of my favorites. The author visited this blind woman every Wednesday afternoon for years, describing their joint outings with great animation. More episodes like this one would give the reader a better understanding of Kurshan. Also, since the author sorrowfully mentions her first failed marriage again and again, she leads the reader to think she will comment on what went wrong. But she leaves that subject virtually untouched. Protecting the privacy of others is laudable, but if Kurshan is not going to reveal what caused the break-up, she should not refer so often to the divorce. That is unfair to the reader.

This is a book highly recommended for everyone. No background in Talmud is needed to appreciate Kurshan’s intriguing story. When you turn the last page, you will walk away feeling talmudically enriched and already hoping for a sequel.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman is the E. Billi Ivry Professor Emerita of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary.