Over a decade ago, writer and translator Ilana Kurshan set out to read all 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud—one page every day—an endeavor called Daf Yomi—“page of the day.” The project took seven-and-a-half years, and Kurshan stayed with it through a divorce, a series of jobs and apartments and, ultimately, marriage and children. Throughout, she kept a blog detailing her highly literate observations on Talmud and life.
Kurshan, who attended Harvard and Cambridge universities, explicates the Talmudic text with her vast knowledge of English literature. Her inventory of memorized poems and lines from novels is as impressive as it is extensive. In any given essay, Kurshan invites Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot into the Talmudic conversation. As remarkable as that is, Kurshan also ably relates the text to her personal life. The result of these impressive literary exercises is her memoir, “If All the Seas Were Ink,” which, like the Talmud, is not linear, but associative. She spoke to JewishBoston about Daf Yomi, making time for Talmud study, motherhood and what she is learning in her second cycle of Talmud study.
What set you on this intensive path of daily Talmud study?
I was going through a hard time and [Daf Yomi] was initially a coping mechanism. It was a fortuitous coincidence that I was jogging with a friend who mentioned she was learning Daf Yomi. It was also around the time the 2005-2006 Daf Yomi cycle was ending, so it had already been on my radar. She suggested I try it, but at the time I couldn’t make a commitment to anything, let alone to a seven-year project. I had studied Talmud before and had a lot of misconceptions; I had been learning from source sheets and many of those sources were out of context, which is very different than Daf Yomi, where you’re paging through the Talmud day after day.
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How did you get the idea to record all your observations and impressions from your study of Daf Yomi?
As I was studying there would be these uncanny coincidences between what I was learning and what was happening in my life—whether it was coincidences of the calendar cycle, quotes from the parsha that provided a new understanding of it or simply coincidences in my life. Something would happen and I would try to process it with a metaphor from the Daf.
I also very quickly found a voice in which I read the Talmud through the lens of my daily experiences as a woman in Jerusalem, and I kept a journal. Luckily a friend created a blog for me that I used as a repository for my writing; I would not have been able to retrace the path of my learning without it. It was a continuous website that was fully searchable and had everything I’d ever written about the Daf Yomi, which was very valuable.
What was your first introduction to regular Talmud study?
I went to Solomon Schechter, a Conservative day school, where I studied the Mishnah, the oldest part of the Talmud. When I first came to Israel I took a Talmud class at the Conservative yeshiva; it was my first time studying Talmud intensively. I was really interested in the texture of this literature; it was nothing like I’d ever read before. There were so many digressions; you can spend all your time figuring out how the rabbis are transitioning from one subject to another without focusing on the subject at hand. The nature of how the discourse unfolds is so fascinating, regardless of what the rabbis are talking about.
How did you make the transition of studying Talmud as a single woman to the mother of four children?
The Talmud is the soundtrack to my life. I never stopped learning and both experiences spoke to each other. Talmud brought other people, including my husband, into my life—a lot of what we have in common is our shared learning. When people ask us why we live in Jerusalem, I respond it’s because of the learning. It’s like nowhere else in the world. It’s wonderful to live in a city where the billboards are plastered with advertisements for parsha classes, Talmud classes and lectures by great rabbis.
Your bookshelf showcases the many sources you bring to your study of Talmud. What is your process?
The Talmud resonated with many other works of literature I’d studied. I like to memorize sentences from literature that I’ve loved. Consequently, I have a lot of lines floating around in my head. When I’m learning, a line of poetry will often pop into my head that reminds me of the text at hand. Because the Talmud is a discourse bringing in other voices, it’s like a polyphonic symphony; I am adding another line to that symphony that can bring in Emily Dickinson, for example. After all, this is a conversation among six centuries of rabbis that are talking with each other as if they are living simultaneously, which they weren’t. If Rava can respond to Hillel, why can’t Emily Dickinson respond to Rava?
What has been the response to you learning Talmud and to your memoir from Orthodox circles?
I have heard from a lot of Orthodox feminist women who wrote to me that they had sworn off Talmud. They wanted nothing to do with it because they were put off by the misogyny. My book made them want to try again. I was surprised that far more men than I said found the book so moving and so insightful. It made me realize that everyone has something to contribute to the world of Torah learning. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve spent in the beit midrash—house of learning. Many times, it’s the experiences you bring to bear from an untraditional setting that can set so much light on the text.
You are now on the second cycle of studying the Daf Yomi. What is different about your experience this time?
I’m allowing myself to learn a lot more superficially than I would like to. I wish I were giving it the same attention I did on the first cycle. I’m still learning every day and still engaged with the text, but there are a lot more things competing for my time and attention.
On the other hand, it’s very exciting to flash back to where I was when I first learned a particular page seven years ago. I draw connections to what happened on that day to the particular tractate of Talmud I was learning. A lot has changed over the course of my life since the first cycle, and I’m grateful for where life has taken me.
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