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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

If All the Seas Were Ink

A Memoir

Ilana Kurshan

St. Martin's Press



One Day Wiser

The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The reader became the book …


It is early in the morning—the house is quiet and the world is calm, and I steal out of bed and tiptoe to the bathroom. I wash my hands and reach for my toothbrush, but in the predawn light it is hard to distinguish my turquoise toothbrush from my husband’s white one, so I hold them up to the faint rays of sunlight struggling to make their way through the window. I put on my slippers and open the door as quietly as possible—my twins sleep in the bedroom across the hall, and if one of them stirs, my gain will be canceled out by my loss. The rabbis of the Talmud say that every night is divided into three watches—in the first watch, the donkeys bray; in the second watch, the dogs bark; and in the third watch, the mother nurses her child and whispers to her husband. But 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. This quiet is part of the meaning, part of the mind, my access to the perfection of the page. King David, too, used to study while it was still dark, roused by the dancing of the wind on the strings of his Aeolian harp at exactly midnight. But David, like all kings, had the luxury of sleeping three hours past dawn, whereas I must soon begin my day. I know that I have to learn quickly, that the Talmudic page is like a ruined Temple and that Elijah will hurry me 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 that the moaning is in fact my daughter, and she is hungry and crying, and it is time for another watch to begin.

* * *

My commitment to studying Talmud began nearly a decade ago, on another early morning, when my friend Andrea and I were running hills—the only kind of running one can do in Jerusalem. The air was cool and crisp, but we were already sweating in the knee-length shorts we wore in deference to the city’s unwritten modesty code. As we huffed and puffed up the steep hill to the Knesset, I turned to Andrea and joked, “We will ascend Jerusalem at the height of our joy”—a paraphrase of a biblical verse recited at traditional Jewish weddings. I thought briefly about how I’d recited those words at my own wedding one year earlier, a moment I winced to recollect. But my quotation made Andrea think of the text and not its marital context, or so it seemed, because she turned back to look at me, a few paces behind, and casually remarked, “Did I tell you? I’ve started learning a page of Talmud a day.”

My jaw dropped. “What did you say?” I pushed myself to keep up because I wanted to hear more. The Andrea I knew enjoyed hanging out in bars, reading paperback thrillers, and staying in shape. It was hard to imagine why she’d be interested in the Talmud, a vast compendium of Jewish law and narrative dating back to the first few centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud is famous for its nonlinear argumentation, sprawling digressions, and complex analysis of the finer points of Jewish religious law. A far cry from the latest Stephen King. What business did Andrea have with the Talmud?

“It’s called daf yomi,” she told me, and I recognized the phrase, Hebrew for “daily page,” though it’s more accurately translated as “daily folio,” since every page of Talmud consists of two sides, back and front, with no square inch lying fallow—each page brims with printed Hebrew letters, leaving only the narrowest margins. Just recently there had been a widely publicized daf yomi celebration in Madison Square Garden, with thousands of Jews gathering to mark the completion of their study of the Talmud. They were mostly men in black suits and white shirts, with corkscrew curls hanging down over their ears. “Anyone can do it,” Andrea added, as if reading my thoughts. “You go through a page of Talmud a day, and you finish in seven and a half years. How cool is that? In seven and a half years you’ve read what is arguably the most important book of Jewish law.”

“But why?” I asked her. “Why do you care so much about Jewish law? I mean, you don’t keep Shabbat, you’ve dated non-Jewish guys—why do you want all these rabbis peering over your shoulder?”

“Because they’re not just talking about legal stuff. They’re arguing with their wives, insulting their students, one-upping their colleagues—and when talking about law, they’re not telling you what to do. They’re figuring it all out, invoking not just the Bible but also folk tales, fables, and cultural myths. On yesterday’s page I read about the three entrances to hell—one of which was in Jerusalem.” Andrea smiled at me from beneath the brim of her baseball cap.

“I guess,” I said, wondering where exactly that gateway to hell was located as we wove through the streets of the ancient city. “But what do you hope to get out of it? All that Talmud, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” Andrea said and shrugged, rivulets of sweat trickling down her shoulders. “I think it’s partially the thrill of the challenge. You know, like running a marathon. It’s fun to set impossible goals and then slowly make them more possible.” I thought of the story of the great second-century sage Rabbi Akiva chipping away at a mountain stone by stone, gradually uprooting it and casting it into the Jordan River (Avot de Rabbi Natan, version A, chapter 6). It is a metaphor for how this sage, who began learning relatively late in life, came to master the whole Torah. But that was Rabbi Akiva.

We finished running by 7:00 a.m. and parted ways, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what Andrea had told me. What would it be like to take on a seven-and-a-half-year project? It was almost impossible to imagine my life in seven and a half years. Would I still be living in Israel? Would I still feel saddled by the pain and shame I carried around with me? Would I finally manage to “move on,” as everyone kept assuring me I would? “Time does not bring relief / you all have lied,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay in a sonnet I often quoted to myself. Time did not bring relief but seemed to stretch inexorably, and I couldn’t bear the thought that in seven and a half years I might still be grieving.

At the time I could barely get through the days, let alone commit to getting through the entire Babylonian Talmud, a text divided into six orders (or sections), 37 tractates (or volumes), and some twenty-seven hundred pages. But then I thought about how moving on is about putting one foot in front of the other, or turning page after page. If every day I turned a page, then eventually a new chapter would have to begin.

One chapter would lead to another, and then another, and before long I’d have completed an entire tractate. What a healthy relationship to time, viewing it not as a mark of age but as an opportunity to grow in wisdom. If I learned a page a day, then instead of resigning myself to being one day older, I could aspire to be one day wiser. Eventually I learned that this is in fact the Jewish view of time: the rabbis teach in tractate Avot (5:23) that five is the age for studying Torah, ten is the age for studying Mishnah, and fifteen is the age for studying Talmud.

Copyright © 2017 by Ilana Kurshan