Monday, November 25, 2019

Review: If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by Ilana Kurshan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve long had a fantasy of reading and studying the Talmud. I’m intrigued by the history of it; the philosophy and theology that it contains, its structure and methodology, and its centrality to Jewish thought. But it’s such a huge challenge. Never mind language, but the very structure and methodology that fascinates me is one of the significant hurdles to overcome. And then its sheer length. It’s long. Really long. It’s a serious commitment; one that would absorb almost all my time.

But then, in Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All The Seas Were Ink, I learned about Daf Yomi. A project by which one reads one page of Talmud every day, completing the whole Talmud in seven and half years. Still a long time and a commitment, but this made it seem more feasible. I started to look into a bit more after starting her book. A new cycle starts in January. Maybe I could do this.

But, by the end of Kurshan’s book, I’m over it (mostly). I realized through Kurshan’s discussion of her daily reading, ironically, that I don’t want to read the whole Talmud. I’m interested in reading parts and pieces, or reading about parts and pieces. But the whole thing? Every day for seven and half years? That’s a lot of discussion of religious minutiae that holds no interest to me.

The memoir itself is interesting. To be honest, I didn’t love it. There were some beautiful parts; some poignant moments, aspects that prompted self-reflection. But overall, I didn’t connect with Kurshan. I am not sure why: maybe her intensity, her idealistic romanticism, or something else. But whatever it was, she always felt somewhat distant to me—even as she shared intimate aspects of her life.

The book started strong. I was pulled in by the idea of using the reading of Talmud daily to give herself structure and direction as she rebuilt her life. But there were a few things as the book went on that helped to create some of that distance I mentioned above. One, there was a lot of coincidence between the daily study and things in her life. On one hand, that’s kind of the point of the book. Moreover, who doesn’t have that experience of reading about something and then seeing that something everywhere? But on the other hand, after a while, it felt a little inauthentic.

Two, she seemed to be running out of interesting things to say by the end. As her life gets back on track and things are going well, it’s just not as interesting from a story point of view. And at this point, it becomes a lot of being thankful for her blessings and tying this into her study of Talmud. On personal level, that’s great. But as reader, it doesn’t make for great reading.

I did appreciate reading Kurshan’s point of view. Though far more religious and traditional than I could or would ever be, she was not orthodox or dogmatic. She bristled at the sexism in the tradition. She had difficulty with traditional prayer. At the same time, I think some of her more overt religiousness contributed to my felt distance from her. I would have also liked more of daily Israeli life. And more than just Jerusalem. She seemed to live in a somewhat religious bubble in Jerusalem and I didn’t get a sense of the much broader picture of life in Israel.

The book is at its most interesting when Kurshan weaves together ideas from the Talmud and how it helped her to think about her life. While I complained above that there were a lot of coincidences between her life and study, it didn’t bother me when she used this to show how this affected her thoughts and actions. It was more the hokey way she sometimes used the coincidences to introduce or set up the chapter. That’s when it felt forced and inauthentic.

I’m glad to have read it. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. It gave me some insight and inspired some reflection, but also left me with the feeling that something was missing or incomplete.

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