If All the Seas Were Ink

Ilana Kur­shan
Final­ist for the 2018 Natan Book Award

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

Ilana Kurshan’s mem­oir is impres­sive for many rea­sons. On its face the sto­ry is about a woman — the author — and how she recov­ered from her divorce through daf yomi, the dai­ly prac­tice of study­ing the Tal­mud, which took over sev­en years to com­plete. But Kurshan’s divorce is nei­ther the focus of her book nor the main sto­ry of her life. Rather, the book’s top­ics range wide­ly, from Kurshan’s child­hood to her aliyah to Israel, to par­ent­hood. Orga­nized in a loose­ly chrono­log­i­cal fash­ion, it is arranged by Tal­mud tractates.The pow­er of this mem­oir aris­es from the expert con­nec­tions Kur­shan draws between her per­son­al sto­ry and the tal­mu­dic anecdotes.

Evi­dent from the begin­ning is Kurshan’s exper­tise in the Tal­mud, rab­binic Judaism, midrash, and Jew­ish top­ics more gen­er­al­ly. Per­haps due to the nature of daf yomi, which is less deep dive and more high-lev­el, she strikes the right bal­ance between expla­na­tion, detail, and depth in her retelling of tal­mu­dic sto­ries. This is help­ful because the Tal­mud is, frankly, com­pli­cat­ed, and the numer­ous sto­ries occa­sion­al­ly make the mem­oir a touch too dense. For­tu­nate­ly, for the major­i­ty of the book, Kurshan’s skilled writ­ing makes the sto­ries acces­si­ble and also ani­mates the rab­bis and their debates for a mod­ern audience.

Kur­shan’s pas­sion for the writ­ten word is a key fea­ture of her inner self. She is not only an expert in rab­binic lit­er­a­ture; she also weaves sec­u­lar lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry through­out the book. The lit­er­ary quo­ta­tions add emo­tion­al rich­ness to the memoir.

Due to Kurshan’s deft expla­na­tions of Tal­mu­dic per­son­al­i­ties and prin­ci­ples, even read­ers with­out a back­ground in Jew­ish top­ics will enjoy this insight­ful mem­oir. Read­ers will be inspired by Kurshan’s resilience and renew­al, with the Tal­mud by her side.

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

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