I didn’t read Ilana Kurshan’s award-winning memoir If All the Seas Were Ink. I inhaled it.
In her book, Kurshan tactfully and gracefully captures her reflections about her study during the daf yomi cycle and the coinciding seven years of her life. She roots her experiences firmly in her own time and place, presenting both her stories and the relevant Talmudic texts in an approachable and intelligent voice. As a reader, I celebrated with Kurshan as she persevered with her learning and discovered meaning and personal truths in the ancient words she studied. I celebrated in the journey that she takes over so many years, developing a confidence and maturity as a student, a writer, and in her Jewish identity.
In fact, the seven year long time-frame is one of the elements that I most appreciated about Kurshan’s memoir. The extended time line truly allows readers to become engaged in her story, and perceive how her experience has contributed to her personal growth. Kurshan’s book demonstrates a slow unfolding of talent and understanding – there are fewer aha! moments, and more moments and teachings that stand out against the rest. I did not come away from Kurshan’s book eager to jump into the daf yomi study program myself. I came away from Kurshan’s book eager to continue to explore the Jewish practices, rituals, and texts that inspire and challenge me. I came away from Kurshan’s book eager to appreciate the opportunity for growth and connection that Jewish tradition and community offer to me and my family.
In addition to Kurshan’s personal story, If All the Seas Were Ink also offers readers a snapshot of the role that the daf yomi learning program in the international Jewish community. Even as it brings people from starkly difference parts of the Jewish world together, it can highlight fissures along the lines of gender, location, economic class, and education. Kurshan’s memoir offers a thoughtful commentary on the status of women, religion in Israel, and access to the instruction and study of sacred texts. Her ability to capture both her own experience and these broader issues make Kurshan’s book a must-read for anyone interested in Jewish life as lived in the twenty-first century.