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If All the Seas Were Ink

If All the Seas Were Ink

by Ilana Kurshan


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**WINNER of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the 2018 Sophie Brody Medal for achievement in Jewish literature**
**2018 Natan Book Award Finalist**
**Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Women's Studies **

The Wall Street Journal:
"There is humor and heartbreak in these pages...Ms. Kurshan immerses herself in the demands of daily Talmud study and allows the words of ancient scholars to transform the patterns of her own life."

The Jewish Standard: “Brilliant, beautifully written, sensitive, original."

The Jerusalem Post: "A beautiful and inspiring book. Both religious and secular readers will find themselves immensely moved by [Kurshan's] personal story.”

American Jewish World: “So engrossing I hardly could put it down.”

At the age of twenty-seven, alone in Jerusalem in the wake of a painful divorce,Ilana Kurshan joined the world’s largest book club, learning daf yomi, Hebrew for“daily page” of the Talmud, a book of rabbinic teachings spanning about six hundredyears. Her story is a tale of heartache and humor, of love and loss, of marriageand motherhood, and of learning to put one foot in front of the other by turningpage after page. Kurshan takes us on a deeply accessible and personal guided tourof the Talmud. For people of the book—both Jewish and non-Jewish—If All theSeas Were Ink is a celebration of learning, through literature, how to fall in loveonce again.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250121264
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ilana Kurshan is a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge. She has worked in literary publishing both in New York and in Jerusalem, as a translator and foreign rights agent and as the books editor of Lilith magazine. Her writing has appeared in Tablet, Lilith, Hadassah, The Forward, Kveller, The World Jewish Digest, Nashim, and The Jewish Week. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Ilana is the author of Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights? and If All The Seas Were Ink.

Read an Excerpt



Alone in Jerusalem

When I began studying tractate Yoma, I hung a xeroxed map of the Temple inside the front door of my studio apartment — right in the spot where hotels generally feature a floor map with the nearest fire exits marked. Most of the tractate is essentially a guided tour of the Temple, following in the footsteps of the high priest as he enacts the various rituals of Yom Kippur. With each page of Yoma I tracked my path on the map as I wound through the Temple's chambers and vestibules. I witnessed as the high priest slaughtered goats, sprinkled blood on the altar, and donned gold-and-white vestments with a breastplate and tinkling bells.

My apartment was tiny and square, with a kitchen counter and mini-fridge against one wall, a bathroom in the opposite corner, and a desk along the adjacent wall beneath my only window, where I hung my laundry out to dry over a narrow ledge that my cultured European landlady generously referred to as a "Romeo and Yooliet balcony." The floor was made of square tiles decorated in a green-and-brown floral pattern. There was no couch or armchair or other place to sit, but I so rarely had visitors that it didn't seem to matter. My bed was lofted above the kitchen area up a steep and rickety ladder leading toward a high ceiling, and it wasn't a proper bed but just a mattress that I'd purchased secondhand and transported home precariously on the roof of a cab. I had no proper bookshelves, so I stacked my books in the closet. Another stack of books served as a nightstand on which I rested my glasses if I remembered to take them off. Most nights I fell asleep reading with the lights on, my novel collapsed over my face like a tent with my nose marking my place.

The heroine in one of Margaret Drabble's novels revels in the "spinsterish delight" of crawling alone into bed with a book, and I could relate — not just at the beginning of the night but also at 3:00 a.m., when I woke up pleased to have those stolen midnight moments to my conscious self; and in the early morning hours, when I arose before my alarm clock and read by the light streaming through my open window. I had books I would read only in bed; they lived under the blankets and waited patiently while I read more respectable volumes during daylight hours. Writing in bed, too, was a newfound pleasure. There were entries in my journal that I was able to write only under cover of darkness, as if I could not expose these negatives to the harsh light of day. And there were, if I was honest, many negatives. But I was rarely honest.

For a while I could not own up to the reality of my situation because I did not even know who I was. Each morning I walked mechanically to the library to continue working on the book about the Temple's destruction I'd begun ghostwriting during the year my marriage fell apart. I was grateful that the material was not my own because I was incapable of original thought. I felt cut off from the ideas that had once animated me and from the emotions that had once transported me. One night Andrea came over to regale me with stories of her latest crush. "He works at the coffee shop where I've been writing my articles," she gushed. "I mean, just to make some money on the side. He's really a writer. He's given me a draft of his novel to read, and it's a love story! How much should I read into that?" I didn't know what to tell her. Romantic love seemed like a thing of the past, a place where I had once lived and whose hills and valleys I could map out with complete accuracy, yet a place to which I was sure I would never return. I resolved that if I was destined to spend the rest of my life alone, then at least I should not feel lonely. While I remained warm toward the few friends I had, I treated myself with cool indifference. I imagined that if the temperatures within plummeted low enough, then any hopes I dared to harbor would scamper to the corners and die in the cold.

Every so often, though, those feelings rose to the surface, and I had to confront what I knew to be true: That I have always been a hopeless romantic, and that my sense of romance is deeply bound up in my passion for literature. That I memorized "The Lady of Shalott," Tennyson's long ballad about unrequited love, when I was a teenager. That in college, I used to stroll along the Charles River at sunset reciting Byron's "So We'll Go No More A-Roving"— not to a man, but to whichever girlfriends were willing to put up with my romantic melodrama. That I dated several men in college and beyond, but I was still imagining myself as Anne of Green Gables, and none could measure up to Gilbert Blythe. That ultimately curling up with a good book always surpassed the inevitable awkwardness of real courtship, with its silly questions of what to wear and when it was OK to write back and how to interpret that passing glance. That all this seemed to change when I met Paul, who wanted to curl up with me and my books and play Paolo to my Francesca. And that when our marriage collapsed, the entire edifice of literary romanticism that I had constructed for myself seemed to collapse beneath me, and I was convinced that my love life — that imaginative world informed by Byron, Barrett-Browning, and the Brontës — was over forever.

But I spoke of this to no one, even when Andrea suddenly grew self-conscious after all her enraptured gushing and said to me soberly, "And what about you? How are you?" The Talmud in Yoma (75a) cites a debate between two rabbis about what a person should do when distressed, based on a verse from Proverbs: "If there is distress in a man's mind, let him quash it" (12:25). The Hebrew word for "quash it," yashhena, sounds like yashena, "distract," but also like yisihena, "tell." According to Rabbi Ami, the distressed individual should distract himself with other things. According to Rabbi Assi, he should tell of his woes to others so that he feels less burdened by them. I followed Rabbi Ami, choosing distraction over confession. Were I to attempt to narrate our failed marriage, I would surely just blame myself: I was not mature enough, I had not sufficiently taken into account the needs of others, I had not worked hard enough at it. I may have been a self-avowed romantic, but I'd failed at the most important romantic relationship. How had this happened, how? I wondered, echoing the repeated "how" of Lamentations — the book of the Bible known in Hebrew as Eichah (how), in which the prophet Jeremiah elegizes the Temple. I fingered the drawstring on the window shade above my desk as I read about the crimson thread in the Temple that miraculously turned white at the moment on Yom Kippur when the people's sins were forgiven.

Living alone, I identified with the high priest who was sequestered for seven days prior to Yom Kippur in a special chamber of the Temple to prevent him from contracting impurity. During this period other priests appointed a "backup wife" for him in case his wife were to die, since he was required to atone for his household and could not do so unless he had one. This may sound terribly unromantic, and indeed the Talmud is often regarded as a highly unromantic text, particularly when it comes to the transactional nature of marriage. But this is only because, for the rabbis, the object of longing was rarely wives, or even other women. Rather, when the rabbis wax most poetic, they are frequently speaking about the Temple, which was destroyed generations before the Talmud's inception.

In learning Yoma, I became swept up in the romance of Temple lore. I dreamed of the seven-branched golden candelabra, the sink where the priests rinsed their hands, and the muchni, the clanking mechanical pulley system that lowered the sink into a pit of water beneath the Temple floor. I shared in the rabbis' nostalgia for the Temple's glory days — particularly the First Temple era, when the priests were not yet corrupt (or so the rabbis claim) and the ark of the covenant still stood in the Holy of Holies. By the time of the Second Temple, the Talmud teaches, the Holy of Holies was empty and the ark had disappeared, leading to mystery and intrigue surrounding its whereabouts.

There is a Talmudic story about a priest engaged in Temple service who once noticed that one of the paving stones in the floor was slightly higher than the rest (Yoma 54a). He went out to report on his discovery to his fellow priests, but "he had not yet finished speaking when suddenly he died." (This kind of instantaneous zapping is a common trope in rabbinic stories.) The Talmud concludes that this must have been the place where the ark of the covenant was buried. Surely anyone who came so close to discovering the hidden ark would not live to tell the tale. This passage continues with a story about two priests who were busy picking worms out of the wood that was set aside for burning on the altar. One of them dropped his axe — presumably on the spot where the ark was buried — and immediately a fire broke out and consumed him.

The more dramatic the Talmud's stories, the more they took on a life of their own. One evening while washing the floor of my apartment, I noticed that one of the tiles was loose. I had already covered the floor with soapy water and was soaking it all up with a rag affixed to a sponga pole — the traditional way to clean the floors in Israel — when I came to that loose tile and trembled. I approached it with trepidation, half expecting fire to come forth and consume me if I put down my bucket of soapy water in the wrong place.

The rabbinic discussion of the Temple is fiery and passionate, at times bordering on the erotic. The rabbis relate that even though Jericho is a full ten-parsa distance from Jerusalem, the women of Jericho did not need to put on perfume because the scent of the incense wafting from Jerusalem was so powerful. Even the goats of Jericho would sneeze when their nostrils were tickled by the fragrance. In Jerusalem the scent was so concentrated that it was not just ordinary women but also brides who could forgo any fragrance. The incense, made of cinnamon, saffron, cassia, myrrh, and other spices whose names are as seductive as their scents, intoxicated the sages of the Talmud. As one elder reports, "Once I went to Shiloh [the site of the portable sanctuary where Jews worshipped prior to the First Temple], and I breathed in the scent of the incense from between its walls" (Yoma 39b). As I imagined the spices wafting from the Temple's clefts, I could almost hear the breathless panting.

Of course, there is no nostalgia for what remains; nostalgia is the longing for what once was. No one who is happily wed grows nostalgic about marriage, as Byron quipped in Don Juan: "Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife / He would have written sonnets all his life?" And one does not speak nostalgically of a Temple that is still standing and operational. Not surprisingly, the opening chapter of tractate Yoma includes a lengthy discussion of the reasons for the Temple's destruction. When it comes to the First Temple, these reasons are all related to the Jewish people's sins against God: the Temple was destroyed because of the sins of idolatry, or adultery, or murder. In explaining the sin of idolatry, Rabbi Yohanan quotes a verse from Isaiah (28:20): "For the bed shall be too short for a man to stretch himself out on it." He explains that this verse refers to a couch too narrow for both God and an idol to lie on (Yoma 9b). The imagery invoked is the intimate space of a bedroom, a reminder that the Temple was the space of the most intimate connection between God and Israel. As Rav K'tina states, "At the time when Israel would go to the Temple on the festivals, they would roll back the ark curtain to reveal the cherubs, who were hugging each other, and they would say: Look at how beloved you are of God, like the love between a man and a woman" (Yoma 54a). This same passage compares the poles that protruded through the ark curtain to a woman's breasts poking through the fabric of her dress. God has no place to sleep because there is an idol in His bed, and on account of that idol, His most intimate chamber is destroyed.

One evening as I sat learning daf yomi on my Romeo and Juliet balcony, I was suddenly transported to fair Verona, where I laid my scene. I imagined Juliet leaning her cheek against her gloved hand as Romeo gazes up at her under cover of darkness. Juliet sighs ("Ay me!"), and Romeo hangs on to her every sound and gesture ("She speaks! O, speak again, bright angel"), wooing her from below in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs, which Shakespeare seems occasionally to invoke ("Stony limits cannot hold love out"). I imagined the balcony as the site of many subsequent late-night trysts, as it is the one place where the lovers can speak freely to one another without risking the wrath of the Montague and Capulet clans. Surely Juliet longs, each day, for night to come, so she can go out on her balcony to speak to Romeo.

And then I imagined that one day, Juliet comes home to find that her parents have boarded up her balcony. Her window is covered with wooden planks fixed crudely to the wall, and pieces of the railing, hacked at with axes and spades, lie strewn on the street below. "Her gates have sunk into the ground, he has smashed her bars to bits" (Lamentations 2:9). Juliet is utterly distraught: how will she see Romeo that evening? How will she communicate with her lover? "See, O Lord, the distress I am in! My heart is in anguish" (Lamentations 1:20). It is not only her balcony she has lost, but the whole elaborate system of semaphores and scheduling that she and her lover have constructed to ensure that they see each other regularly. Juliet wails. "Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheeks wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends" (Lamentations 1:2).

The rabbis, in mourning the Temple, were not just mourning a physical edifice but an entire system of connecting with God — one that involved daily sacrifice, fragrant incense, elaborate vestments, and golden trumpets. I, too, felt that I was mourning not just my marriage but all my romantic dreams — dreams that involved late-night roving and star-crossed love. I'm not sure if, after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews dared hope that there might someday be a second. I only know that in my own life I harbored no such expectations.

I was convinced I'd never re-marry, but one night my imagination got the better of me and I pictured myself again a bride. It was late Friday afternoon during that magical, mystical time the rabbis refer to as "between the suns," on the cusp of the day that is waning and the night about to fall. (I suppose the English equivalent is twilight, meaning "two lights.") Uneasy about the prospect of a long evening alone, I put on a long white flowing dress and walked outside to head toward synagogue. But then I changed my mind and instead set my steps toward the walls of the Old City, entered the stone gate, and walked down the narrow cobblestone paths to the Kotel, the last remaining wall of the Temple, singing the prayers to welcome Shabbat along the way. I've never felt any special connection to the Kotel, but I was eager to visit the site of all the rituals I'd been reading about for weeks in tractate Yoma. And there was something thrilling about the notion that the Temple Mount — the object of thousands of years of Jewish longing and the place toward which Jews the world over direct their prayers — was just a half-hour walk from my apartment. "Arise and shake off the dust of the earth / Wear glorious garments reflecting your worth," I sang, feeling my soul increasingly uplifted with each successive stanza of the mystical prayer Lecha Dodi, "Come My Beloved," in which the Sabbath is greeted like a bride.

When I reached the Kotel I had already finished chanting Maariv, the evening service, and so I whispered a few words of silent petition and turned back toward home. I learned in Yoma that the high priest was supposed to enter the Holy of Holies and offer only a short prayer, lest the people waiting anxiously outside grow worried that he had somehow behaved incorrectly and would never emerge from that holiest of places (Yoma 52b). My prayers, too, lasted only seconds, and I didn't even bother to elbow my way through the crowds of devout worshippers between me and the wall. I did not need to touch the cold stones because I could feel the weight of their history when I pressed my fingers against the Talmudic page. By the time I got home, the sky was pitch black, and I was hungry and exhausted, ready to learn daf yomi over dinner and collapse into bed.


Excerpted from "If All the Seas Were Ink"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Ilana Kursha.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

Introduction: One Day Wiser 1

A Note on the Talmud 17

I The Order of Festivals

Yoma-Alone in Jerusalem 23

Sukkah / Beitzah-Temporary Homes 39

Rosh Hashanah-The Book of Life 51

Taanit-Two by Two 61

Megillah-Who Knows? 69

Moed Katan-Trapdoor Days 79

Hagigah-Torah from the Heavens 91

II The Order of Women

Yevamot-Lentils in My Pot 101

Ketubot-I Am a Jewish Man 111

Nedarim / Nazir-Ascetic Aesthetics 129

Sotah-A Still Unravished Bride 136

Gittin-Writing Divorce 144

Kidushin-Toward a Theory of Romantic Love 152

III The Order of Damages

Eava Kama / Bava Metzia / Bava Batra-Suspended in a Miracle 161

Sanhedrim-Another Lifetime 178

Makkot / Shevuot-Sarah Ivreinu 191

Avodah Zarah / Horayot-Frost at Midnight 197

IV The Order of Holiness

Zevahim / Menahot / Hullin-Holy Eating 209

Bechorot / Erchin / Temurah / Keritot / Meilah / Tamid / Middot / Kinnim-Poets & Gatekeepers 215

V The Order of Purity

Nipdah-A Folded Notebook 225

VI The Order of Seeds

Berachot-Writing About Prayer Is Easier Than Praying 237

VII The Order of Festivals (Again)

Shabbat / Eruvin-A Pregnant Pause 255

Pesachim-Take Two 272

Shekalim-Weaving the Talmudic Tapestry 286

Yoma-Encore 290

Acknowledgments 295

Notes 297

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