If All The Seas Were Ink

 

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2018 Natan Book Award Finalist

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At the age of 27, 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 600 years and the basis for all codes of Jewish law. By the time she completed the Talmud after seven and a half years, Kurshan was remarried with three young children. This memoir is a tale of heartache and humor, of love and loss, of marriage and motherhood, and of learning to put one foot in front of the other by turning page after page. For people of the book—both Jewish and non-Jewish—If All the Seas Were Ink is a celebration of learning, through literature, how to fall in love once again.

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Reviews

“There is humor and heartbreak in these pages…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.”
Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs, The Wall Street Journal

“Piercingly intelligent… Riveting… What Kurshan has produced is entirely novel…. It is a deep dive into a body of literature that is frequently misunderstood, seen for its trees of opinion rather than its forest of pluralistic ideals…. [Kurshan] skips nimbly and with great velocity, on the page and in person, from Rabbi Eliezer to Keats and back again.”
Mitch Ginsburg, The Times of Israel

“This is a volume of great originality… [Kurshan’s] felicity of expression and ability to make the Talmud irresistibly addictive means that even a non-Talmudic reader who has never met Kurshan will experience the same delight… No background in Talmud is needed to appreciate Kurshan’s intriguing story. When you turn the last page, you will walk away feeling talmudically enriched and already hoping for a sequel.”
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, Lilith Magazine

“A wonderful general introduction to the Talmud and a valuable resource for Jewish literacy and education… The most enjoyable feature of the book is the brilliant and creative integration of the daily Talmudic folio Kurshan studies with experiences of her life… [Kurshan’s] knowledge of English literature and poetry is remarkable, and she seamlessly weaves quotations from these texts into her book to complement passages from Bible and Talmud… For those not enamored by the seven year commitment to daf yomi, Kurshan’s memoir may be the next best thing.”
Jeffrey Rubenstein, The Lehrhaus

“What makes Kurshan’s memoir unique is her explication of the text and the ways she relates it to her personal life… Readers will be exposed to a huge variety of literary allusions and poetry… If one knows a bit about the Talmud, one will learn more from this book; if one knows nothing, this is an introduction by someone who is trying to live both with and in the text.”
Beth Kissilef, Tablet Magazine

“[Kurshan] is a gorgeous writer, emotionally honest and perceptive, and unafraid to share with us her ongoing battles… Kurshan has written a beautiful and inspiring book. Both religious and secular readers will find themselves immensely moved by her personal story and the raw courage of the journey she has undertaken.”
Elaine Margolin, The Jerusalem Post

“Clever and witty… Kurshan is a fabulous writer; her clarity and simplicity propel you along almost unaware that you’re reading…. The fascination is in how she describes her life, study slowly reviving intellectual and social engagement — and in how often the Talmud’s myriad, meandering topics contrast with or relate to her evolving life and emotions… To my astonishment, most of Ilana Kurshan’s If All the Seas Were Ink was so engrossing I hardly could put it down.”
Neal Gendler, American Jewish World

“Uniquely beautiful… [Kurshan’s] love for the written word is palpable… We, the readers, witness a woman living her life infused with rabbinic textual wisdom… Kurshan’s Daf Yomi memoir is a testament to how ancient wisdom continues to resonate across generational, gender and cultural divides.”
Haviva Ner-David, The Jerusalem Report

“An intriguing, scholarly memoir of being a woman and studying the Talmud… Kurshan expertly incorporates quotes from the Talmud in her reflections on the various arguments and the important events in her life that she recorded… What she discovered was invigorating, exciting, and challenging.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Lyrical and erudite. … Kurshan’s memoir gives us insightful contemporary readings of talmudic passages while demonstrating how life can accrue added richness when set against the backdrop of the Talmud.”
Sarah Rindner, Jewish Review of Books

“In this fascinating cross between confession and ethical legacy, told through the lens of rabbinic themes, Kurshan recounts her transformation… The story is the story of one woman’s transformation, but it resonates with the story of a city, a people, and a nation. This is beautiful book about personal change from a voice as clear and as poignant as Zion herself calling out through the Prophets.”
—Rachel Adelman, Women in Judaism

“Impressive… [Kurshan] explicates the Talmudic text with her vast knowledge of English literature. Her inventory of memorized poems and lines from novels is as impressive as it is extensive. In any given essay, Kurshan invites Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot into the Talmudic conversation. As remarkable as that is, Kurshan also ably relates the text to her personal life.”
Judy Bolton-Fasman, Jewish Boston

“Kurshan… writes beautifully about the complexities of love, loss, shame, growth and the things that matter. Her voice is refreshingly modest, gently confident and profound… With seeming ease and poetic style, she draws connections back and forth between the folios of the Talmud, with their commentaries on commentaries, and the events, people, thoughts and memories of her own life, as well as literary references to Shakespeare and others. For her, the ancient pages are alive with ideas, and in them she finds both light and a new lightness of spirit.”
Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

“The splendidly written book is made all the more compelling by Kurshan’s willingness to share her vulnerabilities. While primarily a memoir, it can also function as a sort of introduction to the Talmud… Kurshan helps humanize the study of a text often disparaged for its legalism or avoided for its length and difficulty, showing how even the most arcane topics can become surprisingly relevant…. This book was a great surprise to me, and one of my favorites of the year.”
Howard Freedman, The Jewish News of Northern California

“[A] brilliant, beautifully written, sensitive, original new book… [Kurshan’s] ability to bring together Jewish and English sources, in ways that illuminate both of them, is idiosyncratic and valuable.”
Joanne Palmer, The Jewish Standard

“An important, interesting and often light-hearted book.”
David E.Y. Sarna, Jewish Link of New Jersey

The book garnered additional stellar reviews in The Jewish ExponentGoodreads, and Amazon. It was named one of BookRiot’s most anticipated nonfiction books; included in the Forward’s what-to-read columnhighlighted on numerous lists of High Holiday reading recommendations from Kveller, Religious News Services, the Forward, and Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer; and it even inspired the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Advance Praise

“In this deeply personal and often hilarious story, Kurshan shows us how the Talmud’s thousands of strange and demanding pages, read at one page a day for seven years, become a conversation about how best to live one’s life in an imperfect world. Kurshan awakens us to our imperfect world’s hidden magnificence—and to the power of literature to inspire human resilience. A stunning, gorgeous memoir.” —Dara Horn, author of The World to Come

If All The Seas Were Ink is a book about passion of many varieties—romantic passion, religious passion, aesthetic passion, but above all else, passion for knowledge. The word scholarship is too tame to do justice to Kurshan’s wild passion for the written word, whether the word is found on a page of Talmud or in a sonnet of Wordsworth.  The blend of her loves makes for a rich and fascinating life, which makes for a rich and fascinating book.” —Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

“An intimate and eloquent portrait of a young woman’s passionate loves and fears… Kurshan writes as a woman of (as she puts it) ‘Dickensonian sensibilities:’ clinging to her privacy while exposing her vulnerability, seeking the resonances between her mind, soul and body, and revealing an acutely sensitive intelligence, a wry self-awareness, and an active sense of the absurd… Highly recommended.” —Avivah Zornberg, author of The Murmuring Deep

“When a woman as incredibly well-read as Ilana Kurshan commits herself to studying the Talmud daily for seven-and-a-half years, the results are mind-expanding, both for her and for readers of If All the Seas Were Ink.  An utterly original book about the Talmud, long time students of Jewish texts will be reminded of precious talmudic passages they had forgotten, and newcomers will gain a sense of how much wisdom there is in this ancient, but very vibrant, text.” —Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Jewish Literacy, Rebbe, and A Code of Jewish Ethics

“With this memoir, Ilana Kurshan enters the exclusive club of daf yomi learners, a club that was, for generations, restricted to men. With sincerity, humor, and insight, she invites readers into her experience of studying Talmud as a young woman in Jerusalem. Hers is a stunningly original voice in the world of Torah and the world of literature. Go run and read this book.” —Ruth Calderon, author of A Bride for One Night

“If All the Seas Were Ink is such a moving memoir.  I was taken by the perfect balance Ilana Kurshan achieved between revealing her own story while describing her daily study of the Talmud.  This is a book both for those steeped in Jewish learning and for those who aren’t quite sure what the Talmud is.  Her portrait of everyday life in Jerusalem enriches her recounting of connecting to centuries of intellectual curiosity and conversing with bygone generations.  How wonderful to explore this great volume with a such a sensitive and thoughtful guide.” —Susan Isaacs, author of Long Time No See

“Kurshan’s beautiful prose weaves the trials and tribulations of her personal seven-year journey together with the Talmud texts she’s learning. I applaud, and am awed, by this moving and remarkable memoir.” —Maggie Anton, author of Rashi’s Daughters