Book review: Houses of Study by Ilana M. Blumberg

Ilana M. Blumberg’s Houses of Study (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) is a love affair with books––both those that open from left to right, and those that open from right to left. In this memoir, which spans two continents and nearly four decades, Blumberg describes the words and texts that shaped her as a feminist, a Jew, a professor of literature, and the mother of a young daughter for whom she now delights, not surprisingly, in selecting books.

Blumberg moves back and forth in time, beginning with the year she spent studying Jewish texts in an Orthodox seminary in Israel when she was 18. She contrasts the feminine form of wisdom that was expected of the young women, Binah, with the more serious and rigorous Hokhmah to which their male counterparts aspired. For Blumberg, Binah was never enough; secretly she prayed, “Teach me more than I need to know. Help me find hokhmah, Widsom, acquired knowledge. And let the reward for my combined Binah and Hokhmah be something other than a good match.”

Blumberg devotes herself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of knowledge, beginning with her childhood years in Ann Arbor of the 1970s, where “the dictionary held down our house.” She learned to chant from the Torah not at the Orthodox day school she attended, but from her father. Her Hebrew comes to her from her fervent Zionist grandfather, author of one of the first modern Hebrew textbooks, who writes her letters from his home on Rehov Beit HaKerem in Jerusalem. Blumberg’s studies continue at Barnard, where she describes negotiating the space between Butler Library and the beit midrash–– a passage that recalls Virginia Woolf, whom she invokes along with Donne, Yeats, and her beloved George Eliot.

For Blumberg, the pleasure of knowledge is always meant to be shared, and she is not to be stopped by barriers to her full engagement: “Praying at my bubbi’s side, I have imagined jumping or falling over the railing of the balcony, wondering what a falling female body might look like from above, from below, surprised that no girl has yet had the courage or the decency or the fear to fall.” Blumberg allows herself to fall freely––first for the non-Jewish boyfriend she lives with during her graduate school years (much to her mother’s consternation), and then for the idea of a Jewish family, which she cannot have with him. And so while all her friends are “simply, untroubledly married,” she finds herself neither here nor there, lamenting “how not having a family of my own makes Jewish life impossible, how faith seems stupid without children, husbands, mothers-in-law. How there is no joy, comfort, or pleasure in banding together with other single Jews my own age, pretending we are a family, assigning the postures we learned in our earliest childhood games of playing Shabbat.”

Ultimately, Blumberg finds her match, but the true moments of passion in this book, as in the Donne poem she quotes in full, “care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.” Her prose soars to a breathless lyricism when she enacts for us the pleasures and perils of conquering an uncharted page of Gemara; and the complicated, fascinating laws governing the treatment of holy books, which must be kissed when they fall to the ground; and the significance of her name, Ilana, spelled out in Hebrew on a gold necklace, with the letters lamed and nun “restraining the attraction of the magnetic characters [yood and hey, a name for God], whose union is believed sufficient to spark the divine fire.” This book is a union of letters and texts no less magnetic; to enter Ilana Blumberg’s houses of study is, invariably, to become ignited.

(review published in LILITH Magazine, Spring 2007)

EXCERPT from Houses of Study by Ilana M. Blumberg:

“Reread the words of the Gemara. You cannot read slowly enough to allow your brain to travel vertically through all the information encoded in these words. Nuances of language lick like flames at your head, conflicts between two statements made by the same rabbi impress heavily upon your brain, possible resolutions tease your burdened min, the words of a later scholar insinuate themselves into that crowded space, the context of that verse from the Bible, the reason for that commandments, a case where the punishment is not inflicted, a pun, animosity between rabbis, historical discrepancy, turn forward a page, turn back a page….

All this while you are reading aloud! Sort, sort, classify, oppose, compare, contrast, infer, deduce; you are on your way. You and your partner struggle, you pull and you tug, you tease out meaning. You sit on the hard wooden chair, elbows on the table, hands at the sides of your face, fingers at temples. You work your brain trying to reconstruct. You lean back in your chair, rest for a moment, hoping that the contents of your brain will shift into a pattern you will be able to decipher.

Quick! You know you must move on, but at this moment it seems to you that no page to come will be as puzzling, as suggestive, as much your own as this one that you have just finished studying. But you discipline your sliding, yearning mind; you force yourself on into a wilderness of a page, a whole new scape in which you wander gingerly, seeking to learn the terrain, the trees that grow here, the sand beneath your feet, seeing a tall gourd to shade you from the heat. This new place is hostile to you in the way that all new places are; silently they allow your entrance but offer no welcome. You have little time to learn the place; in one hour, two hours, you will be expected to appear before the monarch of this place, and he will want you to report to him on the terrain of his home, its trees, sand, shapes, and shadows; the way the sun falls at all hours of the day, the way the river feels upon your toes. All this you will have to offer him, in his language.

This is what it is to prepare one page in two hours, anticipating your teacher’s lesson. The fear of it, the hurry; the anxious joy of guessing at meaning; the slow, deliberate search for sense; the way you learn a new place until it seems impossible that it was ever unknown, untouchable, and mysterious as being grown up seemed when you were a child. ‘Welcome,’ you hear, ‘now you may stay and rest. Now you may walk as if you have a place here; you are one of us, if an enemy should come, we would defend you.’ Slowly you are traversing the world, stopping now in one country, now in another, hoping to see all, hoping to learn each one. This is what it is to study day after day an endless book, a book with as many pages as grains of sand, a book that great minds have finished and finished again and finished again. All you want, God, is to finish it once and begin again. Is that so much to ask? Help me finish it once, so that I may know your laws, love them, and observe them.”

[end of EXCERPT from Houses of Study by Ilana M. Blumberg]

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