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If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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"I have now read the book three times ... If All The Seas Were Ink got me through a difficult year." ― Adam Lenson, Medium
"Rich and evocative.... By the end of Kurshan’s enchanting and illuminating memoir, we feel that we have come to know her as intimately as we have come to know the Talmud." ―Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal
“Piercingly intelligent...Riveting...What Kurshan has produced is entirely novel.”―The Times of Israel
“It takes a brilliant intellect to study the Talmud the way Kurshandoes...If All the Seas Were Ink provides a true and clear exampleof text study that benefits the soul as well as the mind.”―The Christian Century
"An elegant, engaging and daunting tale of the many paths of human passion...This delightful and deep story of life made me feel as if Kurshan and I had several leisurely dinners together, or had met regularly at a cafe." ―Rochelle L. Millen, Hadassah Magazine
“Kurshan… writes beautifully about the complexities of love, loss, shame, growth and the things that matter. .. 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
"Valuable for its lessons, whether one is religious or not." ―Southern Jewish Life
“[Kurshan] is a gorgeous writer, emotionally honest and perceptive…She 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
"I am loving this memoir...[Kurshan] writes like nobody’s business." ―Jeffrey Salkin, Religion News Service
"From the moment I picked up If All the Seas Were Ink, I was not able to put it down...Highly recommended... 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] magnificent new memoir." ―Forward
"Kurshan’s intellectual dexterity and emotional vulnerability make this a gripping, smart read." ―Kveller
"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 Wall Street Journal
“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
"[Kurshan] became one with the Talmudic lessons, seeing them everywhere and applying them to being a Jew and a mother in the modern era." ―The JC
"Engaging...a compelling read, especially for―but certainly not limited to―students of the Talmud." ―The Jewish Exponent
“Clever and witty… Kurshan is a fabulous writer; her clarity and simplicity propel you along almost unaware that you’re reading…So engrossing I hardly could put it down.” ―Neal Gendler, The American Jewish World
"Delightful...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." ―Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, The Lehrhaus
"What makes Kurshan’s memoir unique is her explication of the text...this is an introduction by someone who is trying to live both with and in the text." ―Beth Kissileff, Tablet Magazine
"Uniquely beautiful...an amazing feat." ―The Jerusalem Report
"Intriguing." ―Kirkus Reviews
"The splendidly written book is made all the more compelling by Kurshan’s willingness to share her vulnerabilities. .. 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." ―Joanne Palmer, The Jewish Standard
"An important, interesting and often light-hearted book." ―David E.Y. Sarna, Jewish Link of New Jersey
"Kurshan weaves together intensive Talmud study with personal pain, work, spiritual seeking, and literature." ―NJ Jewish News
"Kurshan committed herself to the Daf Yomi...she reports on how this daily discipline brought humor and wisdom and insight into her life." ―Rabbi Jack Riemer
"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
"If All the Seas Were Ink is such a moving memoir. Kurshan's 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 such a sensitive and thoughtful guide." ―Susan Isaacs, author of Long Time No See
"In this deeply personal and often hilarious story, Kurshan shows us how the Talmud’s thousands of strange and demanding pages 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
"With this memoir, Ilana Kurshan enters the exclusive club of daf yomi learners, a club that was, for generations, restricted to men. 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
"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." ―Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Jewish Literacy, Rebbe, and A Code of Jewish Ethics
"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." ―Avivah Zornberg, author of The Murmuring Deep
"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
About the Author
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A little background is necessary. Daf Yomi (a page a day) is a practice that's been around for about a century but become very popular in the last ten. In doing "daf yomi," a participant reads one "page" (it's really a folio page which is equal to about 3-4 pages a day usually) of Talmud a day until she finishes the entire thing in seven years. Reading the entire Talmud is a monumental accomplishment. It's massive. It's often compared to a sea, as it's deep and wide and can be both refreshing and overwhelming.
So, Kurshan takes the brilliant step of telling her life story during the seven years she was doing daf yomi. How wonderful. In less intelligent and empathetic hands, this could have been robotic or cold. Or it would have felt tremendously forced. There are so many pages of Talmud which one would be hard pressed to connect to one's life. But Kurshan does it. Each chapter of her memoir is named after one of the Tractates of the Babylonian Talmud.
I was initially temped, upon finishing the book, to think, boy, Kurshan was pretty lucky. A lot happened to her during the seven years she studied the daf. But that's not what happened. In the book's last few pages, Kurshan explains that she started doing daf yomi in the first place because her life felt unmoored; she was looking for something constant, some center. The Talmud became that center. You have to read it every day of your life for seven years whether you want to or not. What happened, as I would imagine happens whenever we read literature or history or poetry is that her study and her life became entwined in a way that makes book nerds like me (and Kurshan) very happy. So in the best possible way, Kurshan's life informed her understanding of what she read every day in Talmud, and conversely, her reading that day made her interpret reality through a lens she wouldn't have otherwise had.
I'm not saying this to brag; reading is like breathing for me. I'm a lifelong learner in a fundamental way. IDEALLY, everyone would be no matter what one's philosophical, ideological, political or spiritual bent. But the rhythms of Jewish observance provide ample opportunity to make this ideal a reality. There are countless passages in the Talmud and elsewhere extolling the supreme merits of learning; in a famous passage, when the Rabbis are debating which is more important, deeds or study, the "winning" argument winds up being study---because study LEADS to deed. I bring this up merely to suggest one of the reasons I LOVED this book: I felt like I was encountering a kindred mind and spirit. Kurshan takes her spirituality, her poetry, her family, her mortality, her country, her food, her exercise very seriously; indeed, she inspires me because ALL OF THOSE INFORM ONE ANOTHER. I strive towards accomplishing this in my own life.
What a book!
I appreciated her deep love of literature even though I was a math/science nerd in college. But I took a full half of my courses outside my major, mostly in the humanities, and I recognized most of her many literary references and even if I am not deeply familiar with most of the works. I see math and science every day in the world around me and I enjoyed seeing what it might be like to have the background to be that way with literature. She gives an appealing view of the experience of seeing Talmud all the time in her life.
The author reveals her feelings very carefully and perhaps too subtly for the reader who gave a 3-star review. She may be overly careful to try to not be too judgmental of other people like her first husband and she often second-guesses herself. Many people lash out and blame their ex-spouses for all the problems of a failed marriage. In contrast, Ilana feels “ashamed”, as if she did something wrong or deserved to be divorced. She doesn’t go into great detail about that relationship, but that is because she is, as she says herself, a rather private person, and perhaps it is too painful for her to really remember and retell every detail of what was overall a negative experience. I felt that the vignettes she shares are telling enough to get an idea of the situation. I didn’t want or need to know all the unpleasant details.
I enjoyed this book so much that I purposely did not binge-read it, but “saved” some of it to spread out over a couple of Shabbat afternoons and some leisure time after Thanksgiving. It is a book that I will probably want to re-read even though I very rarely do that.
I was honored and thrilled to call Ilana a friend before reading the book. After finishing it, I'm in awe and you will be too.
Top international reviews
Her disordered thought patterns leak into her attitude to pregnancy (her body “serves her well” by not developing stretch marks) birth, (she boasts about drug free labour as if it’s a morally better way to give birth) female creativity (only women who give birth are “like the creator”)
Funny that in talking about “the Arabs” she lives near she fails to notice that they’re all in service and menial jobs.
I could have read all this happily had she not shown that she values “the poet” as more important than “the gatekeeper”. Not every can be or wants to be an author. That doesn’t make what we do any less valuable.
So all in all this is a gushy and self indulgent romantic fantasy written by a woman with a lot of privilege.