Book review of the week: 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-

If All the Seas Were Ink 002

St. Martin’s Press, 2017

Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob

TORONTO, March 25/22 – It took author Ilana Kurshan seven and a half years to write this introduction to The Talmud. That’s how long it takes to do a daily reading of every page of this monumental work. And as a result, this book covers 7 1/2 years of her adult life, from singlehood, through a failed marriage, to frail singlehood again, and finally remarriage and motherhood. She tells us the story of both sides of her life in tandem. They complement each other perfectly.

Kurshan’s pretty hard on herself as a failed wife and single. But attending a Daf Yomi shiur in person or online every single day come what may lift her up, giving her confidence and a sense of purpose.

Her personal journey unifies the book. What she learns from her Talmud study complements her journey and gives it dimension. But Daf Yomi is something most Jews could not imagine devoting a chunk of time to each day. Talmud is a tough read, the style is cryptic and allusive. It’s a shorthand record of rabbinic discussions on how to understand and implement Sinai’s divine commandments in our daily lives. And as Kurshan shows us, the rabbis touch on matters that are topical and relevant if we learn to read the text in the right way.

One thing Kurshan is eager to point out is that the rabbis did not live a sheltered life, and even the most esoteric topics (like the laws of sacrifice) contain nuggets of insight we can relate to. In fact, as she is eager to point out, occasionally the rabbis let slip salacious bits of personal information.

Ilana Kurshan 002

Ilan Kurshan/Photo Debbie Cooper

Now Kurshan is a literary freak, she has a PhD in English from Harvard no less. And she’s spent most of her work life in publishing. So she’s keen to share with us literary allusions or devices that the rabbis resort to clarify an issue. And she often quotes from her own favourite poets and novelists when she sees connections to or wants to elaborate on a pasuk she has learned. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is just one favourite work she liberally quotes from. Happily, she footnotes each literary quote.

The book is divided by Masachet (i.e. topic), as she studies each one, and connects it with her private life, and her literary bent. Here are just a few samples:

In Masechet Megillat (Esther), the text compares Purim to Pesach as the former giving shape to shadows, but the latter is in black and white mode, which is a stark reality. As the text and Kurshan point out, they are two ways of knowing God, and how He works in the real world.

In Masechet Sanhedrin there is a comment that one who learns but does not teach resembles a fragrant myrtle in a desert wilderness. And what does Kurshan teach when she has an opportunity to a group of intense high school seniors on a study project in Israel? The big questions that haunt them, she says, don’t keep her up at night anymore. “In some way, we live our way through to the answers.” And a daily dose of Talmud helps.

In Masechet Erchin, Kurshan tells us there is a discussion of the role of the Kohanim in the Temple service. Some are ‘gatekeepers’ and some are ‘poets’. The gatekeepers look after the details, the poets create the music and words appropriate to the wonder and awe of the ceremonial. On one level, Kurshan tells us, in her professional life, she feels like a gatekeeper. But in her personal, Daf Yomi, life, she feels like a poet, trying to make her contribution to effect God’s plan for the world, in all its minutae.

In Masechet Brachot, she tells us, there’s a discussion of Hannah’s prayers and what makes them models for ours. In Hannah’s petitionary prayer, one line spills into the next, with a caesura in between ‘like a break in a wail’.” But her prayer of thanksgiving is in jubilant, carefully measured verse. That’s how the rabbis describe them. No wonder she’s hooked.

Masechet Eruvin includes a discussion of what may invoke dire consequences for women. There are three possibilities: being careless about family purity laws, not taking a thumbful of dough off when baking challah, and not lighting Shabbat candles. Why such dire consequences? One rabbi comments, obliquely, “when the axe is fallen, sharpen the knife”, which is interpreted as meaning, when one is vulnerable dire consequences are inevitable. In other words, don’t tempt fate. Do what you’re directed to do.

In the end, Kurshan concludes that Daf Yomi helped her regain and maintain a balance when life became too complex or unbearable. It helped her find the courage to live life more fully, and more meaningfully, and to appreciate the good stuff when it came her way.

Now obviously, this is a woman’s book. Along the way, we learn more about Kurshan’s inner life than we probably need to. But it’s a great entry into the sea of ink that is the Talmud. It’s also of course a great promotion for Daf Yomi and the value of immersion in the rabbis’ discussions about how to make the commands at Sinai work for us in real-time.

Will male readers get anything out of it? If you want to learn about a woman’s heart and mind, there’s plenty to chew on here. And even without that, it’s great to be able to plumb the depths of Judaism’s second great work without a struggle. And you might gain some inspiration from the fact that Kurshan found her perfect match at a Daf Yomi shiur. What better book recommendation!

Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian.


Do you have comments or questions about this article? Ralph Wintrob can be reached at

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