An Accidental Memoirist: Mercaz Reads Israel, “If All The Seas Were Ink”

 

MERCAZ Reads Israel is a partnership of MERCAZ USA, Mercaz-Masorti Canada, and the Israel Forever Foundation


Our summer 2020 selection is Ilana Kurshan’s ‘If All the Seas Were Ink.’

Buy the book, and Register to join us for our book club meeting on Wednesday, September 23!

Book club discussion questions follow the article below, and can also be found in our book club home on Facebook.

 

 


AN ACCIDENTAL MEMOIRIST

By Ilana Kurshan

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press. She has translated books of Jewish interest by Ruth Calderon, Benjamin Lau, and Micah Goodman, as well as novels, short stories, and children’s picture books. Her book Why Is This Night Different From Other Nights was published by Schocken in 2005. She is a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine, where she is the Book Reviews Editor, and her writing has appeared in The Forward, The World Jewish Digest, Hadassah, Nashim, Zeek, Kveller, and Tablet. Kurshan is a graduate of Harvard University (BA, summa cum laude, History of Science) and Cambridge University (M.Phil, English literature). She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and five children.

When I first saw the cover that my publisher had designed for my book, my jaw dropped. It was a lovely image—pages of Talmud arranged to resemble waves in an ocean, neither too feminine nor too scholarly for the audience I hoped to reach. But I was taken aback to discover that the book had suddenly acquired a subtitle – “A Memoir.” Since when was my book a memoir? And what did it mean that I—an inveterate reader of fiction and poetry, as well as a lover of Talmud—had penned a memoir?

In my head I have always had a hierarchy of literary genres. At the pinnacle was poetry. A poet, I thought, is the consummate wordsmith — someone who can distill the maximum amount of meaning per square inch of text. One step below the poets were the novelists, those who take up more space on the page—and more pages—to construct a richly imagined fictional world.

Below the novelists were the writers of nonfiction – those who lack the imagination to create characters and fabricate plots, and so they have no choice but to head to the library, buckle down and research some interesting topic, and write it up. At the very bottom of the hierarchy—or so I told myself—were the memoirists, those who couldn’t find anything interesting they could write knowledgeably about, and so they had no choice but to write about themselves.

I rarely read memoirs, which to my mind seemed almost as worthless as self-help – why read advice for living when fiction, which I always found more pleasurable, teems with the most penetrating and incisive insights into the human mind and the dynamics of human relationships?

I knew that my book was neither poetry nor fiction, though it incorporates lines and passages of both. While I was writing, I regarded my book as a Talmud commentary – my reflections on the page of Talmud I studied each day for seven and a half years as part of an international program known as daf yomi.

The project that became my book began as a series of notes in margins of the volumes of Talmud I studied: I jotted down question marks where I was confused, exclamation points when something took me by surprise, and boxed summaries of the topics under discussion. When I had more to say than could fit in the margins, I began writing journal entries and blog posts, which I published on an anonymous blog I did not think I was writing for anyone except myself, and so I did not hesitate to write freely about dark personal struggles and deep fears. Had I imagined an audience, I probably would have hidden under my desk, buried my head in my hands, and cringed.

Then five years ago, when I was on maternity leave after the birth of my twins, a friend pointed out that I had one more year left in my seven-and-a-half year daf yomi cycle, and I ought to find a way to mark the occasion. She suggested that I organize all my writing so that I’d have some sort of record of everything I had learned. I opened a new file on my computer and began making lists of all the essays, anecdotes, and poems I’d jotted down or typed up over the years.

Immediately it became clear to me that my writing was structured like the Talmud — I had basically written a book in which each chapter corresponded to another tractate, as a volume of Talmud is known. The book was an extended commentary interweaving the Talmudic text with my own experiences of learning it, such that the text was a commentary on life, and life was a commentary on the text.

It was a long time before I worked up the courage to send off the manuscript into the world. By the time my agent submitted it to publishers, I was nine months pregnant with my fourth child. My agent had promised to call if any publishers expressed interest. Then I went into labor, and just when I entered the delivery room, my phone rang. It was my agent. How could I not pick up? She told me that an editor was interested in buying my book. Really? Could it be? Suddenly my contractions sped up. My husband looked at me quizzically. “Ilana,” he told me, “publishing a book is often compared to birthing a child. But you don’t have to do both at the same time!”

My book, it seemed, was destined to be born. But I was not happy to learn that the same editor who acquired the book was convinced it was a memoir, and that it should be subtitled as such. “Can’t we call it a Talmud commentary?” I pleaded. “Try telling that to my marketing department,” my editor wrote back, and I could imagine the smiley face emoticon.

Then a few weeks after she sent me the jacket image, I read an article in the New York Times Book Review in which Joyce Carol Oates coined a term for a new literary genre: “Rarely attempted, and still more rarely successful, is the bibliomemoir — a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.” That’s it, I told myself. I had written a bibliomemoir! A memoir through books. I could live with that.

And so I’m somewhat of an accidental memoirist, though perhaps it’s ultimately for the best. Many readers—particularly male readers—have told me that they would never have picked up my book had it been fiction. Other people told me how much they admired my courage in being so honest about such deeply personal matters. (“I’m not courageous,” I responded. “I’m just a failed fiction writer who had no choice but to tell it like it happened.”)

Still other readers wrote to tell me that I inspired them to begin learning daf yomi, and that I had developed a new feminist way of reading that Talmud. I’m not sure that’s true. But I do think that had I published my book as a work of fiction—or as a Talmud commentary, for that matter—I would have reached far fewer readers.

My literary hierarchy notwithstanding, I have developed a newfound respect for memoir as a genre. My bookcases now feature a whole shelf of memoirs, in addition to my fiction and poetry collections. I’m still not sure where to shelve my own book, but I trust that eventually it will find its place.


BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Start the discussion now with fellow book club members – before our book club meeting on September 23!

Join our Mercaz Reads Israel book club book on Facebook, then comment on our discussion questions in the ‘If All The Seas Were Ink’ unit.

  1. What are some of the culture shocks Kurshan encounters living in Israel? How does she feel as these shocks continue beyond her first years in Israel as she goes through different life experiences?
  2. What are the discontinuities she encounters between studying Talmud and living in Israel today? How would they have been different if she had been studying Talmud in the US?
  3. Having grown up in an egalitarian Conservative congregation in the US, where her father was the rabbi, what did it take for Kurshan able to find a religious niche for herself in Israel?
  4. How did you respond to Kurshan’s ambivalence about becoming an Israeli citizen and making Israel her permanent home? What did it take for her to make this decision? How did visiting her family in the US impact her decision?
  5. How did living in Israel put Kurshan more in sync with the Jewish calendar? What is your reaction to her view of the “Israeli weekend” vs the “American weekend”?
  6. How did you react to the issue of the lack of anonymity in Jerusalem that Kurshan felt when it seemed to her that there was always someone who knew her or her family? Do you think this is an issue unique to living in Jerusalem?
  7. Are there differences between living in a “segregated” Jewish community in the US and a “segregated” Jewish community in Israel?
  8. What are the differences Kurshan perceives between the education her children will receive in Israeli schools and the schools that she and her husband received in the US?
  9. What did you take away from the book about being a religious feminist in Jerusalem?
  10. Does Kurshan perceive it as a problem that most of her close friends are American olim? Do you think that she and her family are living in a cultural bubble? Is that different from the way American Jews live in the US?

GO DEEPER INTO THE SEA …

In September 2017 Ilana Kurshan’s book of the same name was released to enormous praise. Her beautiful tale of learning Talmud every day is masterful. Her charge to us in this ELI Talk to be open to how our learning can influence our lives and how our lives can influence our learning is nothing but compelling.

Filmed at the William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta, Georgia in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

More discussion questions and further reading can be found here.

Join Mercaz Olami at the Kotel to bring in Tisha B’Av

UPDATE | Wednesday, July 29, 5:00 p.m. EDT: If you missed the live presentation > This beautiful chanting of Megillat Eicha at the Egalitarian Kotel can be viewed on Masorti Olami’s Facebook page. You do not need a Facebook account, or be logged on to Facebook, in order to view the recording.


Feeling confused about how to have a meaningful Tisha B’Av this year?

Please join MERCAZ Olami, Masorti Olami and The Masorti Movement In Israel for a live-streaming event of the reading of Megillat Eicha, directly from the Egalitarian Kotel.

The broadcast will take place on Wednesday, July 29 at 8:00 p.m. Israel time / 1:00 p.m. EDT as we join together virtually for the reading of Megillat Eicha.

We will be live-streaming via the Mercaz Olami Facebook page and Zoom (details to follow on the Mercaz Olami Facebook page).

MERCAZ Reads Israel: Register for our book club discussion about ‘If All The Seas Were Ink’

MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ-Masorti Canada are proud to announce our second ‘MERCAZ Reads Israel’ book club meeting will be held on Wednesday, September 23 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern!

Our upcoming book club meeting will feature a discussion with author Ilana Kurshan, exploring her book ‘If All The Seas Were Ink.’

To participate in this exciting event:

1) Buy the book.

2) Join our online book club group on Facebook. Discussion questions for ‘If All The Seas Are Ink’ will be posted there (and also here on our website for those who do not have a Facebook account) soon!

3) Register to join our book club discussion on Wednesday, September 23 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, by filling out the form below. The Zoom login information will be displayed on this page after you submit the form (you may need to scroll back up to see the information). Make certain to copy, paste, and save the login information!

4) Read an article by the author, review the book club discussion questions, and dive deeper into the sea on our landing page for If All The Seas Were Ink.

 

Official U.S. Zionist Congress Election Results Have Been Posted

From January 21 through March 11, the American Zionist Movement coordinated a historic Zionist Election to determine the number of delegates, representing 15 slates (including MERCAZ) from the U.S., to serve as representatives in the upcoming 38th World Zionist Organization Congress.

The official results are in! With a final tally of 123,629 votes, turnout was the highest in 30 years and more than double compared to the last election in 2015.

Detailed election results and additional information can be found on the AZM’s election results landing page.

MERCAZ Reads Israel: Catch up with our 1st book & get ready for our 2nd meeting!

This past spring, MERCAZ USA launched our online book club, MERCAZ Reads Israel. MERCAZ Reads Israel is an opportunity for lovers of books and Israel to read literature from contemporary Israeli authors. Our goal is to select books that provide insights to, and understanding of, the lives and concerns of our Israeli counterparts.

If you missed participating in our first book club meeting on June 2 with author Avigail Graetz, discussing her book “A Rabbi’s Daughter,” you can catch up here:

Buy the book on Amazon (Kindle or paperback)

Watch the book club discussion with author Avigail Graetz below (you can also view this video on our Facebook page).

Join our virtual book club home on Facebook, to participate in book club discussions and get the latest news on upcoming book club meetings and book announcements

And we have officially announced the next book for our club …

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by author Ilana Kurshan

Our next book club meeting to discuss “If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir” with author Ilana Kurshan will be held in late August or early September.

Join our club home on Facebook to be the first to know when the date for our next meeting has been set, and to get a head start on the discussion questions when they are posted later this summer!

In the meantime, you can purchase the book on Amazon (Kindle, paperback, or hardback) and begin enjoying our second MERCAZ Reads Israel book club selection today!

For background on the book, watch this ELI Talks presentation from author Ilana Kurshan, where she discusses the motivation for writing her memoir.


Mercaz Reads Israel Book Club Meeting 1:

Discussing ‘A Rabbi’s Daughter’ with author Avigail Graetz:

Conference of Presidents Members Condemn Mort Klein Black Lives Matter Tweets

Mercaz USA, as a member organization of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, is a signatory on this letter to Mort Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, regarding several of his recent Tweets.

June 12, 2020

Mort Klein
President
Zionist Organization of America

Dear Mr. Klein,

We, the undersigned members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, condemn the tweets regarding Black Lives Matter that you sent out last weekend.

The specific tweets to which we are referring are: “BlackLivesMatter is an antisemitic, Israel hating Soros funded racist extremist Israelophobic hate group.” And “BLM is a Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros funded extremist group of haters.”

We hope that you agree that the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey have ignited a much needed and long-overdue push to address institutionalized racism, police violence and white supremacy that plague the United States.

At this delicate and critical juncture in American history, Jews of all colors must stand up for black lives and against senseless hatred and divisive bigotry. It is time to find our common humanity, not to search for ways to keep us apart. There is no room for hate in organized Jewish life.

Respectfully,

Kenneth Bob, President, Ameinu
Hadar Susskind, President and CEO, Americans for Peace Now
Rabbi Bennett Miller, National Chair, ARZA
Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Robert Aronson, Chair, HIAS
Stuart Applebaum, President, Jewish Labor Committee
Meredith Jacobs, CEO, Jewish Women International
Janet Gurvitch, President, Na’amat USA
Marilyn Wind, President, MERCAZ USA
Sheila Katz, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, Chief Executive, Rabbinical Assembly
Ann Toback, CEO, The Workers Circle
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President , Union of Reform Judaism
Leslie Lichter, Interim CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director, Women of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields, Executive Director, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism

For more background on this letter, read this article in The Forward.

MERCAZ Reads Israel | On June 2, Discuss ‘A Rabbi’s Daughter’ with Author Avigail Graetz

May 15, 2020

Join us for our first MERCAZ Reads Israel Book Club Meeting!

Discuss our first book selection, ‘ A Rabbi’s Daughter ‘ with author Avigail Graetz on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at 1:00 p.m. EDT.

Register for our Zoom Webinar on June 2 at 1:00 p.m. EDT


MERCAZ Reads Israel is an online book club featuring contemporary Israeli literature that provides insight into and understanding of the lives and concerns of our Israeli counterparts.

If you do not have an account on Facebook, you can still see the discussion questions on the Israel Forever Foundation’s landing page for “A Rabbi’s Daughter.”

MERCAZ Reads Israel is a partnership between
MERCAZ USA and The Israel Forever Foundation

Mercaz Reads Israel Book Club | Inaugural Webinar: A Rabbis Daughter

April 23, 2020

Watch the inaugural webinar for the MERCAZ READS ISRAEL book club!

On Wednesday, April 22, Mercaz USA launched our online book club – MERCAZ Reads Israel – featuring contemporary Israeli literature that provides insight into and understanding of the lives and concerns of our Israeli counterparts.

This new, exciting initiative is a partnership between Mercaz USA and the Israel Forever Foundation.

Our first selection, ‘A Rabbi’s Daughter,’ a novel by Avigail Graetz, is a semi-autobiographical story of three generations of strong women. Drawing inspiration from the author’s life experience growing up in the south of Israel, in the home of a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi serving a Masorti kehilla, this book is the first Israeli novel set against the background of Masorti Judaism.

Nearly 200 individuals joined our inaugural MERCAZ READS ISRAEL book club webinar with Avigail Graetz, as she took us on a journey of her experiences, providing background and context for what inspired her to write this novel and have it translated into English. If you missed the webinar, you can watch it here now!

A second webinar will be scheduled in late May/early June for participants to discuss the book, after they have read it, again with the author!

You can buy a copy of the book on Amazon (Kindle or paperback).

Then join our MERCAZ READS ISRAEL Group on Facebook to participate in book club conversations!

In Partnership with

MERCAZ Reads ISRAEL: Join The Club Today!

April 7, 2020

Join MERCAZ READS ISRAEL, an online book club featuring contemporary Israeli literature that provides insight into and understanding of the lives and concerns of our Israeli counterparts.

This new, exciting initiative is a partnership between Mercaz USA and the Israel Forever Foundation.

Our first selection, ‘A Rabbi’s Daughter,’ a novel by Avigail Graetz, is a semi-autobiographical story of three generations of strong women. Drawing inspiration from the author’s life experience growing up in the south of Israel, in the home of a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi serving a Masorti kehilla, this book is the first Israeli novel set against the background of Masorti Judaism.

On Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 1:00 p.m. EDT, we will have the opportunity to engage in conversation with the author, Avigail Graetz, via a Zoom conference.

Join us to learn about the background of the book, before you read it!

Click here to register for the webinar.

A second webinar will be scheduled in late May/early June for participants to discuss the book, after they have read it, with the author!

Buy a copy of the book on Amazon (Kindle or paperback).

Join our MERCAZ READS ISRAEL Group on Facebook to learn more and participate in book club conversations!