Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books

University of Nebraska Press  2007

 
Ilana Blumberg’s moving memoir begins with her experiences learning at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem after high school, and comes to a close with her reflections on the challenge of raising her daughter to be a committed Jewish woman. The author struggles throughout her work to make peace with traditional Judaism and modern notions of women’s equality. Her experiences confirm and elucidate the complex negotiations in which any woman must engage in today’s society.

Blumberg’s narrative sometimes meanders, but her writing conveys a sense of uncertainty so common to those living in between the religious and secular worlds. And although frequent use of italics can be distracting, the changes in setting from religious to secular places of learning are artfully done. 

While this title certainly belongs in a generalist’s collection, Blumberg’s work will also strengthen libraries that focus on gender, autobiography, and Jewish women’s role in modernity.


Excerpt

It had been late August when my friends and I entered the Beit Midrash for the first time. We were greeted by silence and stagnant air, we didn’t tiptoe in timidly; we weren’t awed by the presence of long time students too absorbed in their learning to see or hear us enter. No hands transferred the sacred books into ours. Bewildered, we picked them out of the bookshelves randomly, wondering who might have studied them before us. We looked around for clues in the ceiling, the floor, the used tables. Looked for a message, however cryptic, from the women who had preceded us, who had solved the mysteries we faced in the room wiped clean of all history.

The Beginnings of Houses of Study

By Ilana M. Blumberg

It is a strange thing to write a memoir when you’re a fairly young person. My grandmother was amazed – actually, shocked – to hear that I was writing my “memoirs” in my twenties. But the fact is that it took me fourteen years to write this book. I lived in four cities while writing it. I used a word processing machine and three different laptops as one model after another became obsolete. I taught kindergarten, went to graduate school and finished a Ph.D., worked in a bakery for three weeks, acquired a bicycle and eventually a car, got married, had a first child. What I didn’t know when I began writing the book was that in order to finish it, I would have to wait for my life to catch up with me, that my writerly self would need almost to sit by while my living self went about its business in the world. 

In 1992, I had the beginnings of what I thought could be an important story, not just about myself but about a whole world of experience, but I lacked the ending, however provisional and tentative, that might give meaning and shape to the beginning. George Eliot, one of the most important writers in my life, talks about all things having a “slow history of ripening.” I am not a patient person and waiting – for my own self, no less – was extraordinarily difficult. But I am grateful now to the agents and publishers who saw early versions of this book and gave me attentive, encouraging rejections. They were right that the book needed to bide its time. What would happen to the movement in Orthodox Jewish women’s learning? What would happen to my own quest for knowledge, Jewish ritual life, love, family? I could not answer these questions when I had just begun to pose them. If I had been writing a short essay, I would have been free to pose the questions without answering them, but a memoir needed to deliver more. My grandmother, too, had been at least partially right: beginning to write a memoir in my twenties made sense, but finishing it did not. 

One lovely woman I met at a reading I gave said to me, “Well, I hope your next book doesn’t take fourteen years.” I hope not, too, but I have learned something that I find quite moving in part because it is both so obvious and so difficult to accept: writing about contemporary history, personal or collective, requires a great deal of humility in the face of our ignorance of what is around the corner. There is no finality greater than death to determine the meaning of things, as Walter Benjamin describes in his essay, “The Storyteller,” but we cannot write about our lives once we die. So my aim in writing personal history is to come to some point of clarity, limited as it must be, and look back to create the arc of the story that has only just become visible…

Discussion Questions

1. “To learn is to live” is the novel’s epigraph. Do you agree with this statement? How does it dictate the importance of the connection between a Jewish education and a secular education? 

2. In the preface the author remembers the ‘changing of the guard,’ as when her teachers changed from those who taught her Hebrew classes to those who taught her general studies lessons. She then says in reference to the differences between the texts, “But these two literatures could not easily be had in the same country, let alone the same school. They could not be taught by the same people (then why did we assume they could be learned by the same people?), and they could not address the same questions in the same fashion.” Do you agree with this? Does this seem to be the root of the dissonance between the presented cultures or is there something more? 

3. The author often refers to Binah (“understanding” in Kabbalah, the second intellectual sephirah on the tree of life) both as a limitation and a gift. Both through your own experience and that of reading the book, how would you approach Binah? Do you see yourself leaning more toward one of the perspectives? How do you feel Binah echoes through the Jewish woman of today?

4. On page 85, Blumberg says, “We were as resourceful within a limited closet as our foremothers had been in their constrained kitchens.” How does the author connect the creativity of her generation to that of her foremothers throughout the book? Have you struggled with reconciling two worlds with outward expression? 

5. Near the end of the book, Blumberg describes the different positions women were starting to hold within the synagogue and within their communities. She also mentions the differences between the Jewish denominatios such as Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. How are these two connected within your own community? How do current educational trends play a role in women being able to lead and participate more actively in prayer according to the author, and what you observe in your own life?



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