Hous­es of Study: A Jew­ish Woman Among Books

By – November 9, 2011

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.

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…

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

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 denom­i­na­tions 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?