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…