Beth Kissileff writes:

One frustration in reading a memoir about life in Israel is a total absence of a mention of Arabs and others who live there. Nonetheless, part of the liveliness of Kurshan’s memoir comes from her life in the country where she has lived for a decade, a place where “billboards are ads for shiurim [classes],” she told me, because “Jerusalem is the capital of Jewish learning.”

Why is that frustrating? How often do rival groups in a deadly competition empathize? I’m not sure that would be adaptive. People with a 120 IQ and above can do it periodically and still devote themselves to their particular cause, but in general, a group with empathy for its competitors is going to be out-competed by the group with less empathy.

Many of life’s mysteries are only available to those in the dance. Many of life’s conversations are only available to those in the tribe. The more safe you feel, the more real you can be. That’s why Orthodox Jews in Orthodox circumstances tend to be frank and emotional. One of the pleasures of going to an Orthodox shul is how open and honest you can be without fear that you’ll be considered racist and bigoted. Frum Jews don’t have to disguise themselves. Modern Jews, by contrast, in modern circumstances, have to think more and control more. They want to pass as fellow white people.

The reason that many Jews kiss the ground when they land in Israel is because it is the Jewish state. They don’t kiss the ground because Arabs walked there.

My two weeks in Israel in 2000 were passionate and exciting for me on precisely Jewish terms. I didn’t fly to the Jewish state to learn about the Arab experience. I don’t expect Arabs, in general, to empathize with the Jewish experience. I don’t expect non-Jews, in general, to empathize with the Jewish experience.

A few days in Israel and I was dying to move there because it was the Jewish state and I was surrounded by Jews and we were all free to be as Jewish as we wanted to be without worrying about what the goyim will think.

When Kurshan begins the story she is divorced and alone; by the end, she is happily married and a mother of four children. What accompanied her in the transition is the text, as she writes: “The Talmud surprised me at nearly every turn, and while there were topics I found less interesting than others, there was something that caught my eye on almost every page—a folk remedy employed to heal an ailing sage, a rude insult leveled at one rabbi by another, a sudden interjection from a rabbi’s angry wife.”

Jeffrey Rubenstein, Skirball Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at New York University, praised Kurshan’s memoir: “I know of no other book that brings the Talmud to life by making its traditions so relevant to modern times.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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