Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

Ever since Abraham stood in the middle of two rows of dismembered animals, waiting for God to speak, the archetypical Jew has been the one who stands between. Ruth between Moab and Israel, David between sin and repentance; Yohanan ben-Zakkai between the sacred past and the almost inconceivable project of creating a new Judaism without a Temple, Maimonides between the Torah and Aristotle, Moses Mendelssohn between the Torah and the Enlightenment, Gershom Scholem between Berlin and Jerusalem—walking a thin wire between two seeming opposites, and by walking, bringing them together, seems to encapsulate the essence of what it is to be a thinking, creative Jew.

Over the last three decades, the Jews who have stood most in the middle, the ones who have walked the most precarious wire, have been women committed both to Jewish heritage and to living full intellectual lives of a type that heritage long generally denied to females. By now a plethora of books about Jewish feminism, Orthodox feminism, and women in Judaism have been published, but Ilana M. Blumberg’s Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books stands out among them as the one that really enables the reader to experience what it feels like to be a committed religious Jewish woman caught between Jewish tradition and the modern, Western world.

(Blumberg and her book were awarded a Choice Award in the framework of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. My book, A Crack in the Earth, received an honorable mention.)

The metaphor of standing between runs through Houses of Study. In the book’s middle section, Blumberg tells us about herself by telling us about her bookcases:

The books most precious to me right now are the novels of George Eliot. My edition of Middlemarch is the Bantam classic paperback.… Across the room from George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Collins, and Trollope, another bookcase stands. Here the books open from right to left.… Each folio features not only the biblical text, but also major commentaries: These are scholars who elucidate questions of grammar, literary sense, theological meaning, and human experience. Tall, heavy volumes consisting purely of commentaries on those primary commentaries come next on the shelves.

Blumberg was born into a family of readers; her parents were intensely Jewish but also Americans with broad intellectual horizons. They sent their children to Orthodox Jewish schools, and Blumberg followed the standard path of also studying at a women’s midrasha in Israel after completing high school.

As a girl and a young woman, Blumberg loves the Hebrew language and sacred studies, and admires the women who teach her in Jerusalem—women who are at the forefront of the great leap forward of observant women of our time. After generations in which Torah study was denied to girls, these women claimed their share in this heretofore male province.

Yet the young Bloomberg is also impatient, skeptical, questioning. And despite her sacred studies, she retains her fascination with English literature, and in particular with George Eliot. Blumberg identifies with the young women Eliot created in her novels—uppity, unladylike, unable to sit still.

So Blumberg’s memoir describes how she comes home from Israel, enrolls in college and—shockingly, surprisingly, unconventionally, paradoxically, to her mother’s dismay—moves in with John, a non-Jewish fellow student. They fall in love after the two of them read John Donne’s poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” to each other. She continues to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath while living with him. She stands between.

Eventually she realizes she must leave him and return to Israel. There, too, she stands between, between English and Hebrew and between the possible lives from which she must choose. In the end she returns to the U.S. and falls in love again, this time with a young Jewish man, whom she describes as “ardent,” a term she takes from her beloved Eliot.

Houses of Study is a lyric book. Blumberg’s descriptions of her loves, first for John and then for Ori, are some of the most evocative romantic passages I’ve read for a long time.

But it’s not always an easy read. Its prose is turbulent—it flows in eddies and crosscurrents. It’s the kind of writing that reads better the second time through. But that, in my mind, is high praise.

Blumberg continues to stand between, as do all of us to seek to be both Western and Jewish, who respect and admire Jewish tradition but feel that the greatest honor we can accord it is to constantly grapple with the challenges that our humanistic Jewish lives present. We all stand between—it’s the only place we can hear God’s voice.

More South Jerusalem on books:

The Intellectual Defense Forces

The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Good Arabs, Bad Arabs: Hillel Cohen’s “Army of Shadows”

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