Brandes’ The Orchard

The Orchard

Yochi Brandes

A fictionalize portrayal of the life of Rabbi Akiva, told from the perspective of his loving, but long suffering wife.

Akiva is a luminary of early rabbinic Judaism and one of the central figures in the Talmud. He was, allegedly, a simple Shepard, who won the heart of the daughter of one of the richest men in Judea. At her insistence, he began the study of Torah while already in middle age and became one of the most importance forces in the development of Judaism, working to establish the cannon of the tanakh, the development of halakha and more. In this novel, he even comes into contact with the early strains of Christianity and is part of the development of early kabbalah. Eventually, he was tortured and murdered by the Romans for his support of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

According to the Talmud and associated stories, he was a humble, good, man, but it was not an easy life. Scores of sacrifices had to be made for his place as a Torah scholar and his wife bore the brunt of most of it. This is the story that is told here.

The writing is uneven, but perhaps that’s the translation. The story is compelling and at times, clever in how it centers Akiva and the other Tannaim in so many aspects of not only Judaism, but early Christianity. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and despite it being a work of fiction, learned quite a bit. The book assumes no knowledge of the Talmud, but I’m sure a deeper understanding that I have would have open up much more.

I do quickly want to note that the title refers to the story of four rabbis of the Tannaim visiting “the Orchard”. In this book, they do so using some sort of magic, and what they see, when they get there is some version of paradise, or the divine. It changes them all forever, killing one, driving another mad, sending one into blasphemy, and brining Akiva to a place as the most prominent rabbi of his generation.

Just trying to write a single paragraph on the Orchard story reflected back to me how little I understand the story, and the Talmud in general.

So much more to learn.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Rabbi Akiva

Kurshan’s If All The Seas Were Ink

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir

 Ilana Kurshan

This book has been making the rounds among many of my friends and family and people’s reactions are so stark, and so diametrically opposed. There are those who love this book, who relate to its extreme bookishness, to the authors attempts to come to grips with her life through a deep reading of, centrally, the Talmud, but also through her reading of other, non-religious texts.

Then there are others who see the book as emotionally distant, the work of a someone unable, or unwilling, to address her emotional life head on, and who rather mediates all her relationships through text.

I fall into the first camp.

If all the Seas Were Ink is a memoir of the years Ilana Kurshan spent as part of Daf Yomi, the “largest book club in the world’ in which thousand of (mostly) Jews read single page of the Talmud, every day, for a little more than seven years. Kurshan’s reading of the Talmud is the through line in the book, while around it she struggles with a divorce, dating, meeting a new man, and having children. She contemplates love, Judaism and motherhood all the through the prism of Torah and literature.

To some people (i.e. ME) this is irresistible. To others, it’s all perhaps a bit much. You probably won’t know what camp you fall into until you read it yourself.