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Book Review: Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books

Review By: 
Bonny V. Fetterman
Houses of Study: a Jewish Woman Among Books

Winner of a Sami Rohr Choice Award, Ilana Blumberg’s memoir explores the tensions, struggles, and dreams of a young Jewish woman trying to find her place within Judaism. Blumberg’s questions are particularly acute because they arise from an exceptional Jewish background. Both of her parents were educated in Jewish day schools and her father taught her to be a Torah reader. Her grandfather, Harry Blumberg, was the author of the classic Hebrew textbook Ivrit Hayah, Modern Hebrew. Though members of a Conservative congregation, her parents chose an Orthodox Jewish day school, the only day school in their community, for her to continue her Jewish studies through high school. Upon graduation, she enrolled for a year’s study at a woman’s seminary in Israel. There, she quickly discovered, the curriculum for men and boys at the yeshiva differed from the women’s studies at the seminary: the young men studied texts, while the program for young women seemed at best an afterthought.

Though she remained religiously observant in college, she found that as a woman, her full participation in the Orthodox world was often blocked. At the same time, she was not willing to relinquish the joys of a religious life with other Hebrew-literate Jews. “My entire life I had been looking for a lover in Hebrew,” she writes. “This would be the way we would recognize each other.” Her story, though uniquely her own, mirrors the existential situation of many educated Jewish women in the 1980s and 90s confronting a social structure not yet ready to receive them as equals. The four autobiographical essays in this volume describe her love for texts, both Jewish and secular, and the two parallel worlds of her intellectual life. Blumberg went on to complete her doctorate in English literature and is currently a professor of English literature and Jewish studies at Michigan State University. She participates in a small minyan in her academic community.

Bonny V. Fetterman is the literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.