London-based Jacqueline Nicholls by the Forward

Meet The Feminist Artist Bringing Talmud to Instagram

One afternoon on the London Underground, Jacqueline Nicholls found her eye drawn to a mother and teenage daughter sitting across from her. Leaning against each other, they traveled in silence, the teenager occasionally stirring to take a sip from the water bottle her mother held. “I looked at them and it was beautiful,” Nicholls said.

It also reminded her of a Talmud passage she’d read that morning, Eruvin 82, which posed the kind of odd question typical of Talmudic debate: When can a child be considered independent of its mother?

The rabbis concur that the child has reached this milestone when it can soothe itself at night, but Nicholls balked at that conclusion. Her own children, though somewhat older, clearly needed her; and wasn’t this teenager demonstrating her reliance on her own mother? At home, Nicholls sketched the scene, letting the two bodies, barely evoked in wavering pen, fade into each other. The caption stated her own answer to the Talmudic query: “It seems there is no limit.”

Flipping through the Talmud isn’t exactly a common morning ritual for busy London artists. But Nicholls is practicing Daf Yomi, a study cycle in which participants read all 2,711 pages of the Talmud over the course of seven and a half years. The leaders of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox community organization, conceptualized Daf Yomi in 1923, laying out a universal calendar so that Jews from across the diaspora could study the Talmud in sync. Almost a century later, Daf Yomi has taken firm root: approximately 300,000 people participated in the last cycle, which ended in 2012. The current iteration will end on January 5th, 2020, in a series of siyumim, or formal celebrations. One of the largest, the Siyum HaShas held in New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium, has already sold out its 92,000 seats.

Across the Atlantic, Nicholls — an artist, Jewish educator, and self-described “maverick” Talmud scholar — will host her own, slightly more intimate celebration. When she embarked on Daf Yomi in 2012, she didn’t just commit to reading the entire Talmud; she also decided to create artistic interpretations of each page and share them on social media each day. 2,711 artworks later, she’s exhibiting the fruits of this mammoth endeavor, which she calls “Draw Yomi,” at JW3, London’s leading Jewish arts venue.

JW3 is not so far from the London neighborhood where Nicholls grew up in what she describes as a “very traditionally Jewish home” (she resists identifying with any particular denomination). From a young age, she was drawn to art and to Jewish texts, which she studied for a year at Nishmat, a women’s Torah learning center in Jerusalem. In university, she chose her subjects with a practical eye for making a living: architecture and medical illustration. But she found herself working mostly as a freelance illustrator and arts educator. Between navigating a budding career and starting a family, she made time for her own art — even if it meant schlepping her babies to life drawing class. Her work tended to incorporate Jewish texts and customs, and made her a known quantity in London’s tight-knit Jewish art scene.

As Nicholls was finding her artistic feet, the twelfth cycle of Daf Yomi came to a close and scholars prepared to begin anew. The publisher Koren had released a new edition of the Talmud, and the beautiful arrangement of the text appealed to her artist’s eye. At a Shabbat lunch with friends, she mulled an artistic approach to the Talmud. She could use her art as an entry point to the Talmud and the ritual study as a means of strengthening her art. There was even a handy pun just begging to be used as the project’s title. By the end of the day, “Draw Yomi” was born.

“It was definitely a case of one glass of wine too many,” she admits now.

Daf Yomi translates to “a page a day,” an unintentionally trendy moniker that seems to promise the same quick-and-easy self-improvement of bullet journals or yoga.

But like most self-care rituals, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

Each “page” is actually two sides of a folio, containing a portion of the Mishnah (Jewish legal code) and the accompanying Gemara (rabbinical commentary on the code). Some of the Talmud’s sixty-three tractates, or masekhtot, outline customs that still feature prominently in Jewish life, like the components of a ketubah. Others address questions that may seem arcane to Jews today: how to correctly make burnt offerings, what order to put on one’s shoes, whether it’s acceptable to extinguish an out-of-control fire on Shabbat (in most cases, no). And the circular, often rambling commentary on each page presupposes knowledge of the entire text, making it difficult for newcomers to get oriented.

Nicholls built the ritual into her day by treating it as a warm-up for the rest of her day in the studio. She began with dark, figurative pencil drawings, many of which reflect her scientific training: an ear illustrates a passage about the recitation of the Shema, and a meticulously rendered heart accompanies chapter about intention and obligation.

Soon, she was bored of pencil — and she decided to use a different medium for each masekhet, tailoring her tools to the tractate’s content. For Menachot, which discusses offerings of food and oil, she used oil pastels. For Temurah, which addresses substitutions, she made drawings across several Post-It notes and shuffled them on the page. Her greatest strength lies with the elaborate pen drawings that capture the viewer’s eye and the nuances of the text: in Kiddushin, which lays out the correct procedures for marriage, intricate red banknotes evoke the uncomfortably transactional nature of many of these arrangements.

Despite the Talmud’s reputation as an argumentative text, Nicholls sees its authors as fundamentally concerned with “coming together and having consensus,” a preoccupation she attributes to the stress of maintaining communal integrity in an era plagued by outside threats. A critical aspect of Talmud study for her is resisting “groupthink” insisting on the right to form her own opinions — even when doing so means disagreeing with the Talmud’s authors.

This is especially true when it comes to the text’s treatment of women. Historically, learning Talmud was a privilege for men and boys (and some Jewish leaders think it should stay that way). When the founders of Daf Yomi envisioned Jews unifying around a shared tradition, they did not have women in mind. It hardly needs to be said that the rabbis who crafted the text were all male, and the resulting depictions of women in its pages are troubling: on the few occasions when they do appear, they figure as accessories in the lives of men, rather than as agents in their own right.

All this presents a challenge to that still-novel phenomenon, the female Talmud scholar. “Some women in the 21st century, when they read the Talmud, identify with the male rabbis,” Nicholls said. But her focus often drifts to the women under the male gaze.

Nicholls recalls that in one section of Niddah, the last masekhet in the cycle and the one that addresses menstruation, the rabbis discuss a woman who bleeds throughout her pregnancy, wondering whether she should be considered “unclean” and what social functions she can carry out. As she studied it, one thought kept recurring to here: “If you’re that woman, there are other things going on for you.”

To tackle Niddah, Nicholls made multimedia collages by sewing white cotton squares — reminiscent of the ones which women may use to check for blood at the end of a period — into her notebook and adorning them with red and pink paintings. Sometimes, the ink suggests a body; sometimes it just seeps across the page. Scrawled in the margins are the names of the rabbis who comment on each daf. In the two instances when named women speak, Nicholls writes their names in glowing white ink. These enigmatic designs are illuminated — or further complicated — by short captions: “the aches, pains, shudders of her body. for his sex life” or “the shame and humiliation of grown men discussing her ripening breasts.”

For Nicholls, it’s a way of “transporting the text from that authoritative male space” to one in which women can have a larger, more meaningful presence.

“I feel sometimes I’m not really drawing what’s on the page, I’m drawing what isn’t on the page,” she says.

And while Nicholls seems appropriately wary of reductive narratives of self-transformation — “I don’t want to call it a journey,” she notes, wryly — sustained contact with the Talmud has changed her practical approach to Jewish femininity. Before embarking on Daf Yomi, Nicholls covered her hair, like most Orthodox married women. But in the masekhet Sotah, she learned about the origin of this practice: it is derived from the biblical ritual in which rabbis uncovered the hair of women accused of adultery. Nicholls was unnerved by the origin of what, for her, had been a daily ritual. “I did not want this on my Torah,” she said. “I didn’t want it on my body.”

Since then, she has stopped covering her hair. It’s probably not the kind of epiphany the founders of Daf Yomi anticipated, but for Nicholls it’s a demonstration of the gravity with which she approaches Talmudic study.

“I had a profound engagement with the text and came away transformed by it,” she said. “It was possibly one of the most religious things I’ve ever done.”

These days, Nicholls sports a tousled pixie cut in the occasional Instagram selfie.

In the early days of Daf Yomi, Nicholls shared her art on a website she created for the purpose. But she migrated to Instagram as it supplanted the personal blog and has since accrued a modest following. The current cycle of Daf Yomi is the first to take place in our social-media saturated era, and although the Internet now seems to be the root cause of just about every social ill, Nicholls says it’s been a game-changer — in a good way. The ability to congregate around the hashtag #dafyomi — whether to kvetch or share quotes — has toppled the stereotype of Talmud study as an exclusively ultra-Orthodox activity. Nicholls credits social media with broadening the Daf Yomi trend and with advertising the fact that many types of people, including her, “are doing Daf Yomi and possibly always have been.”

After January 5, Nicholls will have an extra hour and a half of time on her hands each day; but between archiving the work she’s produced and considering different opportunities to display it, she’ll still be busy. She’s considered publishing it in a book, but worries that format will impose false sense of linearity on a text whose fragmentation and irregularity are so central to its character. More fruitful, to her, is the idea of a more permanent exhibition, one that foregrounds the Talmud’s circularity and the organic way in which it evolved. Already, she’s thinking of different ways to hang, enlarge, and make tactile copies of her work.

Whatever form the installation takes, it will have to represent the Talmud not as a weighty set of rules but the record of a lively, unceasing conversation — always falling a little short of the original, as records of human conversation inevitably do.

“If you’re going to write speech down,” she says, “you’ve got to stumble in it.”

Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

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Meet The Feminist Artist Bringing Talmud to Instagram

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