Pittsburghers seeking to spend Shabbat with a TikTok Talmud influencer are in luck. Miriam Anzovin, a social media star whose comedic reactions to rabbinic writings reflect a millennial zeitgeist, is coming to town.
From Feb. 24-26, Anzovin will serve as a scholar in residence at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Congregation Beth Shalom and J-JEP, a collaborative, pluralistic religious school.
The sessions are open to the public and will be Shabbat-accessible, said Rabbi Larry Freedman, director of J-JEP and organizer of the weekend.
Anzovin’s visit is a boon to the city, Freedman said; she has 26,000 TikTok followers and is a favorite of those who’ve seen her viral takes on rabbinic literature, the book of Jonah or the Exodus story.
"What I love about her is that her Torah teaching is solid, and she makes this learning accessible in a way that speaks to this current generation," Freedman said. “She has a unique voice and a unique style that reminds us of the value that texts bring to us."
Speaking from her home in Natick, Massachusetts, Anzovin said she’s flattered by the attention and praise her content has garnered. Since last year, she’s graced the cover of Hadassah Magazine, been interviewed by Jewish Women’s Archive and become an artist in residence at Moishe House. She is reluctant, though, to call herself a teacher.
“I view myself not as an educator but as an influencer — and yes, nobody is laughing harder about that than me,” she said. “It’s kind of ludicrous.”
Anzovin is one of thousands worldwide who study the Talmud on a daily basis. The practice, known as Daf Yomi, enables participants to work through a corpus of rabbinic thought by studying one daf (Hebrew for “page”) each day during a seven-and-a-half-year span. The current cycle began on Jan. 5, 2020.
Though Anzovin is known now for her hot takes on the Talmud, she said that nearly a year passed before she transformed her daily study into a social media sensation.
The shift to public sharing occurred following an interaction at her previous job, she said. While co-hosting “The Vibe of a Tribe,” a podcast produced by JewishBoston.com, Anzovin and Dan Seligson were speaking about their Talmud learning with Rabbis Avi Killip and Avi Strausberg, both of Hadar. Anzovin started riffing on a page in tractate Shabbat.
As she looked up from her screen, Anzovin noticed the two rabbis were crying from laughter.
Her comments regarding that passage, which deals with a case involving women’s anatomy, were no different than how she describes anything else she cherishes, she said.
“I talk about the Talmud in the same exact way that I talk about any nerd franchise that I am obsessed with,” she said. “If it's ‘Game of Thrones,’ if it's ‘House of the Dragon,’ if it’s ‘Lord of the Rings,’ if it's any nerd pop culture thing that is happening that I adore or love — like a book, TV show, movie, whatever it is — I talk about the Talmud in the same exact way.”
Despite the commitment to personalizing her daily study, Anzovin understands some people think her videos are derisive.
“The thing about my work is that it's not mockery,” she said. “The Talmud is everything. It is both about how to get demons out of your bathroom, to real serious things about grief and how to grieve — and those are really valuable lessons — to how to treat other people and also arguments over airspace. It is everything and everything in between; it is profane and profound.
“So what I hope people would come to understand, and what I know that many people already do, is that my conversations, my viewpoints, my art that I create out of this learning journey is in a lot of ways quite in tone with the content I'm encountering. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's serious, but I view the sages as human beings. And human beings have flaws, and they also have amazing things about them.”
Anzovin pointed to a case in tractate Moed Katan, discussing whether a woman may wear makeup during the intermediate days of a festival.
The Talmud relates that Rav Hisda’s wife would apply makeup on chol hamoed, even though she was of an age where she already had a married son. Rav Huna commented that Rav Hisda’s wife was violating a law that only allowed “young” women to wear makeup during chol hamoed. Rav Hisda replied to Rav Huna, “By God! Even your mother, and even your mother’s mother, and even a woman so old that she is standing at the edge of her grave” are all permitted to wear makeup on the intermediate days of a festival.
Anzovin mined the rabbinic exchange in a daf reaction video and noted, “I am now a Rav Hisda stan, ride or die.”
The comment, which helped catapult her online presence, is an interesting parallel to the Talmud where euphemisms, metaphors and self-censorship are applied to matters involving intimacy, bodily functions or religion.
While saying “ride or die” was permitted by TikTok last year, Anzovin maintained that using similar language would now likely result in censorship.
Trying to “dance around the algorithm,” has required becoming more linguistically creative and oddly acting “more akin to what they’re actually doing in the Talmud,” the influencer said.
Azovin’s digital actions are a familiar play within Jewish history, according to Freedman.
“On one level, what Miriam is doing, what she represents, there’s nothing new and everything new,” he said. “A Jew teaching Jews Talmud is the most old-fashioned thing you can find, but she’s doing it in a hyper-contemporary manner and that’s astonishing. So everything is new and nothing is new, and that’s a very powerful combination.”
Through workshops with the community and conversations with students, Anzovin said she will share her approach to creating content. More importantly, she hopes to tell Pittsburghers what the experience of studying Talmud has meant personally.
“I didn't always have the level of confidence, or creative ability, or creative energy or direction,” she said. “I didn't think that I, Miriam Anzovin, would be somebody that anyone would ever know for her thoughts about the Talmud or literally anything else.” Dedicating hours each day to study, and then packaging humorous responses to rabbinic thought while engaging with a robust digital community, “is deeply humbling and deeply overwhelming.”
That realization yields a singular path forward, Anzovin said.
“There is work to be done in making Talmud accessible and exciting for so many people, regardless of who they are, regardless of what their observance level is,” she said. “Maybe people were waiting for a formerly Orthodox, now atheist, feminist millennial Jew, who swears and uses a lot of pop culture to get people hyped about Jewish learning. And I want to keep being that for people and for myself.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.