by Shelley A. Sackett
NATICK — It’s not easy to pigeon-hole Miriam Anzovin of Natick.
The middle of three children, Anzovin, 36, was born in Englewood, NJ and grew up in Amherst in a ba’al teshuva family, moving from secular to orthodox Judaism by her 11th birthday. She attended Chabad day school from grades 6-8.
Yet she considers herself an atheist. She chose to home school herself in high school yet works hard to create learning communities so learners don’t feel alone.
She is a millennial yet her interests span millennia. She is “obsessed” with 21st century social sharing media platforms, especially TikTok. So she uses the platform to take deep dives into another of her passions, the 6th century with Daf Yomi, a regimen of learning the Babylonian Talmud by covering each of the 2,711 dafs (double-sided pages) in sequence. Under this schedule, the entire Talmud is completed, one day at a time, one page at a time, in a cycle of approximately 7.5 years.
The first cycle of Daf Yomi commenced on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5684 (September 11, 1923), with tens of thousands of Jews in Europe, America and Israel learning the first daf of the first tractate of the Talmud, Brachot. Today, hundreds of thousands of Jews from all sects and social sectors worldwide take advantage of the free course.
Her chevruta (learning partner) is a former colleague and dear friend. Although the pandemic prevented them from learning in person, they connected over Google Chat.
As they shared responses to the text, Anzovin realized that many of her comments made her partner laugh. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m doing Daf Yomi anyway, and I only share my reactions with my chevruta. What if I made those reactions into short TikTok videos?’” she said, via email. “‘If he laughs, maybe other people will too.’”
Last December, she posted her first “Daf Reactions” on TikTok. The episode opens with Anzovin introducing the tractate she will discuss. She records from her desk in her room at home surrounded by personal items, including a white stuffed doll wearing huge pink headphones. Viewers are invited to share comments and questions, which Anzovin promptly answers.
The response was immediate and positive. “These Daf Reactions are definitely the most Torah I’ve learned in 7 years,” one person wrote. “Forget the Daf! This parody is awesome, we need more like this!” said another.
One look at Anzovin, who describes herself as a “petite blonde makeup aficionado,” and it’s obvious that she is not your typical Talmud commentator. She is saucy, her language is sometimes spicy and her delivery has more in common with Valley Girl speed speak than a Rabbinic sermon. (“This is the daf to end all daf!”) Serious about her Talmud, she sprinkles her posts with slang and humor that make her intellectually challenging topics accessible and unique.
She also knows her way around social media. She spreads “Daf Reaction” content across TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. She says she has tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of thousands of total views.
Occasionally, she departs from her standard Daf Reactions, as she did shortly after Ukraine was invaded. “I’ve been busy doomscrolling about Ukraine. It’s too hard to focus on anything else,” she told followers. Then she named organizations working to help those affected.
The seed for her TikTok channel was planted at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, where Anzovin has worked for five years as a visual artist and content creator/producer, primarily for its site JewishBoston.com. Her introduction to Daf Yomi was through a CJP-sponsored “Lunch and Learn” program. That presentation resonated with her in a powerful way, setting the stage for “Daf Reactions.”
The Talmud’s intensity and challenge appealed to her. “I love Judaism and Jewish learning; it is deeply embedded in my mind and heart,” said Anzovin, who holds a degree in Judaic studies from the University of Massachusetts.
Inspired, she decided to commit to the rigor and discipline of daily Daf Yomi. She had to wait until January 5, 2020 to start, the first day of a new 7.5 year cycle. Around that same time, TikTok also grabbed her attention. Two months later, COVID hit. She credits the social media platform and daily Talmud studies with helping her get through the pandemic.
Homeschooling in Amherst left her with a residual feeling of isolation, which she struggles with still. When it became clear that COVID was not going away quickly, she felt the rumblings of the internal panic she has worked so hard to overcome.
“For all the negative aspects of social media, it has also been an absolute balm in calming that fear of feeling shut away, and it allowed me to get to know so many people I would never have met otherwise. My thinking expanded,” she said.
Her three-minute “Daf Reactions,” which she posts every few days or whenever she feels what she calls “The Daf Muse,” take her hours to prepare. She first fully studies and wrestles with the page so she can distill it into a video that is short, funny and didactic. She learns, records and edits the episode in one day. The pace is punishing, but the rewards are worth it, especially when she gets messages from other people like herself who left Orthodoxy but still have deep and abiding love for Judaism and its heritage.
Anzovin’s path to atheism began when she was 21 and could no longer accept the explanations for some of the ways Orthodox Judaism treated women. Not being counted for minyan, the agunot crisis, where women were trapped in marriages because their husbands wouldn’t give them a divorce, and hearing men recite the morning prayer thanking God for not making them women “burned my soul every day. Believing in a God who would appoint only men as the arbiters of acceptable religious practice was too painful,” she said.
Although Anzovin agrees that today she could be considered an unaffiliated Jew, she openly identifies as an atheist because she wants Jews “who might have moments when they look inside themselves and no longer find Hashem” to know there are options to cutting themselves off completely from Judaism, that they can still learn, connect with Jewish thinking, and participate in Jewish cultural life.
“Discovering one’s internal beliefs have changed can be a source of shame and fear. I don’t want these people to feel alone,” she said. “I believe the Talmud is the cultural and intellectual heritage of all Jews, regardless of gender identity or level of personal observance. I do not believe in gatekeeping.”
She has been overwhelmed with positive messages from people who are delighted to engage in traditional Jewish learning that doesn’t bore, judge or hurt them. Messages from teenage girls who send their own daf reaction videos matter the most to Anzovin, making her “sob with joy,” she said.
“They are powerful, smart, witty and brilliantly savvy. They understand the Gemara and talk about it on their own terms. They make the future seem brighter to me,” she said.
Her posts have also become a lightning rod for those who believe she is desecrating something holy and object to her “Daf Reactions” based on her millennial language, her status as a nonreligious Jew and the belief that women shouldn’t be allowed to learn — let alone teach — Talmud at all. Anzovin takes these “truly horrific” negative reactions in stride.
“The misogyny and hatred of my detractors, their fears? It only serves to fuel me more, because it means I’m doing something right,” she said.