Interview With Talmudic TikToker Miriam Anzovin

Talmudic TikTok sensation Miriam Anzovin. Photo courtesy of Miriam Anzovin. 

Miriam Anzovin was not a name most of us knew until a few weeks ago, when she went viral for her Daf Reactions TiKTok videos, in which she offers her own authentic hot takes (which actually take hours to produce) on the Daf Yomi daily Talmud study. Miriam first went viral when she posted a video about a Talmudic discussion of whether women were allowed to wear makeup during chol hamoed. Each morning, while applying her own makeup, Miriam listens to a 45-minute podcast about the daf by Michelle Cohen Farber. (And yes, her makeup routine can range from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours long!)

As someone who loves to learn Talmud, I was thrilled to speak with Miriam about the experiences that led her to commit to this daily, 7-year project. I could have spent hours discussing many aspects of Miriam’s life (such as growing up in a ba’al teshuvah home in Amherst, MA, with only one other Chabad family nearby)—she is much more than what her followers or critics see in her two-minute, engaging, well-produced, and often humorous videos. Miriam has gone from having such low self-esteem that she would hide her Jewish star necklace in college—afraid that people would think that Jews were ugly, like her—to being a viral celebrity accused of being too pretty to talk about the Talmud. [This interview has been edited and condensed.]

JWA: JWA’s content and programming lie at the intersection of Judaism, feminism, and history. You have cleverly said that you are at the intersection of Sefaria and Sephora. Intersectionality is complex, messy, and nuanced. How would you describe your identity(ies), and where does makeup fit in?

MA: We all have so many “selves” throughout our lives and in different settings, but for me the Daf Reactions videos are a place for me to be present with all my aspects! A massive Jewish nerd, an amateur comedian, a person with strong opinions and irrepressible eyebrow expressions, and a makeup junkie striving for eternity to get that perfect wing liner.

Makeup is a ritual. Rituals in and of themselves can be so grounding and necessary. Daf Yomi and makeup are two rituals that I use together to mentally and physically prepare myself for the day.

As an artist, there’s something powerful about having a canvas one can repaint and remake everyday. In this case, the canvas is my face, and each night I wash it off and create myself anew the next morning.

JWA: Being able to make rabbinical conversations come alive despite the terse writing of the Talmud and then summarize and produce it in an entertaining way is a true skill. How did you discover this talent?

MA: When I was a teenager, I would read the parsha to my family, but give it my own little side commentary—maybe about how annoyed Moshe was about something the Israelites were doing—and my family would laugh. Nothing would bring me more joy. And then when I started to do Daf Yomi, I would learn with my chevruta (study partner) and give over the daf in essentially the exact way I do Daf Reactions—and he would laugh! And then one day, about a year ago, I did a podcast episode and I was speaking to two incredible female rabbis/scholars and I was giving over the daf for Shabbat 110, which is, if I may say, a ridiculous daf. I looked up at my computer and both of the Rabbis were crying with laughter. At that moment, I felt truly alive again in Judaism—I could make people laugh by talking about Torah and Talmud!

There is an element to this that goes back to my homeschooling days, not only because of the focused, intense, self-directed learning, but being fairly isolated while doing it. Back then, I had no audience to speak of. I was really lonely. That’s probably why I did so much hitbodedut (self-secluded Jewish meditation)! And here I am, a grown woman, again fairly isolated, this time because of the pandemic. Again, I turn to learning.  And again, I turn to laughter. Laughter is the only way I’ve struggled through the pandemic. So I am so blessed to be able to give other people a laugh too. Truly this is a blessing “in these troubled times.”

JWA: What experiences led you to leave behind Orthodox practice and become an atheist? And what came first, becoming atheist or becoming non-observant?

MA: There came a point, around age 20 or 21, where I found I could no longer accept the explanations for some of the ways women are treated in Orthodox Judaism. It begins to chip away at you. Every time in morning prayers, I saw the prayer that men say: “Thank you God for not having made me a woman.” That was one crack that widened each day. Then, there were many times when there were nine men on the other side of the mechitza, and me on the other side. I wasn’t enough to be that minyan to help someone say kaddish. And while some guys commended me for showing up to daven, others didn’t know why I was there. The expectation was that only men do this. It was a “burden” to them, but it would have been a privilege to me. Sometimes there were jokes that they had 99.9% of a minyan—that last percent was the penis I lacked.

I also became more knowledgeable about other issues that shifted my mindset. For example, I learned about the agunot crisis—women trapped in Jewish marriages because their husbands won't grant them divorces.

That was a year where so many bad things happened to me and my family. Believing in a God who would appoint only men as the arbiters of acceptable religious practice and knowing what that leads to? Believing in a God who had given my father the cancer that he died from? I looked inside myself and no longer found my love or space for Hashem [God] that had once been there. So I felt I had to rip myself away from Judaism. Doing so was agony, but remaining would have been agony too. Atheism came first, and then because to me there was no God, it would have been disingenuous to continue to observe. I know of Orthodox atheists who do this—it just wasn’t for me.

JWA: Misogynistic harassment on social media isn’t new, and unfortunately you have become subject to it because of your videos and overnight fame. Do you have any advice for girls, such as JWA’s Rising Voices Fellows, who are learning to create change through writing, about how to deal with the negative aspects of social media?

MA: The best advice I got at the beginning of going viral was “you don’t owe anyone anything.” There’s a massive difference between people who disagree with your work or ideas and offer a critique in good faith versus misogynistic trolls. You do not have to respond to them. Focus on only engaging with or responding to comments you wish to. Never read a comments section on an article. Blocking is great! Block the trolls, block their whole family, block the whole town they live in—whatever you have to do to set boundaries for yourself and your mental health. Screenshot and share anything truly ridiculous with your friends. It’s great to mock and laugh together at some of the more hilariously asinine comments. It deflates their power immensely.

Obviously if someone is making real personal threats and harassment, take your safety seriously. Document it and see if there are patterns of abuse that represent targeted harassment, so you can report those accounts and any associated with them. Take time away from social media if your gut tells you it’s causing too much stress in your life right now. Respect your own boundaries most of all.

I find it helpful to remember that much of the sexism I get is a reflection of male fear. Any time a man on social media has something harassing to say to me, I recognize it’s them frantically signaling their own overwhelming paranoia. For example, instead of “feminism is a disease,” I now read it as “omg I’m so afraid. I’m afraid of women. And my penis is small.” Frankly, this should be a Google Translate plugin option.

JWA: Sadly, you've experienced misogyny not only on social media but also through sexual assault and an abusive marriage. How do these experiences shape your identity/work/relationship to Judaism?

MA: In both cases, the common denominator was toxic masculinity, communal and personal. And in each case, I had to learn to detach my perspective of myself from the influence of men. Each time I disconnected this thinking from my own true feelings, I got greater and greater clarity on who I was. And yet, I still sometimes have to jump through patriarchal hoops to sever patriarchal ties. For example, even though I was no longer religious at all when I got divorced, I made sure to go to a beit din to receive my get, my religious divorce. In no way, shape, or form, in secular or religious worlds, would I remain connected to my ex-husband. It suddenly was brought home to me that hypothetically, I too could become an agunah, and my secular opinion on that couldn't change that possibility one iota. That experience fueled me more to be an activist.

My experiences with abuse and assault were difficult. They challenged me and changed me, and also shifted how I understood Jewish women throughout our sacred texts and beyond. For example, once I realized Queen Esther was trafficked, an agunah, literally afraid that her husband would kill her, her bodily autonomy sacrificed for the community—this puts a whole different spin on that story. And today, when I see Jewish men who are known sexual predators still on speaking panels, or still celebrated and respected as Rabbis, I am reminded how badly the Jewish community continues to fail survivors and protect predators.

JWA: What positive impact do you hope to have with your Daf Reactions project?

MA: I would have never guessed that starting a TikTok Daf Yomi series would have had any impact at all, other than providing some in-joke laughs to other people doing the daf, so I’m both surprised and truly honored by the positive impact that’s already happened. People have told me they are going to start Daf Yomi or Talmud study in general or return to their learning. Other people feel encouraged to engage with Judaism and feel pride in connecting with the Jewish people in new ways. I can actually help highlight organizations and activists doing important work in the Jewish community—what a gift to be able to do all of these things through social media. The Talmud is the cultural and intellectual heritage of all Jews, and all Jews, regardless of gender, level of personal observance, or any other factor, should have access to learning.

 

 

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Glad I found this article. I was on the site for something else. Miriam is the best TikToker in many categories: knowledge of subject, production quality, presentation, humor. Her stuff just 'pops' off the screen. They are simply fun to watch and listen to. As would any good rabbi, Miriam makes her content relevant while at the same time entertaining. I look forward to her releases, and learn something about Torah, history, scholarship and even myself each time I watch. Keep up the good work, Miriam.

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How to cite this page

Adelsky, Dina. "Interview With Talmudic TikToker Miriam Anzovin ." 22 March 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 28, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/interview-miriam-anzovin-talmudic-tiktok-sensation>.