But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.
"I wasn't as disturbed that I didn't learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn't have a historical background," she said.
"My friends who graduated with me didn't even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara," she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law: The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.
After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. "If they don't agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It's part of our heritage and it's part of Jewish learning," she told them. Although they listened, they didn't make any changes.
The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, "Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?" sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is "to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha."
The study of Talmud isn't the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.
Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B'nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.
The conference will focus on enriching girls' education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women's contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.
The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.
But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.
Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there "Nashim Datan Kalot," a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.
"We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are," said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.
Although he declined to speak in particular about his school's curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. "It's been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women's mind," he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as "not the most productive use of a women's time."
At Korobkin's own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.
"Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics," he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women's minds aren't made for Talmud study. "If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud," he said.
While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools --Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy -- have put Talmud into the girls' programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)
"When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning," said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.
Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.
Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.
"As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there's no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key," Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.
"It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today's society that's important," he said. "It's not an issue of being equal -- it's an issue of giving them what they deserve."But most schools have kept Gemara off the curriculum. At Emek Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox elementary school in the Valley, for example, the school's dean, Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, says the different curriculum is based on the rabbinic administrative board of Torah UMesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day schools. At around middle school, he said, the boys begin studying Mishna and Gemara, and the girls focus on "dinim" or laws, and Navi, or prophets. They learn different subjects, he said, "on the emphasis of their lives." For example, boys will learn about tefilin and girls will learn about challah.
The separate curriculum is not one of the "top five issues that concerns parents," he said. "The most important thing is that kids get an important experience, an exciting experience, that they get a lifelong love of learning of Torah for the rest of their lives."
But many people say that being denied the opportunity to study Talmud hinders that relationship.
"It's a really important value to teach girls, to give girls access to full and complete Jewish education," said attorney Gail Katz, JOFA conference organizer. "Education is Orthodox Judaism's most powerful force. When harnessed effectively, it can give girls the knowledge base and confidence required of the Jewish women we hope they become."
Learning Oral law will help women become stronger Jews, said Beth Samuels, a keynote speaker at the conference, who graduated yeshiva high school in Los Angeles, then went on to intense Talmud study at New York's Drisha Institute and is now a visiting assistant professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley. "I think that the more significant learning more girls and young women have, the greater it can impact lives, their families, and the larger Jewish community. I think that knowledgeable, committed women can do wonderful things," she said, pointing to women scholars who can now answer other women's questions about Shabbat or family purity laws.
Some educators, though, believe that while girls' Jewish education could be improved upon, the issue of Talmud is not one of the ways that would improve it.
"Generally speaking throughout the yeshiva world, in my opinion, the girls come out with more of a knowledge base than boys do, because boys are learning Gemara so much," said Rabbi Yosef Furman, head of Yeshiva of Los Angeles' girls high school, which does not teach Talmud.
The high school does not intend to change its curriculum in light of the new Talmud program at Hillel, a major feeder school.
"It takes a tremendous time commitment, and it would detract from their ability to study the other subject that they need to learn," Furman said. "I don't feel that they're lacking anything. I think what we're doing is far superior to boys' education. I think that by bringing in Gemara, we would detract from that."
"Teaching Our Daughters: What Can We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?" will take place Sunday, Nov. 5, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m at the UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave. Parking $8 at UCLA's Lot 2 at Hilgard and Westholme. $18 registration, $10 students and educators. Free child care available with advance registration.
For more information visit www.jofa.org or call 888-550-5632.