By Helen Horwitz
Because “tova” is the Hebrew word for “good,” there’s more than a touch of irony in Tova Mirvis’ poignant and elegantly written new memoir, The Book of Separation.
Since childhood, Mirvis had been increasingly aware that the rules and rituals of Modern Orthodoxy, with which she had grown up in her native Memphis, didn’t fit who she was. She knew, however, that being “good” by being observant validated her name – and to observe was to be accepted. But at age 40, when she could no longer go through the motions, the author ended both her 17-year marriage and her ties to the Modern Orthodox community.
Her struggles to find meaningful pathways for herself, while also helping her three children understand what her new “not Orthodox” standing meant for them, are at the heart of this honest, affecting book.
A visiting author at the recent JCC Book Fest, Mirvis described her experience as “The end of the world that shaped me.” She explained that she “grew up feeling there was only one way to be – and if you spoke too honestly, you would be on the outside.”
In fourth grade, she writes, “I felt a low rumbling of anger, the same slow burn I felt in school when the boys screamed out the morning blessing designated for them, thanking God for not making them women. Without being told, we girls knew to use small, sweet voices when we recited our counterpart version thanking God for making us ‘according to Thy will.’”
When she and other girls complained, the teachers said they were being “too sensitive” or had been “corrupted by the outside.”
Mirvis attended the Memphis Hebrew Academy, which her grandmother had helped found. Then, after a gap year studying at a yeshiva in Israel, she entered Columbia University in New York. In her largely segregated world, she lived in a dorm known as the Lower East Campus because of the many religious students who took low floors to lessen the steps they had to climb during Shabbat.
As a senior, she met her future husband on a blind date. It was her first real relationship. They became engaged after 12 weeks, marrying eight months later when she was 22. Despite frequent arguments that predicted the future, Mirvis writes, “I accepted that I would do what was required of me.”
This now included covering her hair, and the author relates with humor how her curly tresses hampered her efforts to adhere to certain Orthodox tenets. For example, instead of getting a wig when she married, she had selected a fall, which mostly covered her head and felt less confining. After a wigmaker created a hairpiece close to her own hair texture, Mirvis recalls how “Despite all the coaxing and styling, my own hair would have nothing to do with this outside entity, a body rejecting a foreign object.” Eventually, she stopped covering it.
Some years later, a mikvah attendant directed her to do a better job of combing her hair before entering the ritual bath. As she began to comply, “I looked at my hair,” the author recalls. “My quiet unease broke open. It didn’t matter what she asked. I wasn’t going to comb it again.”
Mirvis does not blame Orthodox Judaism as the sole source of her discontent, although she notes the “intramural squabbles … over women’s roles and gay rights and the dangerous influence of the outside world.” She points out that many – including her Hasidic brother – find joy and fulfillment in following the religious maxims. Nor does she fault her husband for her unhappiness, despite obvious communication issues. She simply decided she could no longer bear the burden of conforming. Her “coming out” progresses through grief, anxiety and fear to the eventual release of the part of herself that was suppressed.
Books about leaving Orthodoxy are nothing new. My personal favorite, from the 1970s, is Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. The title character is a Hasidic youth who becomes a painter, estranging himself from his family and his community.
But Tova Mirvis – already the author of three successful novels that explore women and their relationships to family and faith – makes admirable use of her talents in this memoir. Her turns of phrase are apt: Divorce court is “the underbelly of love.” Her humor is to the point: When she takes her two youngest children trick-or-treating for their first Halloween, “we’re with other, non-Orthodox Jewish friends who don’t believe that by asking for chocolate they are becoming pagans or idolaters.”
From her appearance during the JCC Book Fest, it’s clear Mirvis has found the freedom and happiness she sought for so long. Let’s hope for more strong, satisfying works from this gifted writer.