NEW YORK — As bestselling novelist Tova Mirvis approached age 40, she no longer felt able to live in Orthodoxy, and dramatically altered her life.
“It’s possible that the next half of your life might look very different from the first,” a friend tells Tova in one scene in the book, as the author recognizes the profundity of the transformation before her — it is exciting, terrifying, entirely unknown.
“The Book of Separation,” Mirvis’ first memoir, chronicles her story of severance from Orthodox belief (or attempt at belief), the Orthodox community, her first husband, her friends, and even her children. It is a tale about moving from an enclosed and regulated suburban community, to a life lived in all corners of the city: ordering off menus at non-kosher restaurants, celebrating High Holidays alone in the mountains, exploring romance with a man who is different from her in character and background.
In this tale of the first year of her new life, with flashbacks to the old, Mirvis negotiates the challenges of change and freedom, contemplating the rewards and costs of her choices. She writes about the conflicts facing Modern Orthodoxy alongside more universal themes like the fraught ambivalences of parenting — such as recognizing both sameness and otherness in your own child; deciding whether to raise children with firm answers or to show them that beliefs can be fluid and relative; and the guilt and pride she felt at transforming them alongside herself.
This tender, touching book is filled with insights about intimacy, observance and self-possession, as Mirvis comes of age, and learns to love and trust herself.
Why did you choose to tell this story publicly, and in the form of memoir, where the creation of art can be curtailed by real-life responsibilities?
A few years ago, I wrote an essay for the New York Times about my experience of getting a get, the Jewish bill of divorce. As I followed the minute details of this ceremony, I came to understand that I was leaving not just a marriage but the religious world in which I was raised and had always lived. This ceremony marked the end of my willingness to stay inside a faith in which I didn’t sufficiently believe.
I was nervous about putting my personal story out into the world, but my inbox was flooded with emails in response to it — from family and friends, of course, but mostly from strangers. I had emails from people who read the essay, men and women, old and young, from all religious backgrounds, who wanted to share their stories with me. Stories of leaving a marriage or leaving a religion. Or stories about undergoing some sort of painful transformation. Stories of people who belonged officially to a particular religious world, but privately knew they really did not. It was the most moving experience I’ve had as a writer, and it reminded me of why I write. I came to realize anew that being honest about your story and being willing to share it allows other people to be honest and share their own stories.
This is what inspired me to write “The Book of Separation,” which feels far more exposing than fiction. In fiction, there’s always a place to hide, but in memoir, it’s you, right there, on the page. To write about yourself requires self-excavation, a willingness to ask and explore not just what happened but why it happened and what it means.
Because I was writing about real-life people, I paid careful attention to the question of whose story this is: I chose not to focus on many details about other people’s lives and kept focused on the fact that while of course other people are part of our stories, it was my own story I was choosing to write. I also thought about something I know as a fiction writer — that it’s best to write from the widest, most compassionate space inside yourself. In this memoir I wanted to do that as well.
Did you make particular boundaries around what you revealed about your children? Has chronicling your relationships altered them?
There is always a need to balance telling a story and protecting the privacy of those you love, especially when it comes to children. When I was writing about my kids, I only included what they were comfortable with me writing about. We had many conversations during the writing process about what it meant that I was writing this book, and how we all felt about it. A willingness to have honest, open conversations about all kinds of complicated subjects is central to who I want to be as a parent. The changes in our family made these conversations necessary, and reminded me that children can grasp complex ideas. They don’t need to be presented with a neatly packaged plastic world. I always want to be authentic with my children and help them learn how to be authentic as well.
In the memoir, instead of focusing on the particulars of my kids’ identities and personalities, I wanted to focus on the larger parenting questions of how we raise kids with what we believe in yet teach them to think for themselves; how we balance connection and independence and as parents come to accept the fact that as much as we want to hold our kids close, parenting is ultimately a process of letting go.
Why did you move back and forth in time, braiding together past and present, rather than write a chronological story?
I first conceived of this as a book about leave-taking, but in order to explore why I was leaving, I needed to delve into the Orthodox world I had been part of and that shaped me. I needed to look at not just why I wanted to leave, but why I had for so long chosen to stay.
You speak of religious observance — being good, belonging — as a form of love. Is “community love” necessary? Have you found a substitute?
I grew up with the idea that being religious was the equivalent of being good. And the opposite was true as well. To be irreligious was to be bad. I grew up knowing that to be good was to follow the rules laid out for me. It was to stifle any possible internal dissent, and to accept that there was a map I was required to follow, regardless of how I actually felt. I felt like the rules were enforced not just by a belief in God but by the need to fit into a community — the god of community was equally all-seeing and less forgiving. It’s a subject I have long been interested in — the tension between individuality and community is at the heart of my first novel “The Ladies Auxiliary.”
Community is at the center of Orthodox life, and it holds people inside, even those who question or don’t really believe. I think it’s drilled into you from a young age that without a tight-knit community you will be lost and alone — the community is a net that keeps you from straying. Even if you don’t believe, you can be held inside by its pull.
For me, the pleasures and comforts of the Orthodox community do not make up for the shaving off of self and the stifling of free expression
I know that this trade off works for some, but for me, the pleasures and comforts of the Orthodox community do not make up for the shaving off of self and the stifling of free expression that is required in order to fit in. For me, belonging without belief is insufficient — there’s a treacherous hole at the center of that belonging.
One of the trade offs of leaving is the loss of community. Sometimes the price of freedom is a sense of loneliness. There is no longer that all-surrounding, ever present sense of community. But community can be created in many ways, there are alternate forms of community — and for me, what mattered most in leaving was a desire to be true to my own voice. I wanted to match outwardly what I internally believe, rather than try to constantly have to reshape myself into a form that could match my community.
You change your life dramatically around age 40. Did your stage of life help catalyze your separation? Are we stronger in midlife, or does it become harder to change?
I think “The Book of Separation” is a coming of age memoir, albeit a belated coming of age. But we don’t all come of age in our early 20s, and don’t necessarily come of age just once. As we learn and grow and change, we can come of age again and again.
When I was in my early 20s, newly married and about to start a family, I wasn’t ready to think about my quiet doubts. I was worried that too much thinking could unravel the life I was trying very hard to hold together. I hoped that these questions might remain quiet, in the background, and I could somehow make it through without having to really face them. But those hard questions emerge sooner or later, and there comes a moment when it becomes necessary to unflinchingly look at them. Change in midlife can be more complicated, when you are more set in a certain way of life, when there are children involved. But in getting older, it also becomes easier to shed the internal voice that wants to make you conform to other peoples expectations, that worries about what others will think of you. There is freedom in recognizing that you don’t need the permission of those around you, but that you have the authority to choose your own beliefs and map your own life.
Has the Orthodox community responded to this memoir? Do you hear from readers from different religions?
Since the publication of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the New York Times’ Modern Love column about taking my son for a slice of non-kosher pizza [an excerpt from the book], I have been flooded with emails and Facebook messages. So many people have reached out to share their stories about what it feels like to realize you do not fit into the religious community to which you ostensibly belong: a man who is leaving his Mormon community. An evangelical Christian woman in the midst of a divorce. A Muslim woman who is afraid to tell her parents that she is gay. And of course many, many emails from people across the Jewish spectrum, who have left Orthodoxy, or who are questioning their sense of faith and belonging, or who feel like they live in hiding or in the shadows and cannot be open about what they don’t believe or no longer observe.
I’ve also received a number of emails from people who became Orthodox and who have to grapple with similar questions of how you remake yourself yet remain connected to those who believe differently than you do. Each email moves me, as I hear so many people who struggle with these questions of belief and belonging and the scary but sometimes necessary prospect of change.