The memoir of a woman who leaves her faith and her marriage and sets out to navigate the terrifying, liberating terrain of a newly mapless world
The memoir of a woman who leaves her faith and her marriage and sets out to navigate the terrifying, liberating terrain of a newly mapless world
Born and raised in a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish family, Tova Mirvis committed herself to observing the rules and rituals prescribed by this way of life. After all, to observe was to be accepted and to be accepted was to be loved. She married a man from within the fold and quickly began a family.
But over the years, her doubts became noisier than her faith, and at age forty she could no longer breathe in what had become a suffocating existence. Even though it would mean the loss of her friends, her community, and possibly even her family, Tova decides to leave her husband and her faith. After years of trying to silence the voice inside her that said she did not agree, did not fit in, did not believe, she strikes out on her own to discover what she does believe and who she really is. This will mean forging a new way of life not just for herself, but for her children, who are struggling with what the divorce and her new status as “not Orthodox” mean for them.
This is a memoir about what it means to decide to heed your inner compass at long last. To free the part of yourself that has been suppressed, even if it means walking away from the only life you’ve ever known. Honest and courageous, Tova takes us through her first year outside her marriage and community as she learns to silence her fears and seek adventure on her own path to happiness.
I stood before a panel of rabbis. I was dressed in the outfit of the Orthodox Jewish woman I was supposed to be: a below-the-knee navy skirt and a cardigan buttoned over a short-sleeved shirt that without the sweater would have been considered immodest. But no matter how covered I was, I felt exposed. What kind of shameful woman, I imagined the rabbis thinking, leaves her marriage; what kind of mother overturns her life? Yet a month shy of my fortieth birthday, after almost seventeen years of marriage and three children, I had upended it all.
On one side of the conference room, the rabbis, in beards, black suits, and dark fedora hats, huddled together to examine the get ?— ?the divorce document I was waiting for them to confer upon me. It was black ink hand-scribed on beige parchment, written on behalf of my husband the prior week, when he had come before this same group of assembled men. It didn’t matter that I was the one to end our marriage. Jewish law dictated that only a man had the power to issue a divorce.
It also didn’t matter how I felt about being in this conference room before this religious tribunal whose job it was to enforce the very rules that I had long felt shackled by. My role was to remain silent as I followed the careful choreography of this ancient ceremony in which no deviations were allowed. A misspelled name, and the document could be nullified. Any tiny irregularity in the ceremony, and the validity of the divorce might one day be called into question.
To ensure that the court had the right woman, one of the rabbis had been deputized to verify my identity. On my cell phone the week before, I’d confirmed that I had no nicknames, no aliases or pseudonyms. My father, I answered, also had none. This kind of scrutiny wasn’t new to me. I’d lived my life among the minute rules of Orthodox Judaism. Until now, I’d complied even when I questioned them ?— ?pretending when necessary, doing anything in order to stay inside. I might have fantasized about leaving, but it was never something I thought I’d actually do. If you left, you were in danger of losing everyone you loved. If you left, you were in danger of losing yourself.
When every letter of the document had been deemed correct, the rabbis stood. I tried to keep my face impassive, to pretend that nothing here could touch me.
One of the oldest of the rabbis read the document out loud, in Aramaic, dated the year 5772 from the creation of the world, in the city of Boston, by the Ocean Atlantic.
I, Tova Aliza, was released from the house of my husband.
I, Tova Aliza, was permitted to have authority over myself.
The words might have been ancient, but the freedom they promised seemed radical.
The piece of beige parchment was carefully folded into a small triangle, and I was given further directions: One of the rabbis would drop the parchment into my hands and I was supposed to clasp it to my chest to show I was taking possession. Without saying a word, I was to turn and walk from the room. As soon as the door shut behind me, the divorce would go into effect.
The rabbi who had been appointed as my husband’s emissary came over and stood directly in front of me. The other rabbis remained behind the table to witness and thus validate this act. I stood silently before him as instructed, but I knew that I had arrived not just at the end of my marriage but at the edge of the supposed-to-be world. Until now, this had been the only world that existed. Here was the way the world was made, and here was the way the world worked. Here was what I was to do and here was who I was supposed to be. Every decision I’d made up to this point had been stacked on top of these truths. But once the foundation had started to shake, everything else did as well. One by one, the pieces had begun to fall.
The rabbi dangled the folded piece of parchment from his fingers. I cupped my hands and waited.
New Year, New You
It is September, the first Rosh Hashanah since the divorce, and I’ve set out on my own.
My three children are with their father, at his parents’ house, where I’d spent the past decade of these holidays. My parents, sister, and grandparents are at home, in Memphis, where they will observe this celebration of the Jewish New Year in the Orthodox synagogue I attended every week of my childhood. My friends are in their homes, cooking for family gatherings. My brother, along with four of his eight children, has traveled with throngs of fellow Breslover Chasidim, an ultra-Orthodox sect, to Ukraine, the site of their spiritual pilgrimage. And I am fleeing to Kripalu, a yoga and meditation retreat in Western Massachusetts.
Until this year, I celebrated every Rosh Hashanah the same way I had the one before. To spend this holiday anywhere but in the long solemn hours of synagogue would have been unfathomable. Now, without the rules wrapped tightly around me, I no longer know what to do. Dreading the arrival of this year’s High Holy Days, I’d considered pretending they didn’t exist and decided to go to Kripalu only because yoga and meditation seemed to be the obligatory way of moving on. (“I assume you’re doing yoga,” an acquaintance said upon hearing the news of my divorce.) I’ve told few people where I’m going for the holiday because to do so would be to admit that I’m no longer Orthodox, something that I’m still unsure of myself.
Kripalu is three hours from my house in the Boston suburb of Newton, a highway drive that until recently would have been impossible for me unless I’d studied the maps in search of easy back roads and plotted a route that felt sufficiently safe. For almost a decade of living in the Boston area, I’d been gripped by a fear of driving, steadfastly avoiding rotaries, bridges, and tunnels, driving only when I had to, wishing I could still be in a driver’s-ed car equipped with a passenger-side brake and someone who could stop me if I went too fast or too far. I was terrified of getting lost, most of all terrified of the highway. I couldn’t bear the sight of those green signs announcing the Mass. Pike or I-95, couldn’t merge into the stream of speeding cars. I had nightmares of making a wrong turn onto a wrong street that would lead me to an entry ramp that would take me onto a highway from which I’d never find my way back.
Yet I’m now on the Mass. Pike; the cars are passing me, too many and too fast, and, still shocked that I’m driving on the highway, I clutch the steering wheel, worried about getting into an accident. The biggest fear, though, is not of any injury I might sustain but of the fact that then people will know I’d planned to spend Rosh Hashanah at some suspect retreat center instead of praying in synagogue for a year of blessing, a year of goodness. At the start of all other years, I knew exactly what sort of goodness I was supposed to be praying for, but on this new year, there is no ready prayer, even if I could bring myself to utter one.
It’s not just where I’m going for the holiday, but when ?— ?I’d left too late and now the sun is...
A New York Times Editors' Choice
One of Jewish Week's "Books To Read This Fall"
"Tova Mirvis has already established herself as a first-rate novelist with The Ladies Auxiliary, The Outside World, and Visible City. With The Book of Separation: A Memoir, Mirvis shifts genres, reveals some of the autobiographical germs of her fiction, and compellingly chronicles the process of separating from Orthodoxy...The respect for intra-Jewish difference that Mirvis models for her children—and for readers—is a precious gift to the Jewish literary world...Beautiful and poignant."
“An intimate tale of departure….[Tova Mirvis] movingly conveys the heartache that accompanies the abandonment of one way of life in search of another.”
—New York Times Book Review, An Editors' Choice
"In this poignant memoir, Mirvis chronicles her decision, at 40, to finally listen to the voice in her head telling her to leave her religion, her marriage, and her family. She explores what it means to truly be yourself, even if it means giving up everything you’ve ever known."
—Real Simple, "The Best New Books to Read This Month"
"We've all daydreamed about walking away from it all. Mirvis actually did, after years of soldiering through a good-enough life. This is the moving story of her life, post-divorce and post-Orthodox Judaism. She's an inspiring example of living—and loving—?on your own terms."
"Capable of both wry humor and darkly apt turns of phrase, Mirvis is a gifted writer reflecting on her identity: first through the prism of organized religion, then through a self-charted life."
“A beautifully written book…in which Mirvis applies her gifts as a novelist to reveal her own struggles. And it is a profound meditation on what it means to be true to oneself, and what costs doing so may exact.”
—The Jewish News of Northern California
"Mirvis's experience of Orthodox Judaism is vivid and particular, but her questions—about love and belonging, community and isolation, striking out into new soul terrain without a map—are universal. Luminous, unsettling and fiercely brave, Mirvis's memoir insists on a simple but earth-shattering truth: 'there are other ways to be.'"
—Shelf Awareness, Starred Review
"The author's sensitive thematic treatment of belonging and individuality and her candor about the terror she experienced leaving the only community she had ever known makes for moving, inspiring reading. A thoughtful, courageous memoir of family, religion, and self-discovery."
"Mirvis intimately chronicles her divorce and her separation from modern Orthodox Judaism in this bold memoir...Hers is a story of grief and rebirth. She is compassionate and judicious in her portrayal of Orthodox Judaism, even as she describes its repressive attitudes toward women; she discusses the diverse Jewish lifestyles, from Hasidic to secular. Her personal journey makes for an introspective and fascinating story."
"As [Mirvis] begins her memoir, she documents what it feels like to leave her husband and religion...The author has shared custody of three school-age children and a budding romance, both of which she negotiates with gentle aplomb. Her interior narrative voice draws readers in, asking if she can be loved for who she is, not who she was, especially in her withdrawal from her natal religion. VERDICT: A soothing picture of personal and religious divorce."
"Looking both backward and forward, Mirvis recounts with candor and close observation the social, psychological, and spiritual travail precipitated by leaving her narrow but well known world and entering a more secular, unfamiliar territory. Her tale revisits the seeds of doubt that first troubled her as a young, Orthodox woman as well as the upheaval she feared and resisted while those doubts matured into an irresistible urge to depart from all that was intimately familiar to her. Sharing the personal details and drama of her journey, Mirvis recounts the arduous path so many must take to emerge into their own, true identities."0
"[Mirvis] detail[s] her journey with grace and subtlety."
“Tova Mirvis offers a warmly told and searchingly explored story of her divorce from both her first husband and her Orthodox Jewish faith. The intimate view of what it means to live an orthodox life—the day to day reality of following its many guiding rules and principles—is fascinating to an outsider like me, and Tova’s insights are both thought-provoking and generous. As she sorts through what pushed her away from the faith and traditions she grew up with, she also conveys what held her; her conflict over her ‘separation’ becomes our own.”
—Jessica Shattuck, New York Times bestselling author of The Women in the Castle
“The Book of Separation is an elegant, beautiful, carefully drawn story of love, tradition, inner conflict, and loss. This extraordinary memoir resonated with me more than I can say.”
—Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of Devotion and Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
“To say that reading The Book of Separation made me feel less alone in the world would be a vast understatement. Tova Mirvis perfectly, beautifully, unsettlingly captures the particular horror—existential and otherwise—of dismantling a long marriage and starting one’s life anew. This is a heartbreaking, breathtaking, life-altering book.”
—Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year
“In The Book of Separation, Tova Mirvis brings us into her heart-wrenching decision to leave her marriage and the world of Orthodox Judaism behind. Her exploration of faith and self are truly miraculous. This book is a wonder!”
—Ann Hood, author of The Book that Matters Most
"With elegance, rare depth and unflinching honesty, Tova Mirvis offers up a chronicle of one woman’s revolution against her own life. The Book of Separation is fiercely inspiring, and illuminates the too often dormant power within all of us to live in accordance with who we truly are."
—Heidi Pitlor, author of The Daylight Marriage
“Tova Mirvis’s memoir, beautifully written and fiercely honest, is a moving reflection on what it means to take responsibility for one’s own life. In the course of the book Mirvis takes leave of her husband, her religious community, and her inherited notions of how her life ought to go. By staring...
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