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 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), Mirvis shifts genres, reveals some of the autobiographical germs of her fiction, and compellingly chronicles the process of separating from Orthodoxy.
The title of Mirvis’s memoir refers to the biblical term sefer kritut, “a book of termination, a book of rending, a book of separation,” more commonly known as a gett or divorce decree. For Mirvis, the separation and ultimate divorce from her husband coincides with her Orthodox leavetaking. Yet these separations, fraught with fear, heartbreak, and sometimes acrimony, are also transformations; they enable and demand a process of recognizing herself anew as a woman, a mother, and a writer.
Although Mirvis was, externally, a late bloomer to religious rebellion, internal doubts about her marriage and her Orthodox faith were longstanding. Those doubts were magnified by the worlds she inhabited as a reader and writer as well as by communal tensions related to the marriage of feminism and Orthodoxy. Covering her “wild and unruly” curls in keeping with the rules of modesty for married women became a metaphor for hiding her doubts, sometimes even from herself. Ultimately, however, she refuses the “soul-deadening” that results from living an Orthodox life without believing in it.
Shunned by some in her community for refusing to stay “inside,” Mirvis becomes a resource for others who are part of a questioning “underworld.” Perhaps most importantly, in her forties, she becomes a model of honest living for her three children. (She is now 45 and received her gett in 5772/2012, just before she turned 40.) Like her, one of her sons views observant life as full of restrictions that chafe. She takes him for his first piece of non-kosher, albeit vegetarian, pizza and reassures him that she will still love him if he strays further, symbolized for him by the prospect of a slice strewn with meat. At the same time, she assures her other son, who uses his yarmulke to publicly embrace Orthodoxy at the pluralist day school he attends, that she will always help him to keep the commandments, including Shabbat, even though she will not be practicing the same level of observance. And her wish for her daughter, not yet old enough to be consumed by such questions of religious identity, is simply to be and to feel free, whatever that might come to mean.
The respect for intra-Jewish difference that Mirvis models for her children—and for readers—is a precious gift to the Jewish literary world. Notably, the rabbinical court that issued her gett also accorded such respect. As Mirvis first recounted in a 2014 New York Times essay, and repeats here, the head of that court told her, “It’s a new beginning. Don’t look back. Go forth, become the person you need to be.” The Book of Separation is a beautiful and poignant account of that ongoing process.
Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University. Author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness, she is writing a book about Jewish American movies.