Author Tova Mirvis’s new memoir, The Book of Separation, is a beautiful examination of what it means to upend one’s life: In Mirvis’ case, she left her marriage and she left her then-lifelong practice of Orthodox Judaism. Her story is wrenching, introspective, honest and wonderful. Here, Mirvis, a novelist known for skillful writing of Orthodox characters, spoke recently with Kveller’s Jordana Horn about divorce, empathy, religion, and truth.
You refer to pluralistic Judaism — you write about your children going to a pluralistic Jewish school — but you seem reluctant to affiliate yourself with Reform Conservative or Reconstructionist Jewry, now having left Orthodoxy.
When you leave something so embedded inside you, you need to experience that desert place that is between experiences. “No longer Orthodox” is my affiliation — that seems like it deserves a category all its own. I belong to a traditional egalitarian minyan which meets near our home. It works well because my kids have friends there, I like people there and it is a close walk.
I feel like the secular community is predisposed to liking your conclusion of not wanting to be a member of an orthodox strain of religion because it’s their own conclusion as secular people. But how has your memoir been received by the Orthodox community?
I’ve heard from a lot of people within the religiously observant community who appreciated the book. It’s not a slam against the Orthodox world or the religious world. The question it poses is, what do you do when there are people in your midst, families, who do not have the same beliefs as you do?
Within the Orthodox community and across lots of religious communities, there is a pervasive question of what it means to be authentic. I think there is a deeper sense of engagement that comes not just from outward observance but from a true sense of connection and authenticity.
What does it mean to feel inauthentic, when you’re observing what you were raised to observe? It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree, don’t like it, if everything inside you resists. You are made to feel there is something wrong with you for not feeling it. You twist yourself, you think, I have to reshape myself — it must be something in me that is lacking that I can’t see the beauty in this, and I think that is very damaging. It takes away the possibility that you might not agree and to make a choice for yourself. And then you lose the ability to find meaning.
Covering my hair, for example, offends my very notion of what it means to have autonomy over my body. So I am observing something and being made to act like it is a God-given truth, when everything inside me says, “I don’t think that,” it’s cognitive dissonance that is overwhelming. It chips away at the sense of authentic experience when you don’t believe in what you are doing.
On the other side of consistency, I believe, is authenticity. If consistency and authenticity can go together, then that is a very lucky way to live. When they diverge, I think I have to go with authenticity.
To what extent do you feel that the voices clamoring on the proverbial “outside” — e.g., criticism of your books from within the Modern Orthodox community — played into your decision to leave Orthodoxy?
I think they did. I was writing about Orthodoxy and I was asking my characters to wrestle with it, so eventually, it was hard not to ask it in my own life. The criticism [from the Orthodox community] wasn’t on artistic terms: it was, “Are you putting forth the values of our community? Are you with us? Are you one of us?” and I thought that question was so limiting. And when it came down to it, I realized, no, I am not playing for a team here. I’m not willing to sacrifice what I think to put forth this version [of religion] that I know I don’t really believe in.
I remember reading your books as someone who has personally struggled with observance. I remember thinking as I read your writing, “Well, if such a smart and insightful woman has made peace with the problems I see in Orthodox Judaism, maybe I should make peace with it too.” Are you surprised by that reaction?
For me, those books are asking questions about what it means to belong, or to believe, or the loneliness of feeling what you don’t believe. I was asking these questions but wasn’t ready in my own life yet to deal with them.
Tell us about the reaction to your recent New York Times piece about taking your son for his first non-kosher pizza.
I’ve gotten so many emails from people who relate to the story in one way or another, even in unlikely ways, people from so many different ages and backgrounds and locations, who all struggle with the question of what does it mean to change, and what are the repercussions for those around you.
How is life now?
Well, it’s always very nerve-wracking to put any book out, but this one even more so for me, because it’s so personal. At so many book events, someone asks, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” And I always think, “Well, I wrote a memoir, so how can I protest that?”
Being honest about the story and sharing it and owning the story and really talking about it has invited people to share their stories with me and it has been very moving. I do feel relief in putting something out there and getting it straight and being honest: “This is who I am, this is what I think.”
Parenting is hard enough, dayenu! Divorce is hard enough. But add religion on top of it and there’s another whole layer of complication. How are you handling that?
I think my kids learning early on that there are multiple ways to live, and they see people making those choices, and know that they will be making those choices as well. I think that’s good. They know there are things we do at Mom’s house that we don’t do at his (still observant) Dad’s, and vice versa.
The saving grace is that I find that kids are always willing to have the hard conversations. Any family dynamic that is harsh forces those decisions out in the open. We have the tough conversations. “What does that feel like for you, what would feel better for you?” We are open.
Whenever you get through something, it makes you see things differently. I felt for so long that we all have to pretend that we have these perfect families and everyone’s marriage is fine, but you go through something and it changes you. You become aware of how many people are experiencing other things and you never know where you are going to have your eye-opening moments.
My first two kids were early easy readers, for example, and the whole idea of the learning specialist wasn’t part of my world. But my daughter then had a hard time learning to read and it changed everything about me all of a sudden. I got to understand what it was like to have close relationship with the learning specialist!
What I’m saying is that we are shaken out of our own blind spots by life. The divorce, the reading, it all made me realize as a parent we never know what we’re going to deal with, those places where we have to increase our abilities to be empathic and make space for who our kids are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.