Book Review | The Book of Separation by Tova MirvisThe Untangling
The Book of Separation
by Tova Mirvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2017, 302 pp., $26.00
One Shabbat, toward the end of the morning service, Tova Mirvis was stricken by a debilitating headache, in which “the pain concentrated along the line where my hat met my head.” She rushed from the synagogue, entertaining worst-case scenarios: Was this, perhaps, a brain tumor or an aneurysm? But once she stepped outside and removed her hat, the pain subsided.
This dramatic scene is just one instance in The Book of Separation, a graceful and deeply affecting memoir by an author of three novels, in which Mirvis’s struggles with Orthodox Judaism and an increasingly unhappy marriage began to manifest physically, as if her body were sending distress signals to her more-cautious brain.
Chronicles of leaving Orthodoxy have been plentiful during the past few years, informally referred to as “Ex-Frum” or “Off the Derech” memoirs. Among the more notable books are Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return, which won a 2015 National Jewish Book Award, and the best-selling Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman. With this latest contribution, Mirvis applies her novelist’s flair to what might otherwise be a narrative familiar to anyone who has wrestled with religious doubt, endured a troubled marriage—or simply felt trapped.
Mirvis was raised in Memphis, in a small Orthodox community dubbed “The Jerusalem of the South”—the flavor of which she captures in her first, bestselling novel, The Ladies Auxiliary—where most aspects of her childhood were imbued with “Jewishness,” from the contemporary Israeli art that hung on the walls to the Jewish-themed books on the shelves. “It is braided through every memory, part of nearly every conversation and every relationship,” she writes.
Her maternal grandmother, although raised in a secular Zionist household, chose as a teenager to embrace Orthodoxy. Her transformation was the stuff of legend in the Mirvis household, conveyed to the author and her two siblings “in storied tones, the religious equivalent of a fairy tale about a princess returned to her rightful home.”
As a child, Mirvis felt “a low rumbling of anger,” particularly about the subservient role of women even within the more liberal strain of Modern Orthodoxy to which her family adhered. When she pointed to objectionable Torah passages, such as one declaring that Eve was ruled over by Adam, she was told that she was misinterpreting the text. “The text couldn’t be wrong; the rabbis couldn’t be wrong. If sexism was wrong, the text couldn’t be sexist. You were either reading it wrong or feeling it wrong,” she writes in frustration.
Tova, in Hebrew, means “good,” and despite her reservations, she was determined to live up to her name. “To observe was to be good, and to be good was to be loved,” she writes, opting not to “walk across a dividing line as familial as it was religious.” She attended the school her grandmother had helped found—The Memphis Hebrew Academy—and traveled with her high school youth group to cities with large Jewish populations to help spread Orthodoxy. She then spent a year in Israel studying Talmud, Bible and Jewish law before matriculating at Columbia University in New York City.
Even in a large urban university, she led a largely segregated life, living with other Orthodox women, known as “the skirts,” in a dorm dubbed “the Lower East Campus” because of the preponderance of religious students who occupied the low floors to minimize the number of stairs to climb on Shabbat. During her senior year, she was set up by mutual friends on a blind date with Aaron. It was her first real relationship. They became engaged after 12 weeks and married eight months later; she was 22. Although frequent arguments presaged the possibility of an unhappy union, and she continued to chafe at the rules of Orthodoxy, she nevertheless chose to lean in. “I accepted that I would do what was required of me,” she writes, which included, now that she was married, covering her hair.
She opted for a fall, a hairpiece that only partially covered the head and felt to her less oppressive than a wig, but the search to match her own hair’s color and wavy texture proved difficult. One wigmaker urged her to seize the opportunity for reinvention, to become a straight-haired blonde or a redhead. Eventually she located a wigmaker able to create a hairpiece that was somewhat similar to her own hair, which she wore uneasily, fussing endlessly with bobby pins, spray and mousse. “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 her head altogether. “I felt like I could see more clearly,” she writes, “as though I’d started wearing glasses I badly needed.”
A similar epiphany occurred at the mikvah. After Mirvis performed the usual ritual preparations—she had pumice-stoned her heels and trimmed her nails and combed her hair—she was turned away by the attendant and asked to do a better job of combing her hair. She began to comply, but then something inside her snapped. “I looked at my hair,” she writes. “My quiet unease broke open…I wasn’t going to comb it again.”
Mirvis also found herself unsettled by what she refers to as “intramural squabbles in the Orthodox community over women’s roles and gay rights and the dangerous influence of the outside world.” Nevertheless, believing and agreeing seemed less essential than observing and belonging: “Actual belief seemed like a small line in the fine print of the membership forms,” she writes.
She remained married for nearly 17 years, raising three children and moving with her family from New York to Boston. She learned, as she puts it, to punch air holes into the box of her life until she finally made “an opening so wide that I could climb through.” In the meantime she found release in books and in her own writing.
It’s not an entirely safe space. Her novels depict characters who wrestle with their beliefs, and she finds herself writing with figurative “naysaying rabbinical figures” looking over her shoulder, “haunted by a fear that every sentence might earn me condemnation.” Her fears proved well founded. In January 2005, a year after her second novel was published, Wendy Shalit (author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue), writing in The New York Times, challenged Mirvis’s standing—as well as a handful of other contemporary Jewish writers—to write about Orthodoxy. “I was accused of being negative, of writing characters who’d wrestled, doubted, and strayed, whereas real Orthodox Jews, this writer claimed, did not engage in such activities,” Mirvis writes.
Mirvis reacted angrily, dashing off an email to Shalit, asking how she dared question her Orthodox credentials. Mirvis also penned a response that ran in The Forward a month later.
Now, roughly a decade after this incident, Mirvis has left Orthodoxy, but her religious and familial roots still run deep. “I am still part of this story, and the story remains part of me as well—its language, its rhythms, its customs all have shaped who I am,” she observes at a seder after her divorce. “Not every leave-taking had to be absolute and entire—Orthodoxy can remain my childhood home, a place I visit but where I no longer live.”
The Book of Separation is a brave and deeply personal memoir. Arguably, the book goes on a beat too long. After the get is got, the house sold, the spoils divided, and Mirvis has settled into a new relationship, the narrative begins to run out of steam. Nevertheless, Mirvis is such an engaging writer that it’s a pleasure to spend time with her and that uncovered, unruly, strong-willed head of hair.
Susan Coll is the author of five novels, most recently The Stager. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is the fiction editor of Moment Magazine.