The wig was never comfortable. Tova Mirvis was always tugging at it and readjusting, trying to get the fake curls to somehow fall naturally over her own. When she got married at age 22 and agreed to cover her hair in the manner of Orthodox women, she had a fall fitted for her by a Broadway wigmaker. But soon into the marriage, she gave away most of her hats, stowed away the fall and began going out with her hair uncovered. Then she reassured her husband that she wasn’t going to change any more.
The author of three novels, “The Ladies Auxiliary,” “The Outside World” and “Visible City,” Mirvis has now written “The Book of Separation” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a memoir that is both bold and sensitive, a literary account of ultimately leaving Orthodoxy and her marriage of 17 years. After much anguished questioning of belief and ritual, this mother of three set out on a different path in midlife, determined to live fully and authentically, to stop hiding what felt like the truest parts of herself.
“I think that what I most wanted to write about in ‘The Book of Separation,’” Mirvis tells The Jewish Week, “is about what happens when you come to realize you don’t sufficiently believe in the world you are a part of: Are you allowed to choose your beliefs? Are you allowed to make a change? I wanted to explore both the pain and possibility of leave-taking, and look at the various kinds of separations many of us make: not just from a marriage or a religious world, but from our own expectations of how our life is supposed to look.”
The title of the memoir relates to the process of Jewish divorce. The biblical term for the Jewish divorce document is Sefer Kritut, a book of rending or tearing, or a book of separation. She writes, “The words might have been ancient, but the freedom they promised seemed radical.” This is her telling of what it means to separate from what came before, and to forge a new way of being.
While in recent years, many have written about leaving ultra-Orthodoxy (with books like Shulem Deen’s “All Who Go Do Not Return” and Leah Vincent’s “Cut Me Loose”), their stories were of shattering breaks with their families, lost contact with children and entries into unknown worlds. Mirvis’ community is Modern Orthodox, and hers is a gentler leaving — the feelings and pain are intense, but her parents are there for her, and she shares parenting with her ex-husband. Unlike the other writers, she has a safety net of love and support, and she is already part of the modern world.
It’s a memoir told in Jewish time, from one Rosh HaShanah to the next, the first year after leaving her marriage and the Orthodox world, with flashbacks to earlier times in her life. She says that writing fiction is like playing a game of hide-and-seek; the author is in the book and she’s not. But in memoir, there’s no place to hide. Before writing, she read scores of memoirs by other writers, and is mindful that a memoir in not a diary: The writer shapes the story, making decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out.
“I feel like in so many places there is one official story we are allowed to tell, one version of how life is supposed to look, how people inside any particular community are supposed to feel,” Mirvis tells me. “But in reality, of course, life is much more varied than that — there are many, many stories that exist, that don’t always match the official ones. Memoir is a way to tell these other stories — to make a space for ambivalence and ambiguity and complexity and messiness, all of which are part of life inside any community, even in communities that want to say such things do not exist here or should not exist here.”
Mirvis grew up in Memphis; in fact, she’s a sixth-generation Memphian, and set her first novel, “The Ladies Auxiliary,” in the Orthodox community there, focusing on a woman who didn’t quite fit in. Mirvis’ father, a cardiologist, and her mother, a painter and storyteller, created a home of warmth and openness to ideas. In the memoir she recalls that even as a child she felt trapped by the many rules and on Fridays at sundown “felt like we were being stranded on a desert island.” In school, her theological questions were answered superficially. She mastered the small subversions, like rolling up the waists of long skirts to make them shorter when the teachers who reported immodesty weren’t looking.
Following what was expected of her, she spent a year after high school in a seminary in Israel and then attended Columbia University, where she was one of the “skirts,” the strictly Orthodox young women who wore only long skirts. She met “Aaron” during her senior year, and they became engaged after 12 weeks and got married eight months later. They stayed in Manhattan, where she studied creative writing at Columbia. She loved New York and describes walks after Shabbat with “the lights coming from the apartment building, as beautiful to me as any constellation of stars.”
When they moved to Boston, where Aaron’s family lived, they became part of the local Orthodox community. She continued writing, their family grew, but so did her questioning and her doubts, and her troubled feelings about their marriage. She writes with candor, and also with care toward those whose lives she is also exposing. For a while she covers her lack of belief, and then finds she can no longer live like that. One of her first transgressions is using a cellphone on Shabbat, behind closed doors in the bathroom.
She feels the pain of her children, and in the period between separation and divorce feels closer to them than ever. “We are in that in-between state, when the past is still a looming presence and the future is made of lines so faint we can’t fully see them yet, but slowly, a new possibility is coming into being,” she writes.
Since the book was published, Mirvis has gotten a lot of response from readers who see their own stories in hers. A man who lost his sense of belief but was still pretending to be Orthodox lamented “living in the shadows.” She has also heard from many non-Jewish readers, Mormons, in particular.
She speaks often of freedom throughout the memoir, and when asked about what it means to her now, she says, “The freedom to think what you want to think, to believe what you believe, to feel what you actually do feel. The greatest freedom is not having to make myself believe something I no longer believe.”
Now, Mirvis is remarried (and so is her ex-husband) — readers meet “William” as her boyfriend in the course of the narrative, and he teaches her son to ride a bicycle at a moment when the boy needs a boost of confidence. While she still feels her deep Southern roots (especially when she visits Memphis) and misses Manhattan, she feels that Boston, particularly Newton, is home. She has found a diverse and vibrant Jewish community, and attends an egalitarian minyan.
Mirvis has begun writing a new novel. She’s still thinking about questions of religion “and how people structure their lives to create meaning.”
Her own sense of meaning, she says, “comes from the largest of ideas, the smallest of actions. I try to parent with love and authenticity, to be as kind as I can be in the world, to choose gentleness instead of anger when I can, to be connected to the Jewish story and Jewish history and Jewish communal life, in a broad way. I used to think that if I observed, I was automatically good. It’s complicated when you let go of that idea and are still engaged in a search for purpose, meaning and goodness.”
Tova Mirvis is speaking on Wednesday, Jan. 24 at the Center for Jewish History, along with author and journalist Marjorie Ingall, in a new series, “First Person: Jewish Lives, Jewish Stories,” at 6:30 p.m., 15 W. 16th St.