The Book of Separation, by Tova Mirvis

BookI don't entirely know how to write about Tova Mirvis' The Book of Separation. It is beautiful, of course. It is painful. It is rich. It is hopeful. It is the intertwined story of her divorce and her leaving Orthodoxy. And it's especially poignant for me to read as my own divorce continues; I can't help reading her journey through the lens of my own.

To leave a marriage, to leave a religion, you never go just once. You have to leave again and again.

Our divorce stories are not the same (moving out on my own was my first opportunity to keep a kosher kitchen; moving out on her own was her first opportunity to eat non-kosher pizza). But I am dazzled and sometimes griefstricken by how familiar her story feels to me. You never go just once. You have to leave again and again. Yes, that's my experience too. 

Once the dishes are put in the oven -- my zucchini lined up in the pan like a fleet of green canoes -- I leave the kitchen to go check on the kids, who are playing happily. I study them as if searching for symptoms of a dreaded fever, worrying that the divorce fills their minds as persistently as it does mine, that they too cannot stop noting that this is the first Sukkot of the divorce, that during this year, everything is a first.

There were times when I had to put the book aside because reading it was too resonant with my own experience of ending a 23-year relationship and coming unmoored from every certainty I used to think I knew. There were other times when I eagerly picked it up again, unable to set it aside. Not only because it's well-written, although it is. Because it's authentic and real, and that's something I crave, especially now.

When the kids come to the table, we sing "Shalom Aleichem" -- the song that has started every Shabbat dinner I've ever attended, my whole family gathered round -- but with only our four voices, the prayer feels slight and vulnerable. // Here is the freedom and, alongside it, the price to be paid: loneliness.

Reading this book, I often found myself thinking of Leah Lax's beautiful and heartbreaking memoir UncoveredUncovered is about living a closeted life in the Hasidic world -- and eventually leaving Hasidism and, in her own words, finally coming home. Both of these are stories of painful growth and self-discovery and ultimately coming home into a self that the author tried for years to pretend that she didn't need to authentically be. 

"Life," I continue on, wanting to impart this not just to Josh but to my younger self, "is about exploring and grappling and growing. You're allowed to change, even when it's painful. You're allowed to decide who you want to be."

On some level this is a story about claiming one's own truth, even when it flies in the face of what was "supposed" to be. It's a book about choosing to live honestly, instead of staying within the safety of pretending that everything is working when it's not. And that's enough of a universal theme that I suspect this book will resonate not only for those who have left a religious community, and not only for those who have ended a marriage, but for anyone doing the difficult spiritual work of growth and change.

Nothing can change, my mantra of so many years. Nothing can change. All this time, I saw it as a prison, a curse, but I hadn't realized that it was also a crutch, an excuse, a prayer. Change felt as alarming as anything I might have done -- so afraid of falling, so afraid of finding myself severed from all that was secure. All this time, I'd preferred to stay unhappy rather than to take a chance on what was unknown.

Change is scary and hard. Being severed from what was once familiar is scary and hard. I recognize myself in these words. Maybe some of you do, too. It's natural to be ambivalent about change: to resist it, to resent it, to crave it, to fear it. And yet I am increasingly certain that facing change is the work of midlife. (I think Father Richard Rohr might agree.) Reading Mirvis' words, I re-experience my own tumultuous journey from resisting change, to fearing change, to embracing change even when it comes with grief.

Now, without either ring, my finger looked naked. All that remained were the indentations the bands had carved into my skin.

I know that feeling. I still reflexively reach with my thumb to confirm that my rings are still there, even though I know they are not. I wore them for almost eighteen years. They shaped me, the marriage shaped me, indelibly. It's like when I wear tefillin. They leave a winding spiral on my arm, an inscription on my body that fades in the physical realm but sometimes lingers emotionally and spiritually. The promises I have made -- to the people in my life; to the tradition with which I wrestle and dance -- shape me. So do the promises I once made that I can no longer keep. 

When we learned about [the Exodus] in school, the desert Jews were depicted as a foolish, ungrateful lot -- how could they bemoan such a painful past? Back then, I had yet to understand that leave-takings are slow and painful and carry their own losses, that you can miss even what you needed to leave.

I come away from this book awestruck by Mirvis' courage. I'm awed by the courage it took to leave an all-encompassing religious system that no longer fit, the courage it took to leave a marriage that no longer fit, the courage it took to write this dazzlingly authentic and honest memoir. I'm grateful that this book exists, and I recommend it highly. The Book of Separation gives me hope that even when change is difficult and painful, it can be redemptive, even holy. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so, for Mirvis, and for me, and for all of us. 

 

Related:


Yahrzeit

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When should I light a mourner's candle
in remembrance of my marriage:
the date he proposed, or the date
we were wed, or the date we agreed
we were through? I choose the date

when we sat before witnesses
and poured wine from the silver goblet
into separate cups, the date when we wrote
"I release you," when we took scissors
and cut deep, severing.

My year of mourning is ending, but
what will be different tomorrow? The world
continues, ordinary and real:
call the electrician, don't forget milk,
watch another hurricane slam the coast.

And relationships persist. I carry
eighteen years of marriage in my bones.
How I shaped myself to his contours.
How we failed each other.
The candle flickers in its glass.

We pinched the flame of the marriage.
What burns now is memory: this first year
unpartnered, unwitnessed, unaccompanied
transformed into a thin, wavering light.
The candle goes out. I still shine.

 

 

Related: A ritual for ending a marriage, 2016

 


New in the Forward: an essay on midlife and Elul

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I just wrote my first piece for Scribe at the Forward. It's about the work of midlife -- and the work of this time in the Jewish year. Here's a taste:

...Every life involves course corrections, and the midlife years are a ripe time for change.

For those of us who’ve had children, perhaps our children are old enough now that we can step back and think about something bigger than diapers and sleep deprivation. For those of us who’ve been partnered, this can be a time to look at whether our partnerships are sustaining us in body, heart, mind and soul. For those of us who care for aging parents, this can be a time to readjust the balance of responsibility to reflect current realities. For all of us, these years are a good time to say: are my choices working? Should the remaining decades of my life look like the previous ones? And if not, what do I need to shift?...

Read the whole thing: This Hebrew month, challenge yourself to look inward.


Change

1.

The CSA's first distribution week:
the flower gardent nascent, not yet formed.
The fields are all potential. No one knows
what plagues or pleasures yet will come to pass.
Who can say which plants will thrive this year?
This week the share's all leaves in shades of green:
tatsoi, arugula, yokatta na.
Atop my bag I nestle precious roots:
French radishes, like fingers, long and pink.
Pick up a pen to mark that I was here
on this first week in June, the season's cusp.
My name's listed alone, while his is paired.
The tears that come I blink away, and blame
upon the radishes' surprising bite.

 

2.

Clouds of pearly fluff float through the air
revealing hidden currents. Poplar seeds,
each with a silken parachute: they twirl,
make visible the breeze that strokes my neck.
I'm floating too, buoyed sometimes by forces
I can't see. Other times I feel
discarded by the tree that once was home.
Every breath I take's an act of trust
that in time I'll land, and root myself
in unfamiliar soil I can't yet know.
Can I learn to love being so light
I no longer insist I'm in control?
"God was not in the cloud: the still small voice..."
I wait, and drift, and listen for its sound.

Continue reading "Change" »


On divorce and ambiguous loss

Grief

"I think this might speak to you," said my friend Cate as she sent me a link to The Myth of Closure, a July 2016 episode of On Being featuring Dr. Pauline Boss. In interviewer Krista Tippett's words, the episode explores "complicated grief, the myth of closure, and learning to hold the losses in our midst." (Cate was right: the episode does speak to me, deeply.)

Pauline Boss is an expert on what's sometimes called ambiguous loss -- for instance, the loss someone feels when a loved one is slowly dying of Alzheimer's. Or the loss experienced by a parent whose child dies, or someone whose loved one is kidnapped and never found. Loss without closure. (One of the cases she makes, quite cogently I think, is that "closure" is a myth that doesn't actually help us.)

She talks about people grieving loved ones who died in dramatic ways: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or a tsunami that kills thousands. Those parts of the interview are powerful... but for me the most resonant sections are when she's talking about ordinary losses. For instance, she talks about how American culture expects immigrants to not grieve their decision to leave wherever they came from. And she says:

The more you want people to get over it, the longer it will take for them. And why not remember your former country, your former island, your former culture while you’re learning to fit into the new one? In other words, having two cultures is what it ends up being. 

What she says here makes me think of my own life changes, especially the end of my marriage. The life we had been building is the "country" that I left, to which I can't return. I have complicated feelings when I remember the home I used to know -- not so much the literal house where we lived (though I miss that sometimes too), but the psycho-spiritual sense of home that I located in that relationship.

We all go through these changes, and we all experience this kind of loss. "The past is a foreign country," as L.P. Hartley wrote. None of us can revisit what was. Even in a relationship that remains intact, we can't go back to how things were then, whenever "then" was. But in a relationship that comes apart, the sense of loss is more profound... and one can't help remembering what was, even when it is no more.

I'm not the only one who makes the leap between the ambiguous loss inherent in literal immigration and the ambiguous loss inherent in this more metaphorical kind of move between life's chapters or incarnations. At one point in the episode, Krista asks Dr. Boss to reflect specifically on how these ideas about complicated grief and the fantasy of closure relate to divorce. And Dr. Boss says:

"[C]losure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them, when they’re lost, you still care about them. It’s different. It’s a different dimension. But you can’t just turn it off...

it’s not as dramatic as the disasters we are talking about, but it’s more common every day. And that is you are leaving someone, you have lost someone by the divorce certificate, but they’re still here. So they’re here, but not here...

[T]hey’re present and also absent at the same time. That’s especially true when you co-parent children. And so divorce is a kind of human relationship that is ruptured but not gone. 

Ruptured but not gone: that feels familiar to me. Once you've been attached to someone in a deep and intimate way, that attachment can't be erased. It becomes part of who you are. (Rabbi Alan Lew wrote about this too, in his brilliant This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, which I have cited here so often over the years.) Even when the marriage is over, it remains, like a phantom limb.

In one sense, divorce is real, and it makes a difference. The ritual that ended my marriage was real, and it made a difference. And in another sense, divorce is a fiction -- or at least "closure" is a fiction. Even when one or both partners move on with their romantic and interpersonal lives, the relationship that was never entirely disappears. It is always something that used to exist, and its imprint remains.

And loss and grief are not linear experiences. It's easy and tempting to imagine that one goes from greatest grief, to lesser grief, to no grief at all. That would be so logical, wouldn't it? And that isn't how life works. Grief comes and goes on its own calendar, in its own ways. (I've written about that before -- see Good Grief, 2014.) And grief can coexist with gratitude and hope. They don't cancel each other out.

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with ambiguity. I can be thriving in every way -- and then be knocked into a spiral of sorrow by the sound of a particular song, or the sight of two people holding hands, or a wedding invitation that arrives in the mail. The grief doesn't negate the truth that I am thriving, and the thriving doesn't negate the truth that I am still navigating grief. 

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with contradictory truths. I was partnered for 23 years, and now I'm navigating life without a companion. I'm grateful for what is, and sad for what isn't. The relationship through which I once self-defined no longer exists, but it will always have existed, and I will always be shaped by it, even as I work on learning to define myself in other ways.

There's ambiguity in all of these things. And my relationship to the marriage, and to the feelings of loss that still ebb and flow as I approach the one-year anniversary of the day when we agreed that the marriage was over, is also ambiguous. I'm grateful and I'm sad at the same time. In one way the marriage is long over, and in another way the marriage will never stop shaping who I become. 

Deep thanks to Krista Tippett and to Dr. Pauline Boss for giving me a conceptual frame big enough to hold these ambiguities. Listen to the episode or read the transcript here: On Being: The Myth of Closure.


A ritual for ending a marriage

When a Jewish marriage has ended, there is an act that brings closure to the marriage -- the granting of a גט / a "get," a legal document of release. (Here's some basic information about how that usually works.) What follows here is a ritual intended for that purpose. I wrote it for my own divorce. It was important to me that we release each other, emotionally and spiritually, before the Days of Awe usher in the Jewish new year. 

In the most traditional paradigm, the husband grants a get to the wife. In this ritual, the granting of the get is bilateral -- each of the divorcing parties writes out a document of release and gives it to the other. Also, in this ritual the get is written in the vernacular, rather than in Aramaic. In theory a get can be written in any language, but in practice most are in Aramaic. (You can read a translation of a standard get at this page about Jewish divorce.) My choice to use the vernacular follows on the custom of התרת נדרים / "hatarat nedarim," the pre-Rosh-Hashanah "untangling of vows," which is done in the vernacular to ensure that the person seeking release knows what they're saying.

I've been working on this ritual off and on for several months. We used it this morning: on Tu b'Elul, the midway point in the month of Elul, the last full moon of 5776. The Jack Gilbert poem at the beginning of the ritual is one of my favorites -- I met him many years ago, and he was tremendous -- though in part because it speaks in the voice of a partner grieving the departure of a wife, I would not have presumed to include it on my own. But Ethan brought it to me and asked whether I would be open to him reading it as part of the ritual, and I was glad to agree. (Edited to add: here's his essay about the ritual and about embracing change: Going Solo.)

I'm still processing the experience of doing the ritual, and will probably write more about that at a later date, but for now I wanted to share the ritual here in case it is helpful to anyone else. That said, if you are ending a Jewish marriage, please consult with a trustworthy rabbi to ensure that your get is valid.

 


1. Opening

Witness: 

A marriage that has ended is like the first set of tablets and the covenant they represented. They were given in love, but then they shattered. Still, Torah teaches that we carried them thereafter in the ark along with the second set of tablets which remained whole. As the two of you move into a new chapter of your lives, you carry with you hopes for new wholeness -- and you also carry the broken pieces of your marriage, which are also holy.

At your wedding you vowed to betroth yourselves to each other in righteousness, in lovingkindness, and in compassion. May those same qualities be present as you disentangle your lives and separate from one another. 

As we open this ritual, a poem from Jack Gilbert of blessed memory:

 

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Jack Gilbert, 1925 - 2012

 

2. The separate cup

 Witness:

Beneath the chuppah you drank from a single cup, representing the shared cup of your life together. I pour wine now from that single cup into two glasses. Please join with me in blessing this wine, which you will sip each from your own cup, as you drink from your own cup of life henceforth.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם ברי פרי הגפן.

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei pri hagafen.

A Fountain of Blessing are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of all space and time, creator of the fruit of the vine.

 

3. Prayer of forgiveness

The divorcing couple speaks these words, either in turn or simultaneously:

Eternal Friend, witness that I forgive [Name]
for any injuries sustained over the course of our relationship
whether by accident or willfully, carelessly or purposely
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes
now or in previous incarnations.
May s/he not experience harm because of me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Who protects and frees me.

 

4. New beginning

Witness:

Every ending is a new beginning. Although these two are no longer married in the eyes of God or the Jewish community, they will always be co-parents to their child. I invite them now to share promises they make to each other as co-parents.

The former partners read, taking turns:

I promise to keep our child's needs at the forefront.
I promise never to speak ill of you to our child.
I promise to maintain good boundaries as we co-parent from separate households.
For the sake of our child, I promise to be as generous and flexible as life will permit.
I promise to join you in revisiting our custody arrangements every few years, so that we can adapt our practices to meet the changing needs of our growing child.
I promise to do everything in my power to maintain a friendly relationship with you so that we can share in our child's joys and sorrows.

 

 5. Writing the release

Each partner copies the following text in silence:

On the X day of the week, the Y day of the month of [Month] in the year 5776 from the creation of the world (equivalent to the secular date of [secular day, month, year]), here in [Place], near to the [name of the nearest river], I, [English name], also known as [Hebrew or any other name], do willingly consent to release you, my wife / husband [English name], also known as [Hebrew or any other name].

We are no longer bound together. If you so choose, you may remarry freely. Your doorway is no longer my doorway. Wherever life takes you, may you go in peace. 

This is a bill of divorce, written in alignment with customs of Moses, Miriam, and the Jewish people.

Each document is signed by the person who wrote it and by the court of three witnesses. 

 

6. The cut

Witness:

(making a cut in each document)

As my scissors cut into the heart of this document, divorce cuts deeply into the heart of those who are divorcing. Your hearts have already been torn. May receipt of this document help you heal.

Each partner places the paper they wrote, now signed and cut, into the cupped hands of the other. The partners turn away from each other and take three steps away from each other, signifying the beginning of the new life journey each will take alone. 

 

7. Closing

Witness:

At the end of your wedding you shattered a glass, a reminder that in every joyous occasion there is some sorrow. Now that your marriage has broken like that glass, may you find that even in this sorrowful occasion there is access to joy.

Now go forth in peace, to life.

 

 


Notes:

The idea that a marriage that has ended is like the broken tablets comes from Rabbi Leana Moritt, from Ritual Possibilities Within Traditional Gittin In a Pluralistic / Post Denominational Setting, 2008.

The prayer of forgiveness is adapted from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l's translation of the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, part of the Bedtime Shema. 

The phrase "Your doorway is no longer my doorway" comes from Rabbi Goldie Milgram.

Regarding the cut in the document: "Be sure to explain that the cut does not sever the document in two. Rather, it cuts into the heart of the document just as divorce cuts deeply into the heart of those who are divorcing." (Per Rabbi Pam Frydman.)

 

Related: Immersion, April 2016. 


Immersion

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On the day that would become the first night of Pesach, I went to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse. Some people immerse before Shabbat; some people immerse before Pesach. This day was pre- both of those, but those weren't the reasons I was immersing. I was immersing to mark a life transition, in hopes of emerging into the liberation of Pesach feeling spiritually cleansed and ready for a new beginning.

I've been to Mayyim Hayyim a number of times -- I wrote about touring the mikveh at the Gathering the Waters mikveh conference in 2010; several years ago I participated there in a beit din as a new Jew entered the covenant; we held a focus group there as part of the ALEPH Listening Tour last fall -- but there's a world of difference between visiting the place as a witness and visiting it as a participant.

(I had planned to come to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse before my ordination as a rabbi, in a ritual of preparing myself to receive the transmission of smicha. But I live two and a half hours away by car, and on the date of that pre-ordination mikveh appointment a winter snowstorm kept me in the Berkshires, so I found an alternate way to immerse. This time the weather posed no such difficulties.)

When we were there for the Listening Tour focus group in the fall I noticed their attention to detail. How even the bench in the garden has a water motif in its tiling, and even the door handles curve like ocean waves. How there are seven steps down into each mikveh (one for each day of the week, one for each of the seven "lower" sefirot), how each mikveh pool is round evoking the womb and its waters.

When I came this time I noticed even more loving attention to detail, and was grateful for all of it. The seven kavanot (intentions) before immersion. The supplies they thoughtfully provide, from a pumice sponge for one's feet to gentle cleansers for face and body and hands. How easy it is to turn the handle to allow living waters (rain from the cistern) to "kiss" the warm waters of the mikveh itself.

When I arrived, the mikveh guide asked whether I wanted to bring a laminated ritual sheet into the mikveh with me. I asked whether they had rituals available for divorce, and they did. (I wasn't obligated to tell her for what reason I was immersing... but I feel strongly that while there is grief in the end of any marriage, there should not be shame, so I didn't mind being open about what had brought me there.)

I chose to immerse without a witness. That was the right move, because as soon as I entered the mikveh room I began to weep. (I had the feeling that was going to happen.) I paused on each of the seven steps and cried. I stayed longest on the bottom step, the one that maps to the aspect of God known as malchut -- sovereignty, or nobility, or the immanent indwelling Presence of the Divine we call Shekhinah.

My mikveh guide had given me four laminated rituals to choose from: one for the end of a relationship, one for difficult life transitions, one for healing, and one for pre-Pesach immersion. I sat with all four of them in the dressing room. In the end, I brought three of them into the mikveh room with me, and used excerpts from each. I began with these words from the ritual following the end of a relationship:

I stand here, having completed the unbinding of a relationship.
I stand here as a Jewish woman with dignity and with strength.
I stand alone, a whole and complete person, no longer bound as a companion and partner.

The third line is the one that cracked my heart all the way open. "No longer bound as a companion and partner." No longer bound; no longer a companion or partner. Even when ending a marriage is the right thing to do -- and ending this one was my decision -- it still comes with tremendous grief. Part of my spiritual work at this season is allowing that grief to ebb and flow as it needs to do, without shutting it off or ignoring it or trying to short-circuit it.

I immersed three times, with different words of prayer and different intentions before each. I paused for a long time before the final immersion, and prayed the words I needed to pray, and quietly sang parts of the Song at the Sea, and went under. I counted the seven steps back out of the mikveh: from Shekhinah back up the Tree of Life to lovingkindness. I took my time dressing and getting ready to go.

As I was about to leave, my mikveh guide told me that everyone there appreciates my work -- which was a gift to hear. (I said I appreciate their work too, which I do! I've been a longtime fan of Mayyim Hayyim from afar, though this was my first time immersing there.) And then she added "I didn't say that until now because I wanted you to be here just as a person, not as a public figure" -- and that was a gift, too.

We wished each other a Pesach of sweetness and liberation. I walked out into the garden and sat for a while on the bench tiled with the water motif. I called a friend, and watched a big fuzzy bee dart from flower to flower. And my friend talked with me about Hallel and Shekhinah and the Song at the Sea until I felt grounded and steady enough to operate a car and to re-enter the flow of the world.

At Pesach we ask "why is this night different from all other nights?" Right now everything feels different from anything that came before. My world has shifted on its axis, and I know it will be a while before I feel steady on my feet again. I'm working on accepting that. Entering the mikveh unlocked a wellspring of tears in me. While those tears are sometimes wrenching, I believe that they bring healing, too.

 

Image source.