The Book of Separation, by Tova Mirvis
October 08, 2017
I 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 Uncovered. Uncovered 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.