There is a fast-growing oeuvre of books and movies by Jews opting out from their religiously observant lives. Two new works are from Netflix, One of Us, and The Book of Separation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), a memoir from bestselling novelist Tova Mirvis. The Book is hardly a spiritual journey eloquently described to anguished parents, spouses, and readers by other writers. This is a Book of Selfishness.
The journey, as Mirvis calls it, is from Orthodox Judaism and her marriage but not to some existential higher spiritual level. The journey takes the author into the arms of another man, which in the end seems enough for her. He is antireligious and gives gravitas to the longing for freedom niggling at Mirvis for decades.
The Book makes me angry. Weeks later I still feel like an emotional stewpot. That impact alone is a healthy measure of success for an author, but The Book of Separation is little more than a back-slapping exercise totally ignoring the human wreckage the author leaves behind.
The precepts of progressive, liberal, Modern Orthodox Judaism by which she lives for 40 years, including 16 years of marriage, are in her word shackles. There are many precepts, and Mirvis informs readers about them to the point of tedium. For others they provide structure. For Mirvis they “feel like iron bars (page 80)” caging her in a faith-based community without the faith in God she needs to accept the lifestyle.
My three problems with The Book is the first, style. The story is told bouncing back and forth in time, and scenes are repeated. It’s confusing. For instance, her story opens with Mirvis appearing before a Rabbinical Court to accept her Jewish divorce. The scene is repeated in other parts adding little. It is not clear just when the emotional if not sexual intimacy blossoms with her boyfriend William. Is she still married, separated from her husband Aaron, or post-divorce? Is this what sparks the divorce? When does Aaron find out, and is it the cause of his fierce anger at her?
Aaron is a generous first love. In Aaron, “There was a soft-shelled innocence to him, a wide-eyed child so easily hurt (page 139).” Perhaps Aaron’s greatest sin over time is being too familiar. He is a loving husband and great father. Aaron is a New York lawyer detesting his job but hangs in for years while Mirvis completes her degree at Columbia University. Their life in upscale Newton, Mass. is little different from the privileged lifestyle in which Mirvis has always been accustomed except now she is a mother.
Aaron is conciliatory even when Mirvis initiates changes in her religious practices that affect the once eurythmic home. Anger between husband and wife mounts, but the author gives no clue why. A scene is thrust upon the reader. At a meeting with divorce lawyers, all hell breaks loose. Did he cheat on her? Was he abusive? Did she cheat on Aaron with another man? Is she is bound by a non-disclosure clause?
When she no longer wants to cover her hair, a requisite for married women, Aaron acquiesces. When the oldest son asks if he can go trick-or-treating, Aaron says, if the kids are with me on Halloween, “The decision is mine (page 81),” and they are not allowed to go. If they are with Mom, it’s her decision. A week before Aaron remarries he graciously emails Tova giving her a heads up. The reader is never sure how and when Aaron learns about her boyfriend, but at the settlement meeting, Aaron screams, “You have no right to your own version of this story (page 23).”
Aaron is not a professional writer, but he senses Tova will want to tell the world about her bravery and “heart-wrenching decision,” as one of a claque of reviewers describes the journey without barely an iota of criticism of The Book. Like the scorpion stinging the frog, Aaron knows he can expect no less. Aaron, the children, and grandparents suffer in silence.
She is callous to the reactions of her community members hurt by one of their own writing novels denigrating Orthodoxy. In The Book, Mirvis sarcastically imagines her female friends and neighbors thinking: “Don’t you want to be as we are… happy homes, our beautiful families; don’t you want our sense of purpose and most of all our faith that we cradled in God’s all-powerful hands (page 145)?” Elsewhere she dismisses them calling them gossips.
Second, The Book is not a compelling story. It offers no transformative message.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love impacted a generation of women. Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch is written, “laced with love,” as is Off The Derech by Faranak Margolese.
My third problem is with Tova Mirvis. She plows ahead with the unending fortitude to become an outlier. She is not for this reader a sympathetic character. Lots of people choose to rebel, but for Mirvis the separation trumps the pain and suffering of a loving husband, grandparents, and children left behind.
The children continue to be Orthodox. That’s why Mirvis continues keeping a kosher home and celebrating Shabbat for when the children are in her care. But along the way, two boys want to switch from private Orthodox schools. In a fit, one yells at her, “I hate the Jewish stuff (page 249).” Perhaps he’s thinking if they were not religious his mother might not leave? “I miss the way it used to be,” he blurts when she nostalgically recalls summer trips with their father. But it’s all about Tova. Her response is, “The rush of guilt and sadness rolls across me, and I let it inside me, able to hold this pain (page 289)…” But mothers are not supposed to cause pain.
On her journey and through the separation (such antiseptic terms), Tova meets and later marries an avowed anti-religious, older, Jewish, doctor, father of three, going through his own divorce. She speaks of William like a giddy teenager. “William is tall, with green eyes and dark brown hair…He prides himself on his independence. He is a ‘free-range William,’ we joke. His strength is what has attracted me from the start (page 17).” “My heart leaps as it always does when I see William’s name” on her phone screen (page 31).” To paraphrase another author, William is a “transmission device for sunshine and optimism,” taking Mirvis on Shabbat non-kosher adventures. They hike, eat non-kosher pizza and cannoli, go zip lining, and travel on the Jewish holidays. William is absolutely committed to, “No religion for me….” His position is repeated throughout the story. “In being with him, I know that I’ve chosen the opposite of what came before.”
How unfair to William, because her Orthodox extended family and children will always be in her life. This is my life and, “If William wasn’t before, he is now all too aware of how often religion will be part of our lives (page 97).” Sounds like they are having a picnic on a railroad track. In a measure, this reader feels sorry for William. Her good-bye journey ends in a Jewish takeoff of the mythic Elysian Fields.
Dr. Harold Goldmeier is a public speaker, Managing Partner of an investment firm, a consultant to firms in commerce and industry, and a writer. He teaches Values & Ethics to international university students in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Goldmeier is a recipient of the Governor’s Award (Illinois) for family investment programs in the workplace from the Com. on the Status of Women. He was a Research and Teaching Fellow at Harvard, a father and grandfather of very independent-minded children.
Special thanks to Dr. Mika Smith of Tel Aviv for her insights.