Should Tova Mervis’s latest book, The Book of Separation, be taught in Orthodox yeshiva high schools and yeshivot?
This question has percolated within me for a while. I mean “percolating” precisely. If you don’t let the coffee bubble up long enough, it’s got no taste. If you let it bubble within too long, it becomes bitter. I just took it off the stove.
Here is a person who was nurtured in the Modern/Centrist Orthodox community, went on to learn in Israel in her gap year, and raised a family in the Orthodox tradition — until she checked out. At the same time, she became a talented writer, whose last book ably depicts her leaving Orthodoxy. She describes her departure as a liberating process, in which the joy of finally “being herself” outweighs her difficult identity with Orthodoxy and her commitment to traditional family. Her memoir is not the sort of thing I’d ordinarily want to discuss in public — but then again, she has made it public.
Why not just ignore the book?
Statistics show that at least a double-digit percentage of students in the sort of Orthodox schools Ms. Mervis attended in America checked out. It must be said that most of those who checked out did not wait until they had a devoted husband and a few children already within the Orthodox community. These others left before shaking up the people closest to them. But that just makes the tale all the more dramatic and traumatic.
I could understand why schools would hesitate to tell students in high school to read the book. Certainly, there are enough challenges to having a strong Orthodox identity — we don’t have to volunteer another challenge, particularly as the author belatedly tried to answer the questions that lingered from her adolescence much later in her life, and portrayed the challenge heroically. All the more so when dealing with adolescents, who are (by common psychological description) prone to challenging, experimenting, and taking chances in life — and do not always display good judgment.
Yet, if you are raising young adults in an environment that does not seclude them from the world around them, you are only fooling yourself if you think they won’t confront the same questions at some point. Maybe some of them will ignore the challenge because of its being socially unacceptable, or uncomfortable. Some will reject the challenge out of conviction — but many of them will not. Doesn’t her autobiography present an opportunity to examine what we are asking our children to figure out, before they get to college? (You could send your children to Yeshiva University or Touro College, and hope they elude the challenge. But that double-digit percentage, by the way, included people who went to YU too).
What would a class dealing with her book focus on?
On the first level, it could discuss the feeling that something is being denied to those growing up in the sheltered Orthodox community. Are they or aren’t they? If they are being denied, is it worth it? And if they aren’t being denied, are we putting them in a more complex situation than they can hope to handle maturely at their age?
Let me be open about this. When I was head of a yeshiva high school, I did not fear denying my students entrance to the world of literature. I invited Tova Mervis to speak about being an author and Orthodox at the same time. Are there problems, challenges, and special joys? Did literature demand honesty? Did depicting characters hit home too much? Was she comfortable in the literary world? Did she feel supported in her efforts? Little did I think that I was putting her in a tricky situation. Perhaps at the time, even she did not think it tricky.
On the second level, it would give teachers the opportunity to discuss the general ennui with which a majority of students approach their education. Is there nothing at stake — are you just doing time? Look at this author who developed some abilities as an adolescent, but was struggling with who she was at the same time. Can you do better?
On a third level: what of your commitments in life? Is it to your talent, to your feel for reality? What about family, what about people who depend on you? If it comes down to choosing between living for and loving your vision, or fulfilling your responsibilities based on love to others, what do you do? When and how do you learn to weigh values? Where does the Torah fit in?
On a fourth level, in a discussion of being or not being Orthodox, what does God got to do with it? It seems to me that God is the character most absent in this book. Is Judaism without God viable? Is my being a Jew without God viable?
Centrist Orthodoxy, and particularly Modern Orthodoxy, often claims that it does not fear the challenges of the world. But doesn’t it? Years ago, some Orthodox schools thought twice before teaching Chaim Potok and other such books. Who knows — maybe a student would end up “not frum” because of the attitude portrayed to artists and others whose interests don’t quite fit. But things evolve. Some of these schools wouldn’t worry about Potok now — after all, the challenges to belief are so much greater, and perhaps more difficult, if we are more superficial!
If that’s the case, and you ran a school, would this be a major piece in your curriculum? Or would you hide the book? Where would this book fit on the scale of education vs. indoctrination?
And where would you find the faculty member ideally suited to teach it? Would you be derelict if you didn’t?