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Tova Mirvis’ Journey from Orthodoxy to Memoir

Tova Mirvis is the author of the recently released The Book of Separation, a memoir chronicling her growing doubts about her Orthodox faith and her ultimate decision to leave after forty years in the community.

I was afraid to write about myself. In fiction, I could disguise or repurpose pieces of my life, but straight memoir seemed impossible. I was self-conscious about how I would sound on the page and afraid of personal exposure. But, most of all, I was afraid of my own story. In fiction, the pleasure of writing was the foray into characters’ inner lives, into the places people don’t always talk about, the places in ourselves we don’t like to know. Of course, in fiction, the writer is still present in some form, but ultimately writing fiction represents the chance to inhabit other lives.

For someone grappling with doubt,this was an appealing prospect. For a long time, I lived with the idea that any real reckoning could only happen on the page. I would allow my mind to wander, so long as my body stayed inside the Orthodox Jewish world where I was raised and where I belonged. I could imagine other ways a life might be lived, and remain inside a marriage that sometimes felt too small. I comforted myself with what Eudora Welty wrote in her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” I took this to mean that my characters could question and stray but no matter what underlay of dissatisfaction I felt, I would always remain where I was.

Only sometimes, I wondered, Do I really believe in this? Is this the way I want to spend the rest of my life? These thoughts were dangerous, and I wanted to forestall the crisis that comes with questioning the basis of your life. This was particularly true when it came to my discontent with the role of women in the Orthodox world. I knew that I was supposed to believe that the advances in women’s rights made over the course of my lifetime (and there were many) were sufficient and that I could live with the remaining contradictions. Do not think otherwise, I told myself. Do not let yourself feel the anger when you are made to adhere to rules in which you don’t believe, when you are asked to teach your children principles with which you disagree. Do not be bothered that there are thoughts that need to be corralled, questions better left unasked.

Living this way creates its own drag of anxiety, an awareness that you could be carried away by your own self. Eventually, that undertow feeling became too much for me to ignore. I wanted the freedom to discover what I really thought. I didn’t want to uphold something I didn’t believe.

To leave––both my marriage and the Orthodox world––was to enter a state of uncertainty. I had always believed that the most important parts of my life were mapped out, and now, at the age of forty, I didn’t know anymore how it was supposed to look. I had to dispense with the idea of “supposed to” altogether.

Only after I moved into that uncertain space was I able to write memoir. Now there was nothing I needed to hide from. To leave had required me to strip away all those protective coverings. I felt a sense of nakedness as I came to understand that our stories are never so fixed and defined as we believe them to be. In this uncertain state, I was able to explore fear and loneliness and the urge to belong; the conflict between self and community; and the drive to undo all that seemed fixed and binding. Writing The Book of Separation required me to ask not just what happened, but why. To explore all those places I hadn’t wanted to look at for fear of moving myself toward change. But in leaving, and now in writing, I was finally able to fully inhabit not just a character’s story but my own.

Tova Mirvis’ The Book of Separation is the October pick for JWA's book club.

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Tova and The Book of Separation
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Author Tova Mirvis with her memoir, The Book of Separation (2017).

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How to cite this page

Mirvis, Tova. "Tova Mirvis’ Journey from Orthodoxy to Memoir ." 26 September 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/tova-mirvis-journey-from-orthodoxy-to-memoir>.

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