Book Review and Reflection: The Book of Separation

I’m not Jewish.  I’ve never been through a divorce. And I’m not a woman.  But I can certainly relate to author Tova Mirvis and her life story, as told in her latest work, The Book of Separation.

The book, Mirvis’s fourth, tells of her journey toward ending both her first marriage and her life in Orthodox Judaism. That all-encompassing religious community both enfolded and protected her even as it constricted and repressed her throughout her youth and early adulthood.  Many of us, I’m sure, have felt and grappled with fears, misgivings, and doubts similar to those that Mirvis recounts.

As the book begins, she is standing alone, before the panel of bearded, black-garbed Orthodox rabbis who will rule upon the legitimacy of the get, the divorce document that, by Jewish law, can only be issued by the husband. It’s a dramatic scene. As one who was brought up in old-time, fire-and-brimstone Catholicism, I can only imagine how I would have felt if I’d stood before a phalanx of black cassocks and Roman collars to take my leave of my own Church.

I probably would have chickened out. She didn’t. But she must have considered it many times. As she stated in those first few pages, “If you left, you were in danger of losing everyone you had loved. If you left, you were in danger of losing yourself.”

Mirvis did leave, and she did lose a lot. But she gained and learned much too. I daresay she will bring to mind, in many readers, a raft of similar emotions and memories and should-have-dones – particularly if religion was a defining factor in their lives.

Did you ever feel, for instance, as she did one Rosh Hashanah when, as she remembers looking at the hats of the ladies in synagogue,

“I tried to pray, but my mind kept wandering. Under all these brims and bows, what were people really thinking? Did any of these women ever worry, as I did, that too much thinking might unravel their lives? You were supposed to believe that this way of life was the only true one…Yet along with the actual rules, there was another set of laws, equally stringent yet more unforgiving, enforced not by a belief in God but by communal eyes that were just as all-seeing and all knowing. Inside my head, a voice constantly whispered, What will they think?”

Well, I had learned that my religion was the one true faith as well.  My mind also used to wander as I sat through all those masses and novenas and parish missions and Stations of the Cross. And back then, I would have dreaded the mere thought of facing the opprobrium of parents, clergy, and my Catholic community if I’d voiced my own growing doubts.  I do have a few friends who did boldly voice their own doubts, early in their adult years, and in hindsight I wish I’d had their courage.

I also once lived in fear of the same God about Whom Mirvis expressed her nagging doubts: “”Did I believe in a God who cared about the smallest details of what I ate and what I wore – God the Scorekeeper, God the Punisher, God the King?”

With such passages, Tova Mirvis surely touches some raw nerves and long-buried feelings. Her readers who have ever struggled to strike a balance between God’s message and God’s earthly, self-designated messengers will probably nod in agreement and recognition.

Much of the book chronicles Mirvis’s passage through everyday life: education, marriage and family, friendships, religious practices, and eventually the harsh realities of drifting further away from spouse and community. Along the way she also explains many of the reasons behind Jewish rituals, the rich tapestry of tradition that has distinguished that remarkable people for millennia and will continue to do so.

One of the story’s turning points calls to mind another famous Jewish author – another who was divorced and remarried – Midge Decter. She once said, “Nerve is one thing all writers need.” Mirvis showed the requisite nerve when she spoke, and stood her ground, at a cultural conference run by a large group of Orthodox rabbis.

That occasion was, she noted “the last time I considered myself still inside.” She would not make her writing conform to their rules and demands.  “I didn’t believe their rules contained the ultimate truth…it wasn’t just about writing honestly and freely, it was about living honestly and freely…I was no longer willing to pretend in order to belong.”

Stepping to the outside of the Orthodox community did, as expected, sever friendships and bring rejection and avoidance. The author missed being inside that old community, especially on occasions like Shabbat. One consolation was her knowing “there are other kinds of communities that I can eventually build for myself – smaller maybe, less all encompassing, ones in which I won’t have to cede my independence in order to belong.

There is a telling observation Mirvis makes near the end of the book. Her children have come for the weekend. Her son Noam, who has remained Orthodox, asks her to unscrew the refrigerator’s light bulb so that it won’t go on – one of many Shabbat practices that Mirvis no longer follows.

She gladly agrees to honor his request, noting “I’m doing this, and other actions like it, to help Noam be part of this world that he is choosing. And doing so comes not only in the broad strokes and large proclamations about love and respect but in each of the minute actions – not just God, not just sin, lay in the details, but love lived there too.”

Yes, it is the little things. God and love both are to be found in the details of our everyday lives.

Another heartening passage comes late in the book when Mirvis returns to the scene at the beginning. She’s alone with that formidable panel of senior rabbis. They’ve examined the get, the divorce document whose official name is sefer kritut, a book of termination, of rending, of separation.

The document, written in Aramaic and dated 5772 from the creation of the world, is in order.  In keeping with ancient rite, the senior rabbi folds it up tight and drops it into her cupped hands. She must signify acceptance – clasp the get to her bosom, turn, and walk from the room. When the door closes behind her, the divorce takes effect.

They summon her back into the room, where one of the rabbis takes the document, draws an X on it, then tears it up so that no one could ever examine it and find an error. It’s over.  After the rabbis recount some of her future obligations and she’s about to leave, the head of the court looks her in the eye.

She says, at that point, that she was steeling herself for rebuke. That’s another thing I can imagine doing. In fact, I’d be expecting to hear that I’m bound for the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

No such rebuke happened. Instead, the man tells her a story. The Talmud, he explains, said that the Temple altar weeps when a man divorces his wife. There was once a rabbi who went through a divorce; his students were confused and puzzled that it could even happen.

“Better the altar should weep than should I,” came that divorced rabbi’s reply.

With that, the senior rabbi tells Mirvis, “It’s a new beginning. Go forth, become the person you need to be.”

That’s wise counsel for anyone, of any age, of any religious faith. And this is a book I’d recommend for anyone of any age, gender, or faith as well.

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2 Responses to “Book Review and Reflection: The Book of Separation”

  1. Lynne Moore Says:

    looks interesting ..maybe I will have to read it …you little Jewish boy ..  Lynne and Terrence Moore Tomoka Realty 386-673-8225

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