Mirvis, Tova. “The Book of Separation”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
“The Book of Separation” is the “memoir of a woman who leaves her faith and her marriage and sets out to navigate the terrifying, liberating terrain of a newly mapless world”, Tova Mervis was raised in a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish family and she committed herself to observing the rules and rituals that go along with this way of life. She married a man from this world and quickly began a family.
However, over the years her doubts became stronger than her faith, and at age forty she could no longer continue in this kind of life. Even though it would mean the loss of her friends, her community, and possibly even her family, Mervis decided to leave her husband and her faith. A voice inside her told her that she did not agree, did not fit in, did not believe and so she struck out on her own to try to find out what she does believe and who she really is. This meant mean beginning a new way of life for herself and for her children, who struggle with the divorce and what “not Orthodox” means for them. This is about what it means to be free even if that means leaving all you have ever known. Mervis takes us “through her first year outside her marriage and community as she learns to silence her fears and seek adventure on her own path to happiness.”
Mervis married too young knowing that she had doubts yet went ahead and did it anyway, not an uncommon mistake, acknowledging the existence of substantial relationship problems even before the marriage…but goes ahead with it anyway. The rejection from friends and community was not just because of her doubts about her religion but young divorcees are often criticized no matter what.
She and her ex-husband supposedly knew who they were and what they wanted. Although they stayed together for a long time and were grateful to have two beautiful sons and a daughter, Aaron and Tova drifted apart and began quarreling. Mervis occasionally hinted that she was no longer in Orthodox Judaism, yet her husband was shocked when she asked for a divorce.
She acknowledges that Orthodox Judaism is a way of life that helps bring harmony, peace, and joy to those who want it. She does not blame her husband for her problems. She simply realized that her insular community was suffocating her and she was no longer content to go through the motions of pretending to be happy.
The book is quite a sad description of the dissolution of a long marriage that was made all the more difficult because three children were involved. Mervis and Aaron consulted lawyers and therapists before splitting up their property, settling on a joint custody agreement, and making the transition from a couple to single parents. As we read, we are taken back in time flashes back to the author’s childhood, education, her early years with Aaron, and her excitement and pleasure at becoming a mother and a novelist. She has found the courage she needed to express her misgivings to her husband, parents, and friends.
This is a memoir is intense and we get the details. Change is always difficult and this was quite a change. Unless you have lived as an Orthodox Jew, it is hard to imagine what Mervis went through. While I was raised Orthodox, it was not to the extreme like the author lived. It is interesting that so many who have left Orthodox Judaism have written books about it and we can understand that is also therapy.
This is a story of grief and rebirth and there is also a lot to be learned here about the more religious “sects” within the larger Jewish community. We learn of repressed the attitudes toward women and about the various Jewish lifestyles all the while sensing Mervis’ compassionate for her religion. Many will be shocked by the day-to-day reality of following Orthodox Judaism’s rules and principles and then wonder how Mervis lasted as long as she did. I can only wonder how I would have dealt with a similar situation. For me it was so much easier since I had moved to Israel and immediately became involved in secular Judaism to the point that the entire time I lived there, my only reason to go to a synagogue was or a wedding.
Tova Mervis took a tremendous step when she decided to live her life as she sees it. This is one of the problems today facing the LGBT community that causes many to live their lives in the closet rather than embracing their true identities. Our lives can only be lived successfully when we accept who we are and while this often comes with pain, we are reminded that if it were so easy to live, it just might not be worth it do so under those conditions.