memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis

Sometimes books we really want to read end up on our TBR and…that’s where they stay. Through no fault of their own, they linger, unread and unloved, until finally, we get the kick in the pants we need to tackle them. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read all those ebooks on my list. Well… The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) had been on my list long enough that it was no longer available in ebook format through my library. Thank goodness for interlibrary loan so I could still knock this one out!

Tova Mirvis was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended Jewish schools, sat in the women’s section of the synagogue, wore the clothing deemed acceptable for a Modern Orthodox girl, and almost everyone she knew was also Orthodox. And under all these restrictions, Tova chafed. She questioned. She doubted. Marrying an Orthodox man doesn’t help; Tova feels even more constricted than ever.

But in her community, questioning isn’t really accepted. Follow the line and you’re in, loved and cherished; step outside, even a single toe, and people start talking. The weight of it all becomes too much for Tova, although now, she has three children to consider. How will her leaving affect them? How will she raise them with her still-Orthodox ex-husband, and how will they grapple with the fact that Mom doesn’t share their practices anymore? This is a memoir of deep feeling, of the necessity of living authentically and finding a way to navigate the difficulties that develop along the way.

The Book of Separation is beautifully written, though the subject matter is quite heavy. Tova tried for years to find a place for herself in a world, in a society that didn’t have space for women like her, that couldn’t tolerate deviation from the party line. Orthodoxy can be a beautiful way of life for many people; for others, it’s more akin to a straitjacket- both of these things can be true at the same time, and I feel deeply for those like Tova Mirvis who struggle to fit in to a community they instinctively know isn’t right for them. I’m Jewish, but not Orthodox, and memoirs like Tova’s always help me both learn and appreciate the beauty and wonder in my own stream. Orthodoxy’s strict gender roles definitely aren’t for me (and, to be honest, I’ve never been interested in traditions that aren’t accepting of the LGBT+ community), but I very much appreciate the look at what an Orthodox life is.

I also really loved the descriptions of how Ms. Mirvis navigated the choppy waters of parenting children who have various levels of commitment to the Orthodoxy they’re being raised in. One wants to remain observant; another can’t stand the restrictions, and she skillfully manages to accommodate them both, a level of parenting I aspire to (…can we get a parenting manual, or…?). Her gentle questions and reassurances to her children are lovely to read.

This is a lovely, heartbreaking memoir that I’m glad I finally got to. I sincerely hope Ms. Mirvis continues to discover her place in this world, and I look forward to reading more from her (which I will, since I have several more of her books on my TBR!).

Visit Tova Mirvis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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