The Berkshires’ third annual Jewish Festival of Books will take place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington from Thursday, July 18 through Sunday, July 21.
On Saturday, July 20th, following Shabbat morning services which begin at 10 a.m, best-selling novelist Tova Mirvis discusses her memoir, The Book of Separation, tracing her journey away from her Modern Orthodox upbringing, as she leaves both a marriage and the religious community of which she was a part, and struggles to find her footing in an unfamiliar secular world while still keeping one foot in the Orthodox world for the sake of her children, and stepping with the other into a new and emerging way of expressing her Judaism and living her life.
On Saturday, July 20th, during Shabbat morning services, Mirvis will be in conversation with author Angela Himsel, whose memoir, A River Could Be A Tree, traces her journey from one of eleven children, growing up in rural Indiana as part of an apocalyptic, doomsday Christian sect led by a white supremacist to a Modern Orthodox Jewish woman living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Their conversation will be moderated by Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which is sponsoring the event and the authors’ solo appearances. Among other topics, they will recount their two journeys to and from Modern Orthodoxy, and explore the power and complexity of community, family, tradition and finding one’s own path and meaning.
In addition to The Book of Separation, Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various newspapers including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio.
Avi Dresner, Co-Chair of the festival, had the privilege of interviewing Tova Mirvis in April, and this is an excerpt of their conversation, expanded from the story that appears in the print edition of the June/July 2019 issue of the Berkshire Jewish Voice.
Avi Dresner: Tova, the Berkshires come up on the very first page of your memoir, which has you heading to Kripalu for your first Rosh Hashana after your divorce. So, I thought a good place to start would be to ask you about the role the Berkshires have played in your life personally, and what it will be like for you to come here professionally in July to talk about your book.
Tova Mirvis: The Berkshires really is a very special place for me. It’s not home, but it’s almost. I actually spent a lot of time in the Berkshires over the year in which the book takes place. Some of it got edited out because it was a little repetitious. My editor was like “enough of the Berkshires; we get it.” One of the scenes that got edited out was me climbing Monument Mountain, and there is another Berkshire moment later in the book at Laurel Lake in Lee.
AD: The Book of Separation seems to be a purposely Biblical title like the Book of Job or, more aptly, The Book of Exodus, which is what your book is about in so many ways - leaving your marriage, leaving Orthodoxy. So, can you talk about your choice of the title?
TM: Usually, I come up with the title very late in the writing process. With this book, I knew from the start what the title was. A friend of mine mentioned to me that the Biblical term for the get [a Jewish writ of divorce] is sefer kritut which translates as a book of tearing, or a book of rending or, loosely, as a book of separation. And as soon as he said that to me, I just knew that was the title. And I liked the biblical sound of it. So much of Jewish law is about separating, and I was interested in that resonance. And I also felt like life is a series of separations - we separate from roles we play, from places we live, from notions of ourselves, and I wanted to look at those universal themes of what happens when we separate from those different stages or places in our lives.
AD: Tova, to steal a phrase from you, your book is about “the perilous double helix of divorce and religion.” And, specifically, it’s about leaving your marriage and your Orthodoxy behind because, as you also write, “My marriage and my Orthodoxy had been intertwined from the start. Leaving one would make it possible to leave the other.” Divorce is hard enough, but this seems to be divorce squared, and probably a lot more than that, when you factor in the community, the friends and the acquaintances you also lost in the process.
TM: I agree. I definitely think divorce squared is a great way to put it. It was one loss on top of another. People have asked me which came first - which is the chicken and which is the egg. I feel that one created the space for the other.
AD: At the risk of mansplaining your own book to you and your own life…
TM: [laughter] Don’t worry, you won’t be the first.
AD: [laughter] I’m sure not. I do think you clearly left Orthodoxy first, but we’ll get to that later.
AD: Tova, you write that “to leave a marriage, to leave a religion, you never go just once. You have to leave again and again.” There are numerous examples of that throughout the book but, for those who haven’t read it, can you explain what you mean by that constant leave taking?
TM: Even if you physically leave something, I think the emotional process of leaving takes a very long time. In the same way that grief maybe doesn’t happen once; it happens over a lifetime. To really leave something requires so many different moments of separating. You do something that you’ve never done before…and each one feels like a new leave taking.
AD: Tova, your book is a memoir in which you’ve changed everyone’s name but your own. Still, I imagine in your tight-knit former community, everybody knows who’s who. So, I’m curious what kind of reaction you’ve gotten, if any, from those people and, particularly, what your ex-husband had to say about it.
TM: I had two rules for myself. One, I wanted to pay careful attention to whose story I was writing. I was choosing to write a memoir about my own experience, my own inner transformation, and I knew that other people were not making that choice. Of course our stories overlap with one another, and I can’t tell you without including some me and vice versa, but there were stories that belonged more so to one person than to me…And then the other thing I took really seriously was the question of tone. I wasn’t interested in writing an angry memoir…I wanted to bring my most empathic self to the page…with an attempt to understand other perspectives…I do feel that, given the reactions of those closest to me, that the memoir was able to walk that line of honesty, but still be compassionate about the people I was connected to.
AD: But did you explicitly check with them either ahead of time or after you had written something - with your kids, with your ex-husband, with your present husband - did you say this is what I’ve done, or this is what I’m thinking of doing, is that OK with you?
TM: I’m going to put my kids in a separate category for the moment. In general, I did not feel that I was going to ask permission. I felt that I was going to adhere to my own sense of what is compassionate and ethical, but to give somebody else the power to veto my writing, that was not something I could do, particularly people who were not interested in seeing me continue to be a writer…And then before I finished the final draft, I gave the book to my parents and my current husband…and, in general, they felt very positive about it…With kids I felt like they would have veto power…they knew every single thing about them that was going to be in the book, and read the parts about them.
AD: This is sort of touching on my mansplaining before, but it was at an Orthodox Forum on Orthodoxy and Culture where you outed yourself as no longer considering yourself observant. Being a writer clearly seemed to be a part of your leaving, or do you think you were destined to leave whether you became a writer or not? Or is it the same internal self-conscious quality of feeling like an outsider that both made you a writer and made you leave?
TM: I think writing is definitely inextricable from my leaving…I think maybe less the quality of being an outsider as a writer, and more that quality of wanting to know, wanting to ask…If I were a character who was Orthodox and wasn’t sure she believed, I can’t just leave her in that state. She would have to address that elephant in the room question.
AD: Tova, you write so knowingly and so beautifully about the constraints of living an observant Orthodox life. For example, you describe Orthodoxy as “an invisible dog fence, but the yard is really in your own mind.” You also describe how that fence wraps around bodies, and particularly women’s bodies. You write that “Those who adhere to a particular sect dress the same as their fellow believers as though God were the sort of parent who liked to put his children in matching attire.” And no doubt because of your own unruly curls, you pay particular attention to women’s head coverings, and what they say about them. Writing about hats, you say that each of them “conveyed a world and a worldview. Like birds, we could be spotted and identified by the feathers and crowns on our heads.” So, I’m curious what, if anything, you’re putting on your head these days.
TM: Nothing. I don’t care how cold it is. I really do not wear hats ever…The laws, especially for women, are written on the body…they are about your hair, they are about the most intimate spaces of your body…and then to do something that you don’t believe in for the sake of belonging…feels like a real trespass into your bodily autonomy, and those experiences are what made it feel impossible to continue to observe something I did not believe.
AD: For someone named Tova, which means “good” in Hebrew, one of the recurring motifs and fears you express in the book is that you are bad. Towards the beginning of the book, you write that “to observe was to be good, and to be good was to be loved.” And, near the end of the book, you’re still struggling with this when you write that “Despite the very meaning of my name, being good is something to which I can no longer lay claim.” Where are you at now on that good-bad continuum, or have you let yourself off the hook?
TM: For me growing up being good was completely intertwined with being religious, and being observant…There was one way to be good, and so many ways to be bad…I think that word, more than anything else, is what held me in, that urge to be a good girl, a good wife, a good mother…I think one of the things I came to realize in writing the book was…to let go of those words and those definitions, to let go of the idea that there’s only one way to be good…because once you open up that word, goodness is so much wider than any of that, and so now what I try to do is to let go of the word good - and bad - and to replace them with other words like kindness, compassion, or gentle, or truthful. Good is a word I’m just going to let go of, my name notwithstanding.
AD: Sticking with that theme of goodness, it seems to me that much of it has to do with what it means to be a “good” Jew which, in your case, always meant being an observant Orthodox Jew, even if you didn’t always believe it. You address this closeted existence head on when you say that “So many years of observing without believing has left my soul, if such a thing exists, callused.” So, how have you redefined what it means to be a good Jew? Which, I guess is another way of saying, have you picked off that scab, and what’s grown in its place?
TM: When you leave something, all of a sudden you have to think about it a lot because it’s not just what don’t I believe in, but what do I believe in. If I don’t want to be that, what do I want to be instead? And that is where I’ve done the most work in the past few years, and still think about a lot - that question of what does it still mean to be a Jew in the world for me. There’s so many ways to be Jewish…and I think one of the real pleasures of the past few years has been exploring the wider Jewish world and all the ways that people observe and connect…or choose not to also.
AD: Implicit in my earlier question, I think, is the relationship between religion and spirituality. Reading your book, I’m struck by how much spirituality - if not Spinoza-like deity - you seem to find now in nature.
TM: I would never have considered myself a nature person at all. It really did feel like a discovery. It felt like that sense that you can feel the immensity and beauty and mystery and majesty of the world and that no religious world owns that, those feelings.
AD: Tova, I just mentioned Spinoza, who plays a big role in your best friend Rachel Kadish’s gorgeous novel The Weight of Ink. As you know, Rachel was at the book festival here last year, and I also had the honor of interviewing her for this publication. During that interview, I told her to tell you that I want my share of the royalties for the Avi Dresner character in your best selling debut novel The Ladies Auxiliary. So, to follow up on that, why haven’t I gotten my check yet?
TM: When Rachel told me that, I was like “there’s not an Avi Dresner in Ladies Auxiliary.” And so I went back, and you are right. My guess is that I was going to use an Avi, and I mixed and matched to a name that I did not know.
AD: Speaking about mutual friends, more seriously, you thank Judith Rosenbaum, the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, in the acknowledgments of your book. At the festival, in addition to your solo talk on Saturday afternoon, you will also be appearing jointly Saturday morning with author Angela Himsel whose memoir A River Could Be A Tree, traces her journey away from an apocalyptic Christian sect and towards Modern Orthodoxy. Judith is going to be moderating that conversation, which I can’t wait to see, and I’m wondering if you can just give the readers a preview of what to expect from that dialogue.
TM: So many of the stories that I hear from people within the Jewish world are stories of movement. Someone will say “I was born Reform and I got married and I became Conservative, and now one of my daughters is Orthodox and my other daughter is married to someone not Jewish.” That is an American story. That is our American Jewish story in so many ways, and I feel like we’re all moving places or cities, families, and I think the idea of looking at personal versions of Jewish journey stories tells us a lot not just about the individuals but [about] what our American Jewish community looks like today
AD: Tova, are you writing anything now and, if so, when can we expect to see it?
TM: I am working on a new novel.
AD: Can you share any hints, or it’s still closely guarded?
TM: I have started different novels, and I would talk about what it was about and, after each time I talked about it, I always thought “oh no, what if I don’t like it?” So now I’m gun shy, so I’m not gonna say…I’m sort of just holing up with it, contemplating next week trying to hole up in the Berkshires for a few days and work on it; I’m trying to decide whether to go to Kripalu or not.
But, just in case you don’t see her there, Tova Mirvis will be appearing at the Berkshires’ Jewish Festival of Books, taking place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire on Saturday, July 20th at noon after Shabbat evening services, which begin at 10:00 a.m. She will also be in conversation with Angela Himsel on Saturday, July 20th, during Shabbat morning services. Their joint appearance is free and open to the public, however, Mirvis’s solo appearance is $25, which includes lunch, and requires advance registration as money will not be taken at the door in observance of Shabbat. There will, however, be IOU envelopes available for anyone who wishes to stay for the Mirvis event after services and/or who wishes to purchase a signed copy of her book. For more information, or to reserve your spot for these and other author events, visit hevreh.org/books or call Hevreh at 413-528-6378.