“If I pulled off the hangnail, I could once again pray undistracted,” writes Tova Mirvis in her recent memoir, The Book of Separation. “But if I pulled it off,” she continues, “I would be breaking one of the laws of the day. In this small sliver of nail,” she says, “lay a daunting theological quandary.” For an Orthodox Jew, as Mirvis had been during the time she writes about here, work of any kind is forbidden on Shabbat, and especially on Yom Kippur. Also called the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is the annual holy day that comes at the end of the 10-day period of penitence. This period begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is intended as the time for Jews to examine their actions of the year before, and to be given new beginnings.
Religion can cause us to be aware of and obsess over tiny, seemingly insignificant details. At the church I attended with my family until I was 12, nail polish wasn’t allowed. It caused me grief and frustration every week as I invariably forgot to take off my polish before we left for Sunday services, and so had to be admonished and bade to scrub it off in the car. The pink pleather cover of my childhood Bible will forever be bleached in five fingertip-shaped splotches from the acetone in the remover.
Experiencing guilt over entirely innocuous actions or impulses is part of practice within many religions, but especially so for those more extreme versions of faith that attempt to go back to the roots of belief, taking the archaic laws literally as mandates for everyday life. Mirvis’s Orthodox Judaism complicated her life in many interesting, sometimes sad, ways. Her brother informs her that it’s “impermissible” according to a Jewish text they’ve both studied, “for a brother to hug his sister.” Mirvis’s middle child, Josh,* chafes against the strictures of his family’s religion, and wants badly to try non-kosher pizza. Mirvis takes him and writes, “I’m glad there’s a long line — still time to ponder the theological implications of a cheese slice.”
Sometimes, as with Mirvis, and with my own religious exit, the rules spur the observant to ask, Does God really care about this stuff? Or is religion really about following the rules of the community so that one’s belonging isn’t questioned? “Everywhere,” writes Mirvis, “there’s the assault of voices, a firing squad of eyes.” If one stays inside the prescribed lines, one’s goodness — the ticket to love and belonging — isn’t questioned. “It was something I’d always known: you existed only as you were created in the eyes of others,” Mirvis says. At another point, she asks, “Could you be who you were and really be loved?”
Once I became aware of how much religion made me feel good because I felt right in the eyes of others, it became impossible for me not to question whether or not that goodness was valid, true. Mirvis, too, gets to this point in her questioning. “This was what I had worried about,” she realizes late in her leaving, “who would see me, what they would think.” And here comes the really important part: “A sin not against God, but against community.” This thinking is central to many of the doubts that goaded me to look beyond the strictly Biblical Christianity of my own youth — why would God care whom I loved, or what I did with him in my bedroom? What kind of God would allow so much of the world’s people to live out their lives wholly unaware of His existence? Questioning, it would seem, is the root of all evil.
Mirvis pushed her faith to its limit. She considered herself an Orthodox feminist, and wrestled mightily with the parts of herself that continued, despite her best efforts to comply, to buck the rules. She grew up Orthodox. She spent a year in Israel before college, studying Orthodox religious texts. At Columbia, where she completed both undergraduate and graduate work, she was part of the Orthodox campus community, and it was at Columbia that she met the Orthodox man who would become her husband. The couple got engaged after only 12 weeks of dating, and fought throughout the quick engagement, getting married before Mirvis had even reached her mid-twenties. Kids quickly followed, and, during those years, Mirvis also became a novelist. She ritually covered her hair, and then stopped. She wore only skirts, and then brought jeans back into her wardrobe.
It seems easy to think, as with so many life circumstances, that if a person is unhappy, they should simply make a change. New life situation. Problem solved. But religion, not unlike patriotic nationalism, can confer a kind of blanket unity. As a person who loves America might feel a swelling of pride at seeing an America flag flown from a stranger’s porch, and feel an affinity with that person, a person of faith can recognize the emblems of another person’s practice, and feel united, without speaking, even. There, too, is the wonder of belonging to something ancient, of knowingly mirroring, through traditions, the actions of ancestral leaders.
Though this book is a memoir about the act of leaving — a marriage and a religion — Mirvis displays a fiction writer’s talent for setting the scene throughout. “The walls of the kitchen are buttery yellow,” she writes. “Blue frosted-glass light fixtures dangle from the burnt sienna ceiling. Bottles of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, sprigs of rosemary clipped from the garden, cloves of garlic and shallots with their papery husks scattered around, are arrayed on the countertops.” With that information, Mirvis shows us the kitchen of her childhood, and it’s hard not to see and smell it, to know the lighting, the people there, are warm, welcoming, home. She’s highly attuned to her feelings. Of her experiences conversing with her husband, who she would later divorce, she writes, “I came away from our conversations with a feeling of having drilled into a wall only to see the plaster give way and crumble in my hands.”
Though the subject matter is often mournful, much of the language is exultant, heartfelt. The book comes to ask, outside one’s known strictures, what holds? And the answer to this question for Mirvis is an opening — to love, to the present, to new experience. She opens to the love she has for her children, to the newfound peace she finds being outside, and through doing things that had scared her, like driving on the busy highway near her home in Boston.
This book could be viewed as an extended Rosh Hashanah meditation — one accounting for Mirvis’s promises broken and kept, and leading to the freedom and forgiveness brought by Yom Kippur. Long after we’ve stopped religious observance, the practices echo over our experiences. Christmas will always hold a vaguely holy tinge in my body, and I wonder — how much of that is connected to the stories I know about the ancient event it celebrates, and how much of it is about the family those stories were told by? Love is the holy space in my life, the place I attempt to keep sacred through kindness and empathy, remembrance and tradition. For Mirvis, too, this seems the way to remain observant, in the present, feeling but not being held by the reverberations of things past. There’s a kind of holiness, too, in knowing and discontinuing the denial of self. For so many of us, it’s in moving beyond familiarity that we find that self: in difficulty, controversy, and, hopefully, resolution.
*NOTE: Mirvis writes in her author’s note that she’s changed every person’s name in the book but her own.