Beyond Belief

A local author shares her separation from faith


The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 299 pages, $26

When Tova Mirvis begins to doubt her lifelong religious beliefs as an Orthodox Jew, the deepest ingredients of her identity are imperiled. This memoir from the Newton resident details how she lived under many required practices that are very different from the modern world—and how separating from her religion led to the destruction of her marriage and her faith.

While holidays such as Yom Kippur, Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah are enriching and help Tova bond with her community, she feels increasingly constrained by orthodox restrictions. Early marriage is required, and so after a speedy courtship, she and highly observant Aaron have three children. Rules dictate that married women must cover their hair, and the mikvah plays a part in women’s sex lives.

Detailing her journey with grace and subtlety, Tova recounts a growing shift in her feelings about god and her long-accepted beliefs. Her new identity, brimming with doubt but exhilarated by newfound independence, also brings loss. Her husband is terrified. However, one son also questions his upbringing and sneaks off with his mother to enjoy an exciting, non-kosher pizza.

Tova is now challenged on her looser outlook by her vigilant rabbis, who were once her mentors. Soon, she connects with a non-practicing Jewish boyfriend and compares the experience to being on a kayak ride as opposed to being on a large, formal ship. Her dazed children painfully connect her to the life she’s pulling away from, but she honors their feelings while also encouraging them to choose their own path, as she’s done.

From page 200:

“In a few minutes, I would go back downstairs, but right now, I made sure the bathroom door was locked. I stared at my phone. Could I actually break a rule of Shabbat, or would the forces of taboo and guilt, if not actual belief, hold me back? And if that failed, maybe the entwined loyalty to my marriage would keep me inside.”

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