Books: Tova Mirvis’s “The Book of Separation”, as reviewed by Amy Kellestine

The Book of Separation is a detailed and gripping autopsy of what happens when you feel your inner consciousness calling you away from the religious path you have known your whole life. In the case of author Tova Mirvis, she needed to come to terms with the reality that she no longer resonated with Orthodox Judaism. Mirvis was your typical Orthodox Jew… until she wasn’t. She followed the rules of her family and faith. She studied dutifully. She married another Orthodox Jew and became the attentive mother who cooked kosher meals for her growing family.

And yet she felt doubts that wouldn’t go away, and questions whose answers left her more and more unsettled, until she had to make a choice. Could she keep living by the old rules at the expense of her inner voice? Or would she have to risk her connection with family, friends, and entire community in order to make a change that felt aligned with her heart?

Mirvis poetically and lyrically articulates the practices of her Orthodox faith, and the ongoing tension between the various divisions within Orthodoxy, in a fascinating behind-the-scenes look. Her struggle to understand her path is evident in a tone that alternates between affectionate nostalgia and angry disdain as she describing the traditions and rituals. Reading about the community and connection she found in her tradition, I found myself longing for the comfort of my own family-centred and religion-based rituals.

The storyline moves flawlessly between the different phases of her life: early days of growing up in an Orthodox community, university years where she met her husband, life as a new mother, divorce proceedings. She also reveals glimpses of the challenges navigating her new life as a divorced (and dating!) non-Orthodox single mother, raising three children who moved between households with very different religious observances. Through it all, Mirvis ably knits together the unravelling of her beliefs in Orthodoxy with the weaving of her new belief structure.

Having grappled with decisions of a similar magnitude, I found that Mirvis nailed the complexity, uncertainty and the growing sense of dis-ease that becomes too great to ignore. Though at times the narrative bogged down and became tedious, I appreciated Tova’s journey through finding her own path and the way she articulated the mental gymnastics of trying to get her intellect to go along with what she knew in her heart, in order to transition from feeling broken and bad to imperfect and whole.

Also of note was Mirvis’s self-awareness in recognizing that things could have gone very differently in her life if she had been willing to listen to her inner voice and make changes sooner. “I knew I had only myself to blame. I hadn’t listened to the voice inside me that doubted…” The advice from a friend also foreshadowed her situation: “People who are unable to make small changes sometimes end up making big changes.”

How many times do we discount a thought or concern, only to recognize afterwards that we would have been better off finding the courage to act on it? How loud do those quiet voices need to get before we have the presence to heed their advice?

This book should not be misinterpreted as a judgement on organized religion, specifically the restrictiveness of Orthodoxy. I believe the book is not so much a statement about Orthodoxy, or religion in general, but rather an analysis of what it means to find your own individual path. As Tova stayed present with her inner voice, others around her (including her beloved brother) grew in their faith and devotion, further highlighting that we each have our own path to identify and follow.

Amy Kellestine headshotAmy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.

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