A new beginning: A painful departure from Orthodox Jewish life

The negotiations about child custody are agonizing.

TOVA MIRVIS says when she used to sit in synagogue, she ‘wanted to be moved but it was a performance I’d seen too many times.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
TOVA MIRVIS says when she used to sit in synagogue, she ‘wanted to be moved but it was a performance I’d seen too many times.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The voices that tormented Tova Mirvis’s agitated mind were not fearful of condemnation from a God she always doubted; but frightened by the wrath that could befall her if she shed her Modern Orthodox upbringing for a secular life. She was afraid of losing the love and acceptance of her parents and friends and fellow congregants. More importantly, she was terrified of the reaction she would incite in her husband, who found her increasing unhappiness baffling and destructive to their family life, which consisted of three gorgeous school-age children. She was almost 40.

Mirvis is a strikingly beautiful Jewish woman with a cascade of curly hair that frames her sensitive face, which is usually smiling sheepishly. She grew up in the Orthodox community of Memphis, Tennessee, and attended Orthodox schools where she tried desperately to be the good Jewish girl she was expected to be.

Her older sister Dahlia remained Orthodox and single until 37 when she finally married and got pregnant after years of working as a therapist in Manhattan. Her brother Akiva and his wife became adherents of an ultra-Orthodox hassidic community in Israel where they now reside in Safed. Mirvis matured without causing too much distress to her parents, but inside she was plagued by feelings that she was an impostor of sorts; convinced that some of the other women in synagogue must feel as she did. When she would watch the rabbi, she was turned off by what felt to her to be a shabby presentation of sorts, claiming: “I wanted to be moved but it was a performance I’d seen too many times. Here is the part of the experience where you sit. Here you stand. Here you bow. Here you proclaim unwavering belief. I stared into my prayer book, hoping my face gave nothing away, but just in case, I pulled the brim of my black silk hat lower – as constricted as I felt by it, at least it provided a place to hide.”

Hiding became far more difficult for Mirvis as she aged. After high school, she spent a year studying Talmud in Israel at Brovenders, an Orthodox women’s institute of Jewish study. She then left for Columbia where she studied writing and met her husband, a gentle man from Boston who was preparing to become an attorney. They married quickly and began a family soon afterwards; returning to the Boston area to be near his parents. Mirvis would watch him sway peacefully in synagogue, aware that he was deeply moved and comforted by his place in the world; it was she who was riddled with discomfort.

The marriage was unraveling and filled with disagreements that never seemed to address her concerns. She felt silenced. She tried for several years to find solace in reading and writing, particularly in the inspiring words of Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds, two poets she had read in college who spoke to her underlying malaise. These poets validated her simmering anger; but more importantly; were inspirational.

Her heart quickened when she read Sharon Olds’s confession, “The right to be angry: I’m learning it now, and I must say I’m having a wonderful time learning it slowly – anger tends to be eloquent! But it’s also kind of scary.”

Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Both poets spoke to Mirvis’s inner longings in a way nothing in shul ever did, but she was still afraid to make any significant leaps. She channeled her energy into writing two well-received novels. The first, The Ladies Auxiliary, was a national best-seller. Her books hinted at her discontentment with religious Jewish life but did not cross any lines. When she was challenged by some who sensed her displeasure, she hid behind the mantle of fiction writing as a defense. Her eventual coming out was a slow process and not without its setbacks.

When she eventually freed herself from the need to win the approval of others, she listened to her own inner voice and found the journey exhilarating. A new secular Jewish man enters her life; a man she eventually marries. She immerses herself in yoga and meditation, and even tries hula-hooping classes. Her mother and father are worried about her and her children; but remain supportive. Her siblings stand by her. She attends couples therapy with her husband in a last-ditch effort to save a marriage that truthfully had been over for years, but their therapy sessions are filled with mutual explosions of pentup anger and disappointment.

The negotiations about child custody are agonizing. Worse, during their temporary custody agreement, she struggles with how much of her new self she can share with her three children. Ultimately, she refuses to hide from them the transition she is undergoing – or her uncertainty. She worries about being deserted by her eldest son, who is drawn to religious life. Her middle son, like her, is already struggling with doubt and uncertainty about his affinity for religious Jewish life. The youngest, still small, is only concerned about where she will be spending Shabbat – whether it is a “Mommy Shabbat” or a “Daddy Shabbat.”

Religious holidays are divided with the scrupulousness of an international treaty. In respect to her children and husband, she still keeps a kosher home, but this arrangement soon withers. Mirvis wants each of her children to be able to make their own choices; choices she vows to respect.

But when her husband comes to pick up the children she often feels extremely shaken. “Aware, as I always am, of his anger towards me, I can leave no vulnerable spots unprotected. In his mind, this is all my fault. Every conversation risks reverting to a drumbeat of blame: I have changed. I have broken the rules. I am bad, I am bad, I am bad. ‘You have no right to your own version of this story,’ he said on the doorstop of my house a few weeks earlier, when I tried to explain why I had chosen this. Even as part of me rose in revolt at his statement, his words played in an endless loop in my head, no longer just in his voice, but in my own as well.”

These revelations are the ones that make her memoir soar. We watch her slowly come to one reckoning after another regarding the deepest needs of her own emerging self and her recognition of the fallout that has ensued despite her best intentions. She misses the children when they are with their father, particularly on Shabbat when she cannot reach out to them. She worries about the effect the divorce and all the fighting and tension that preceded it will have on them, but she no longer fears the realization that she is a person with her own needs and dreams and no longer pretends to be otherwise.

The voices in her head that tell her she is bad are still rumbling about, but she tries her best to silence them. She has thought and fought her way through to the other side; a side that now sparkles with endless possibilities. Even about motherhood. She writes candidly, “Before the divorce, my children and I could still indulge in the fantasy that I had no needs separate from theirs, that any feelings I possessed could not possibly extend beyond the permitted range. I was their mother; it seemed, at the time, all they needed to know of me.”

But now when she is with the children, there is a more authentic tenderness. She feels more alive and connected to them and even eager to share with them her truest self, one she has been squelching for years. She wants to teach them to do the same.

In a brief article Mirvis wrote a few years ago, she describes the final grueling days of her divorce. She tells us about standing nervously before the rabbis in order to finalize the agreement, and being told by the rabbis that now that she was a divorced woman she could no longer be alone with her former husband in a room, or drive alone in a car with him. She was also instructed she could not remarry for 90 days. She listened politely but was not really present. These men were no longer any sort of authority in her life; she was her own woman. But when she was called back into the room for the final part of the proceedings, one of the rabbis looked her straight in the eye and surprised her.

“It’s a new beginning,” he told her kindly, “Don’t look back. Go forth. Become the person you need to be.” She remembers being touched by his unexpected gentleness and nodded softly and departed quickly into her new life.