This fall has seen the publication of two remarkable memoirs from writers reflecting on life transitions through the most Jewish of lenses.
Tova Mirvis became a celebrated figure in the Jewish literary world with “The Ladies’ Auxiliary,” published in 1999 when she was in her early 20s. Narrated in the collective voice of women in an Orthodox synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee, the novel recounts the upheavals set into motion when a recently widowed convert to Judaism and her daughter move into the community.
If Mirvis’ debut novel subjected her native Memphis Jewish community to heightened scrutiny, her new memoir, “The Book of Separation,” unflinchingly does the same to the author’s own life. It depicts Mirvis’ difficult process of exiting both her Modern Orthodox faith and her marriage.
Mirvis reveals that she entertained religious doubts early in her life, but attempted to smother them with the conviction that in Judaism belief is secondary to action, and that “it didn’t matter what I believed as long as I continued to observe and belong.” But she could not shake those moments of looking at her reflection and feeling, “This is not who you are.”
The spiritual crisis that developed over the years was inseparable from her failing marriage. As she came to see it, “my marriage works only as long as I agree not to grow,” and the point at which she concludes that she “can no longer live a life I don’t believe in” means leaving both Orthodoxy and her husband. She separates from her husband and incrementally takes leave of her Shabbat and ritual observances, often beset by discomfort and self-doubt, particularly as she is aware of how she looked upon by the community that she has been part of.
This experience is made more difficult by the challenge of maintaining shared custody of children being raised Orthodox. She must learn how to support her kids’ path, even as she no longer feels a part of their community, and figure out how to do so while being honest with them.
Although the book focuses on the author’s personal life, there are notable instances that are resonant for admirers of Mirvis the novelist. One revolves around a widely read 2005 essay in the New York Times by Wendy Shalit, which accused Mirvis and several other writers who had grown up in the Orthodox sphere of portraying Orthodox Jews “in an unflattering or ridiculous light.”
Mirvis responded to Shalit’s charges, and to later challenges to her refusal to employ rose-colored glasses, with an impassioned defense of the complexities inherent in fiction. But her desire “to reckon with the ways people lived not only within the sanctioned positions of the law but inside all the human possibilities between” tested the boundaries of her “highly codified world [in which] the inner life posed a threat.” She increasingly became the object of suspicion, increasing her sense of alienation and likely illuminating the exit door.
It’s a beautifully written book, if sometimes overly detailed, in which Mirvis applies her gifts as a novelist to reveal her own struggles. And it is a profound meditation on what it means to be true to oneself, and what costs doing so may exact.
Divorce also plays a significant role in Ilana Kurshan’s memoir “If All the Seas Were Ink.” Within a year of getting married and relocating from the United States to Jerusalem, Kurshan has watched her marriage quickly collapse. And, rather on a whim during this difficult time of transition, she begins the regimen of Daf Yomi.
Daf Yomi is the practice of learning a two-sided page of Talmud each day, in sync with learners around the globe, who are all literally on the same page. It is an extraordinary commitment, as the cycle of making one’s way through all 63 tractates of the Talmud at this rate is approximately 7½ years.
Kurshan depicts the interplay of her Talmud study over the course of this long period (nearly every tractate gets covered, in order) and what is occurring in her life. Sometimes the insights apply to past events, such as her ill-fated first marriage or a period of eating disorders years earlier. But, more often, the insights gained from studying a given tractate illuminate the life she is leading in Israel, as she struggles with feelings of failure, eventually marries again and is blessed with three children over the course of the Daf Yomi cycle.
The splendidly written book is made all the more compelling by Kurshan’s willingness to share her vulnerabilities. While primarily a memoir, it can also function as a sort of introduction to the Talmud, albeit a pronouncedly non-systematic one. Kurshan helps humanize the study of a text often disparaged for its legalism or avoided for its length and difficulty, showing how even the most arcane topics can become surprisingly relevant.
And Kurshan, who earned a graduate degree in English literature at the University of Cambridge, is also marvelously versed in Western literature, and the deep connections she makes between text and life are hardly confined to classical Jewish writings. This book was a great surprise to me, and one of my favorites of the year.