Wandering a Long Way From Home


Sitting in Starbucks around the corner from the Upper West Side New York City apartment she shares with her lawyer husband and toddler son, Tova Mirvis is a long way from her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

The sixth generation Memphian can trace her roots in this unique Southern bastion of Orthodox Judaism to 1874 when her German-born grandmother moved there at age two.

Memphis serves as the backdrop of Mirvis' first novel, The Ladies Auxiliary. It still remains "home" to her in a sense, though Mirvis's relationship with her community changed with the publication of her first novel.

Looking back, Mirvis concedes perhaps the rift was always there. Her mother followed the traditional path: grow up, go away to college, get married, come back. But somehow in those few years away from the community her mother was exposed to a broader world of ideas, Mirvis theorizes. Some of which she brought back home.

Mirvis describes the community she grew up in as being "to the right of center" in the Orthodox world. Her parents, she says, dwell on the "liberal edge" of that community, "part of the community, but also separate from it."

This gave her a slightly different perspective from many of her peers. Which in turn contributed to some life choices that took her slightly off the beaten path.

For example, Mirvis says with a mischievous grin, she spent a year after high school studying Talmud at Brovenders, an Orthodox women's institute of Jewish study. Not exactly what most of the Jewish community would see as rebellion–going to Israel and spending a year immersed in Judaism's sacred texts. But at the time, Mirvis' decision to study Talmud–a text traditionally studied only by men–was the talk of the town.

It was quite ironic, Mirvis notes, that in the eyes of her community, it would have been better had she not gone at all, than have studied in such a liberal, albeit Orthodox institution. Still, the diversity present in the Orthodox Jewish world is what in part contributes to the dynamism of religious life.

"The novel I am working on now is about the place markers in the Orthodox world, the right/left divide, the phenomenon of the Orthodox world moving to the right," Mirvis says. "When you look at the gradations from a distance they seem miniscule, but from the inside they seem vast."

In the Orthodox world, Mirvis notes, there is a strong sense of "should" for reasons that are admirable and represent principle more than just conformity. And after her first novel was published, there was a strong sense in the community that the novel was not "nice" and furthermore publishing such a novel is was not what a "nice girl should do".

People were angry because they thought they were in the novel, and people were angry because they thought they were excluded. Others accused Mirvis of airing the community's "dirty laundry" in public, while others shot her dirty looks from across the synagogue. All of which made "home" a less and less comfortable place for Mirvis to be.

But despite its challenges, Mirvis considers Orthodox Judaism and the community it generates, her spiritual home. "I feel deeply rooted in the Orthodox world," she says.

"What I like about being part of the Orthodox community is a deep respect for tradition and a real taking seriously of the idea of God and Divine Law," she says. "The details that people go into can seem like minutiae or being picky, and yet the halachic (Jewish legal) system is found in these details."

"I believe in ritual," she says. "I find it to be personally meaningful. I think it is a way of creating beauty in life. The moments when I can really think about ritual and really find personal meaning in them are when I really do feel spiritual and connected."

Mirvis and her husband belong to a synagogue called KOE that meets at a Youth Hostel on New York's Upper West Side. The shul refers to itself as post-denominational; it tries to stay within the boundaries of Jewish law while pushing the envelope at the same time.

Her brother too, dwells in the intestacies of the Orthodox world. A rabbi living on a small moshav in Israel near Tiberias, he is "very into meditation". His wife teaches dance and creative movement–which sounds strikingly similar to the protagonist Bathsheva in Mirvis' novel. A similarity she describes as "accidental".

Mirvis describes her brother and sister-in-law as deeply involved in the Orthodox world, while being very unusual and creative at the same time. "For all the confines of the Orthodox world, there are a lot of wild things going on within it as well," she says.

And then Mirvis has some of her own ideas, pushing the boundaries of Orthodoxy on her own. She would like to see an Orthodox Jewish community more involved in "issues of the larger Jewish community," and concedes that although Orthodoxy is where she has made her spiritual home, she doesn't believe Orthodox Judaism "has the lock on what's right. I think that everyone approaches God in a different ways and that all ways have beauty and meaning and they are all paths to God."

Mirvis has deep ties to Israel, having visited several times. Her brother and her grandfather live there as well. She's heard of the birthright israel programs and she says she thinks they're "wonderful".

"Going to Israel is transformational," she says, "I know for me, each of the times I've been it's changed me."

Her most recent visit was to her brother's moshav last Passover. Mirvis says her connection to Israel is on many levels: historical, religious, biblical and national.

"I feel that Israel is the place where things have happened," she explains "I feel that Israel is the place where Jewish history will happen in the future. Saying that, I question, why do I live on the Upper West Side?"

Yet for now, the Upper West Side is home to Mirvis, her husband, Allan, and their two-year-old son, Eitan. It is far away from Memphis, that's for sure. But surrounded by the richness of Jewish tradition, Mirvis knows she'll never really be that far from home.

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.