I grew up going to Memphis every summer, so when Tova Mirvis’ best-selling novel, The Ladies Auxiliary, came out, I heard about it. Still firmly ensconced in the frum community, I mostly heard negative reactions to the novel, comments along the lines of, “What a chillul Hashem”, and “Blah blah blah airing dirty laundry.” I didn’t read the book because of those reviews, but when Tova reached out after reading one of my blog posts, I recognized her name.
When I heard that she’d recently written a memoir of her journey through leaving the Orthodox community, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I started reading a copy from the library, but quickly purchased my own because I needed to underline the poignant passages – and there were many.
I think it was the lack of bitterness that made me feel as though I was reading something that I hadn’t even known I’d been looking for. Her work is exceedingly honest, but it lacks the resentment and anger that is so understandably common in the stories of those that have left the community. Granted, she left the Modern Orthodox community, which is nearly incomparable to someone leaving a Chassidic or even yeshivish community, but her thought process and observations are likely universal within the OTD world.
Early in the memoir, she reflects on the common perceptions towards those who leave. “I knew a few people who’d left Orthodoxy […] and my curiosity about them was fueled by fear. How did they stop being who they already were? I listened to the explanations offered about people like them; there was always a ready explanation. It wasn’t that they had examined their belief and found it lacking. It wasn’t that they wanted to choose their lives for themselves […] People left because they had been led astray by temptation, lured by false ideas. People left only because they were depressed or because they came from abusive families or because their parents were divorced; they were unstable or defective or damaged in some way”.
She contrasts the attitudes towards OTD folks with the perception of baalei teshuvah, those who choose to become religious. “Unlike those who left, people who became Orthodox had seen the truth — they came of sound mind and pure heart. They were proof of the meaninglessness of secular culture. They served as reassuring confirmations that we indeed held the truth”.
Tova not only addresses her own journey, but also her attitude towards her children, who have varying degrees of affiliation towards religious actions and traditions. When her son wonders about her reaction to his decision to eat non-kosher pizza, she reassures him, “I will love you whoever you are. I will respect the choices you make. I will not be happy if you harm yourself or others, but that decision will be yours.” She then reflects, “All I can do is assure him that, in my love for him, there aren’t edges past which he can’t venture. My love for him is spacious enough for him to grow and change; it has ample space for whoever he wants to become”.
She doesn’t sugarcoat the leaving process and she doesn’t portray it as a singular event that happens overnight. She describes the turmoil, the ambivalence, and the knowledge that she will lose credibility as a critic of any inadequacies; you can only be a critic from within. She acknowledges periods of compartmentalization, periods of emotional and mental disengagement, to which so many of us can relate. How else could we marry, start families, finish degrees, and achieve other ‘successes’ while living lives of extreme cognitive and behavioral dissonance?
Tova addresses the complexity of the Orthodox community, the way it can function as both protector and captor. “Orthodoxy,” she writes, “was not about belief but about actions. It didn’t matter what I believed as long as I continued to observe and belong. If the threads of belief began to fray, community was the net that kept you from falling.” I can practically hear religious folks protest to that line with comments such as, Of course Orthodoxy is about beliefs! If one has doubts, their questions are encouraged. But what if they question and still don’t believe? What then?
After her novel garnered attention for her portrayal of the Orthodox community, she began to receive messages from those who were outraged. “You must have just had a bad experience.” She calls this out as a common response to any less-than-positive stories about the Orthodox world, and I fully concur. “Apparently,” she muses, “here there was no doubting, no desiring, no wandering, no wondering. Just a single shelf of sanctioned stories — stories of compliance and cohesion”.
The black and white nature of this dynamic is beyond frustrating for those who are nuanced thinkers — which is a description that I’d apply to many of my OTD friends and acquaintances. If you think, believe, or behave differently in a setting where there is no room for differences, one inevitable option is to leave. It’s not pleasant, easy, or painless, but neither is living a lie.
She doesn’t use too broad a brush when describing the culture that she left behind. She acknowledges that there are those out there that claim to be open to alternative viewpoints, but she qualifies that phenomenon with this statement: “There was openness, up to a point. A measure of freedom, until you arrived at the border. There could be questions, as long as you accepted the answers given. There could be some sort of journey as long as you returned safely home in the end.”
Many of us OTD folks remain connected to those within the community. We leave with the hopes that we can still remain the daughter, sister, mother, or friend that we were before we allowed our truths to emerge. For whatever the reason, the onus usually falls on the OTD individual to make their religious family/friends feel comfortable, whether this involves putting on a skirt, a kippah, or putting our phone away. As Tova writes, “All of this not out of a sense of religious obligation but for the sake of people I love”. We worry, though. We worry that our actions may be mistaken for the meaning that religious people ascribe to these actions. This brings me to my absolute favorite line in the entire book. When discussing her participation in holiday traditions with family members, Tova writes, “When participation no longer feels like it might be mistaken for capitulation, when there is acceptance of who you have chosen to become – then it’s possible to return and enjoy parts of what you’ve left”. I read that sentence multiple times, letting the veracity of the words sink in.
In this book, there are truths that need to be articulated and disseminated. For those of us that go OTD, we sometimes feel as though we are fighting an uphill battle, trying to prove that our decision to leave religion isn’t simply a symptom of mental illness or a matter of forbidden temptations. We continue to talk about the religious community we left behind because we are trying to clear up misconceptions, not only for ourselves, but for future generations of OTD folks who currently seemed doomed to face the same hurdles that we have.
Tova’s book is a gift to OTD and religious folks alike, in that it explains — without anger or hyperbole – that sometimes leaving is the only viable option. And if parents, friends, and relatives could understand that, it would not only save people a tremendous amount of pain, but it would bring healing and comfort to the rift that exists between OTD and religious people.
I encourage you to read Tova’s book if you would like a better understanding of those who leave for reasons unrelated to abuse and trauma — not because those stories are any less worthy and meaningful – but because those have been over-represented for some time. Tova’s memoir is a window into the OTD world that you may not yet know exists.