2018-11-21 / Local News

Bestselling authors have a ‘spiritual’ experience at JCC’s ABC Festival

By REA BOCHNER Voice staff

Authors Angela Himsel (left) and Tova Mirvis (center) talk spirituality with moderator Cantor Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom at the Bank of America Festival of Arts, Books, and Culture of the Katz JCC. Authors Angela Himsel (left) and Tova Mirvis (center) talk spirituality with moderator Cantor Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom at the Bank of America Festival of Arts, Books, and Culture of the Katz JCC. Bestselling authors Tova Mirvis and Angela Himsel drew a full house at the Bank of America Festival of Arts, Books, and Culture at the Katz JCC on November 14. They joined Cantor Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom for a panel discussion about spiritual journeys, the subject of both their memoirs. Mirvis’ “The Book of Separation” takes place in the year following her divorce and departure from the world of Orthodox Judaism in which she was raised. Himsel, the seventh of 11 children born into an evangelical Christian family in Indiana, describes in her book, “A River Could Be a Tree,” the evolution that led her to become a practicing Jew living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Both had much to say on the topics of Jewish identity, transformation, writing, and the process of self-discovery.

“I’ve found that in many kinds of religious worlds, how similar the grappling is,” said Mirvis, who received hundreds of emails after an article she wrote about her gett (Orthodox divorce) appeared in the New York Times. “Half of them were from Jews, and the other half were mostly from people who had left the Mormon faith. Like the [Jewish] world, it’s all encompassing; it defines you communally and socially. That sense of who you are and who you’re supposed to be…that spans all worlds.”

Leaving old worlds behind was a predominant theme both authors discussed at the event, particularly how bittersweet it can be.

“Leave-taking is lamenting, even when you’re leaving for something better,” said Mirvis.

For Mirvis, leaving Orthodox practice meant walking away from a 17- year marriage and dividing her children between two homes. For Himsel, the loss was more internal than external. Although no longer believing the doctrine with which she’d been raised was difficult, it was a struggle to completely abandon it. However, “my family was always accepting, even when they didn’t understand.”

Stories like Mirvis’ and Himsel’s resonate in the Jewish community, where shifts and transitions are commonplace. “The journey is the quintessential Jewish story,” Mirvis said. But even in the non-Jewish world, spirituality is an increasingly popular topic. Transformational memoirs such as “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, and “Love Warrior” by Glennon Doyle have become international bestsellers with deeply devoted followings. The reason, said Himsel, is because these personal stories are universal: “We are all looking for meaning in the end.”

Memoir is a medium to which readers deeply connect, feeling as if the author is speaking directly to them. “The memoir is a way of travelling internally,” Himsel said. For the same reason, writing memoir challenges authors to make themselves vulnerable.

Mirvis, who before “The Book of Separation” had written only novels, said that fiction allowed her a “hiding place” that didn’t exist in memoir. But, “the vulnerability is…what writing is about…The willingness to put it out there is what makes people feel a connection.” At the same time, fiction and memoir communicate the same messages, just through different lenses. “There is what happened,” said Mirvis, “and then there’s the ‘deeper plumbing,’ the story that lives underneath the official version of things.”

The panel’s Q&A segment extended well past the allotted time, as audience members were fascinated by both stories, particularly Himsel’s. When asked if she was ever felt uncomfortable about being a convert to Judaism, she replied, “I have always been very open about the fact that I converted. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not anything to be ashamed of, [though] I think people sometimes might feel uncomfortable about asking me.” For Himsel, who has three children in their 20s, living in Manhattan has made the transition much easier. “There’s such a cross-section of Jews that I’m just one of many.”

Though the differences in both women’s stories were pointed, both came away with similar lessons—especially about the bond of family. Mirvis said, “We get the message drilled into us, ‘If you change, you risk losing the people who love you, you’ll be alone, you’ll be cast out.’ It doesn’t have to be that way.” When she told her parents her plans to leave the world in which they’d raised her, they said, “We will be here for you.”

“They’re the most beautiful words a parent can offer a child,” Mirvis said.

Himsel, too, receives continued support from her family, who are still devoted Christians. The first Jewish event her parents attended was Himsel’s son’s bris (which, incidentally, was also Himsel’s first circumcision ceremony), and they have celebrated many other Jewish milestones with the Himsels since then. Himsel’s mother, a quilter, presented her daughter with a quilt with the Ma Nishtana, the four questions recited at the Passover Seder, embroidered on it, and another with embroidery of matzah balls and matzah.

“Mama,” Himsel joked, “Did you think Jews sleep on matzah?”

“The most important thing I’ve learned,” said Mirvis, “is that you can love people who are different than you. You don’t have to match the people who love you.” 

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