Have you read: Newcomer reveals cracks in tight-knit Jewish community
April 19, 2005
“The Ladies Auxiliary” by Tova Mirvis
I balked at reading this novel. From the heavily floral cover to the title, “The Ladies Auxiliary,” it looked like something that was not my cup of tea. Sue, however, at Neighbors Bookstore insisted it was not a romance, and so since the premise was intriguing I gave it a try.
Tova Mirvis recreates in this novel the tightly woven, highly insular world of Orthodox Jews in Memphis, Tenn. Who knew? Into this community arrives Batsheva, a free-spirited, hippy-tinged young widow recently converted to Orthodox Judaism. And this is the dramatic crux of the novel: How does it go when a traditional society whose members pride themselves on the number of generations who have lived in the same town in the same way allows in someone who is a little different?
Batsheva is modern in that she has lived in a footloose way, not having felt loyalty to any particular home. And other than the young daughter she brings with her to her new home town, she has no family ties. Such complete individuality is incomprehensible to the inhabitants. Batsheva is also devout in the way only an earnest convert can be. She follows all the rules as the others do, but she likes to think about them, to meditate on their inner meaning, whereas the others have been born to them and have never done otherwise. She also dresses differently. Although following the strictures of modesty, her clothes are more free-flowing, compared to the ladies’ preferences for stylish Chanel suits.
Try as they do, the women of the Orthodox community cannot see her as essentially anyone other than an outsider. She is always a little odd to them, and soon the cracks that have always existed in their community begin to show and Batsheva’s presence opens them up.
Mirvis conveys the cohesiveness of this community, the seemingly monolithic quality, by writing the story in the first person plural, the “we” voice. How many novels have you read that were narrated by “we?” It’s pretty rare. Here it feels completely natural, however. For we are not concerned with how any one person feels about the circumstances, although we get some characters’ feelings on things through the semi-omniscient viewpoint (yes, fellow English majors), but rather the novel is concerned about how the mass of the people react, and the plural point of view moves as a unit. The naive Batsheva never stands a chance.
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This book was interesting to me in two ways. One was its depictions of a world that is alien to me – their many, many rules, their rituals, their many holidays, and the adaptations their Orthodox traditions take to modern ways. (I am embarrassed to say I thought they would be more like the Amish.) The other intriguing aspect to the novel was the concept of community, all the members living in the same way, personally known to each other, working toward the same goal. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Yet, Tova Mirvis shows us in this novel how sometimes uneasy can be an individual’s integration into a traditional society.
-Peggy Meyer is a library assistant at Lake Tahoe Community College.