May 20, 2004
When Two Orthodox Worlds Collide
"The Outside World" by Tova Mirvis (Knopf, $24)
Tova Mirvis began her second novel with the thought of writing an Orthodox "Madame Bovary." But, four years later, things turned out quite differently: Although her new novel is full of romantic longings, Tzippy Goldman is no Emma.
"Tzippy stole the book," Mirvis says from her New York apartment. She explains that she knows where elements of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" are tucked into the novel, "The Outside World." Nineteenth century France is replaced by 21st century Brooklyn and suburban New Jersey.
"The Outside World" is very much a novel of manners, focusing on the rhythms of daily life in the Orthodox world. In skillfully depicting the inner life of two communities -- two very different pockets of traditional life -- and their relationships with the larger, outside world, Mirvis walks in the path of the late Chaim Potok, whose first novel, "The Chosen," navigated between the Chasidic and modern Orthodox worlds. Potok portrayed an evolving friendship between two boys with very different fathers at the heart of his story, and Mirvis brings together a bride and groom from two contrasting Orthodox families -- one modern and one ultra-Orthodox.
Mirvis knowingly presents the world of shidduch dates, with many matches made nowhere near heaven. Week after week, Tzippy heads to hotel lobbies to sip soft drinks in meetings that feel more like job interviews than potentially loving encounters. Meanwhile, her mother waits in their Brooklyn home, aching to plan her wedding, "indulging in dreams that were big and white and made of satin."
At 22, Tzippy is thought to be on the verge of spinsterhood. When she asks her friends about their experiences, they compare who was taken to fancier places, and Tzippy wonders if she is the only one "who felt suspended over the moment." She longs for something she can't quite define.
In Israel, she finds her bashert on her own, and he turns out to be the son of her mother's college roommate. Baruch is formerly Bryan, who grew up in a modern Orthodox community in New Jersey that will sound familiar to many who've spent time just across the George Washington Bridge. After studying in Israel for a year after high school and returning with "religious fervor and love for the letter of the law," Baruch finds his parents' world lacking. His shift to the right is not uncommon. He trades his plans to attend Columbia for further Torah study; he threatens not to eat in his parents' kosher home unless they add stringencies; he tosses out his knit yarmulkes, blue jeans and Sports Illustrated magazines.
Planning the wedding accentuates the differences between the families, but they fade when the day arrives. The wedding is large and full of joy and tulle, an endless lineup of cakes, guests doing the "yeshiva boy shuffle" on the dance floor; "what they lacked in variety and footwork, they made up in intensity." Afterwards, Tzippy and Baruch head to Memphis, where they escape both families and expectations.
This is a novel driven more by character than plot, and Mirvis seems to enjoy her creations: Tzippy's mother, Shayna, who became religious in college, strives to belong and be seen as an insider. Her father, Hershel, is launching one get-rich scheme after another; like his wife, he thrives on his dreams, but his are not of weddings. Baruch's mother, Naomi, turns to a more spiritual Judaism and wants to bridge the gap between her son and her husband, Joel, a corporate lawyer who questions the tradition.
Mirvis writes with gentle humor. She piles on details about food and ritual, too, and gets it right. She also captures the challenges of leading a religious life: the obligations, the meaning of faith, the balance between community and self, the sometimes doubts.
For Mirvis, exploring religion in her fiction is more sociological than theological.
"Often we assume that in contemporary American society, there is a progression away from tradition, that there is a gradual loosening of cultural and religious markers. But it works the other way, too," she said.
She's particularly interested in the tensions between tradition and modernity. Writing about rules, she said, reveals a community's values.
Mirvis' first novel, "The Ladies Auxiliary," was set in her hometown of Memphis. She says that writing a second novel was a more pressured experience than writing the first, when she didn't have a clear sense that anyone was going to see it. This time, she knew that people would see it, and had to block out their presence, their potential comments, while she was writing.
She grew up in a modern Orthodox home, although she's quick to point out that Memphis is very different from New York. Now 31, married and the mother of two, she sees herself as "part of the left wing of Orthodoxy." She lists a number of Upper West Side liberal Orthodox institutions she's involved with and the several synagogues she likes to attend and quotes a friend's label of their leanings: "10025 Judaism."
Although her ZIP code is Manhattan, Mirvis still feels deeply connected to the South, and her heart and imagination are rooted there. "The Outside World" has a Memphis adventure and her next novel, no surprise, is a multigenerational Jewish family saga set in the South, drawing on her own family history.
"I want to write about a family story that is passed down through the generations and changes with each of the tellers," she said.