The Ladies Auxiliary

Tova Mirvis, Author
Tova Mirvis, Author W. W. Norton & Company $23.95 (311p) ISBN 978-0-393-04814-8
Reviewed on: 10/18/1999
Release date: 10/01/1999
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-345-44126-3
Prebound-Sewn - 978-0-606-19737-3
Open Ebook - 320 pages - 978-0-393-07834-3
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The world of this confident, insightful debut novel is the tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community of Memphis, Tenn., a social structure that unravels when an unconventional New York convert settles there with her five-year-old daughter. Newly widowed Batsheva Jacobs is both shockingly modern and fervently spiritual. She lovingly raises her daughter, Ayala, in the Orthodox tradition, but she sings loudly and enthusiastically at shul (perhaps a sign of unseemly ego), visits the mikvah to cleanse herself (an act that raises eyebrows, since she has no husband), and she wears flowing clothes that show her figure--all of which is noted suspiciously by the local women whose common goal is to preserve tradition. In Memphis, where Shabbos dinner includes fried chicken and black-eyed peas, that task isn't easy. Taking a job as art teacher at the girls' school, blonde, green-eyed Batsheva is soon a beloved confidante of the community's female teenagers, but when she allows them to wear makeup and miniskirts on a ski trip, and becomes close to the Rabbi's beloved 22-year-old son, she's the subject of cruel gossip. After one of her students runs away with a non-Jewish, older boyfriend, Batsheva is blamed. The narrator, one of the housewives fiercely protective of the insular community, tells the story in third-person plural: ""little changed in this city where we have always lived""--a statement rendered untrue, of course, as the community breaks into discord. Caught in the middle are Ayala and the respected and goodhearted Mimi Rubin, the rabbi's wife, who begins to believe rumors about her son's attachment to Batsheva, and panics. Generous with humor and compassion, Mirvis paints tenderly nuanced portraits of strong female characters while scrutinizing an entrenched religious subculture whose traditions are threatened by modern temptations. Guilt, passion, prejudice, loneliness and independence--common themes in Jewish literature--are explored with sensitivity in a gentle story that captures its milieu with tolerant understanding, and plucks the heartstrings. Agent, Nicole Aragi. 7-city author tour. (Oct.)
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