In The Outside World, bestselling author Tovah Mirvis takes us into the homes, hearts and minds of two Northeastern Orthodox Jewish families: the Goldmans, an ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn, who spend most of their spare time finding suitable husbands for their daughters, and the Millers, a modern Orthodox family from New Jersey who can only envision their son attending and graduating from Columbia University.
Theoretically, the two families might never meet except that their respective children, Tzippy Goldman and Baruch (formerly Bryan) Miller, fall in love.
In her second visit to the Pacific Northwest, Mirvis, author of the bestselling The Ladies Auxiliary, will speak and sign copies of her second novel, The Outside World (Knopf, April 2004) at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue on June 7. Tree of Life Judaica & Books, the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and Temple B’nai Torah are co-sponsors. The event is free and open to the public
Mirvis, a self-described liberal, leftist modern Orthodox from a sixth-generation Memphis, Tenn. family, was chosen by Barnes & Noble for its 1999 Discover Great New Writers Program for her first novel with its candid and humorous reflections about her childhood Orthodox community. She holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Creative Writing Program.
“This is a fun book,” said Julie Ellenhorn, manager of Tree of Life Judaica & Books in Bellevue. “You see people that remind you of people you know. The book is an easy read that makes you put some thought into your Jewish identity. It’s about community, religion, dating, intermarriage and about how people find God.”
The characters in The Outside World grapple with their own convictions about convention, compromise and religious duty. Tolerance and respect become the stress points within the family relationships and within each character as they live the daily routines of contemporary family life in America.
“I’m interested in the gap between the people who join the group and follow the rules and the people who have inner questions and inner struggles,” said Mirvis in an interview with the JTNews from her home in Boston, where she lives with her husband and two boys, Ethan, 6, and Daniel, 2.
Mirvis left Memphis after high school and moved to New York 13 years ago. The 32-year-old novelist took three years to write her first novel and four years to finish this second work.
“The questions that kept me interested are the contradictions between tradition and modernity, belief and doubt, and parents and children who conflict over different belief systems,” said Mirvis. “Everyone has an inner life with conflicting impulses about what it means to believe in something wholeheartedly or to doubt.”
Mirvis’ own background seems to shadow the lives of her characters in the book. Growing up in the South, she remembers that the “domestic arts” were very important and the weekly Shabbat table had to be just perfect.
“I had very ambivalent feelings about the community I grew up in,” she said. “There is a right way to be and a lot of wrong ways to be, especially for girls.”
However, according to the author, her moves to New York and then Boston, freed her up to integrate these more incongruent parts of her lifestyle.
“In New York it is very different and vibrant,” Mirvis said. “I observe Shabbat, I keep kosher and I’m a feminist. Sometimes I struggle within but I feel comfortable with all of that—that it doesn’t have to be resolved.”
In a 2004 interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Mirvis admitted that some in her local Memphis Orthodox Jewish community questioned how they were portrayed in her first book. Some, she said, felt it was not a flattering portrait of whom they are. Still others were offended they were omitted from the story.
Mirvis maintains that she has no quarrel with Orthodoxy. In fact, she is working on a third book using her own family’s long history in Tennessee as her source material.
“I don’t think I’m trying to say something about Orthodoxy,” said Mirvis, “and I don’t think there are typical Orthodox characters. I didn’t have a particular audience in mind, because every reader responds to what they are interested in. Fiction lets us learn about a different world.”