By Traci Mosser '95
The debut novel
by Tova Mirvis '95 stirred strong feelings.
In most parts
of the country, The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis '95 '98
M.F.A. hardly would qualify as controversial. But in the small
Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tenn., the book has stirred
up rather strong feelings among some.
because in her debut novel Mirvis draws back the curtain from the
quiet enclave where she was raised and where generations of her
family have lived since the Civil War, and reveals both the
strengths and weaknesses of the enchanting and mysterious Orthodox
world. It's a kind of scrutiny, Mirvis says, with which many in her
hometown are not comfortable.
dirty laundry in public' is the term I have heard applied to what I
am doing," she says. "There's a sense of, 'If you're really one of
us, you would never do such a thing.'"
Mirvis is no
stranger to controversy. In fact, her decision to go to Columbia
was viewed by some teachers at her 18-girl high school as "not the
best thing you could do," she says. "They definitely didn't think
it was something for a nice Jewish girl to do - which is ironic
considering how strong Columbia's Jewish population is."
her hometown as a religious, close-knit world that can be intensely
protective of its way of life and may have a tendency to believe it
is immune to the outside world's problems. And while in many ways
her novel is a celebration of the rich culture and traditions of
the religion and its adherents in Memphis, it also looks critically
at levels of tolerance and acceptance within the
chronicles the arrival in Memphis of Batsheva, a free-spirited,
independent, passionate convert to Orthodox Judaism who was
inspired by a friend of Mirvis's when she was at Columbia. The
story is inventively narrated by a communal voice - a collective
"we" consisting of the women in the community - who at times admire
Batsheva's spirituality and courage and at other times are
bewildered by her refusal to conform to norms.
of the Ladies Auxiliary - so well-versed in what is right and
proper - don't know what to make of this strange woman who sings so
loudly at shul and performs the rituals of the faith with such
fresh enthusiasm that it borders on the suspicious. The rumor mill
constantly churns out gossip about this woman who threatens to
unravel the tightly knit social structure of the
Just as in
the fictional community, small-town rumors and gossip played a
starring role in the drama surrounding the publishing of the book.
The grumbling and muttering began months before the book hit the
angry," Mirvis says. "They thought I had written about a true-life
scandal that had happened in the community. Someone even claimed he
had read the book and that, yes, it was about this scandal and that
I'd used everyone's real names! This wasn't true at all, of course,
but it was still very upsetting."
Mirvis is quick to point out that the book is not autobiographical
- she doesn't write about events that happened to her and her
setting is actually a fictionalized version of her hometown - she
concedes that the novel is "emotionally autobiographical." She
grapples with feelings and issues she dealt with while growing up
in a community with the strictest notions of "right and wrong" and
"insiders versus outsiders." As a feminist, liberal Orthodox Jew,
Mirvis knows she embodies a number of contradictions and says she
has felt at times like an outsider in the Orthodox
Columbia gave her insight to both the larger world and the insular
world from which she came. Although she was at first overwhelmed by
the number of students at Columbia, Mirvis grew to appreciate the
more open and heterogeneous environment. Being away from home also
helped her develop a new appreciation for Memphis. It was her
conversations with non-Jewish friends that showed her just how
colorful her hometown was to outsiders.
major, Mirvis initially channeled her writing talents into
journalism, writing and editing for Spectator. But a
fiction-writing class taught by Barnard's Mary Gordon changed her
focus. "I didn't have a sense of what I wanted to write about, and
[Professor Gordon] really helped me think about creating stories
and characters. Taking her class made me realize the kind of
writing I wanted to do," Mirvis says.
in Columbia's MFA program in the fall of 1995, and began writing
her novel to satisfy the thesis requirement. The idea for The
Ladies Auxiliary was sparked by a conversation with a Columbia
friend who had converted to Orthodox Judaism, and the idle
imagining between the two of the chaos that would ensue if this
friend moved to Memphis.
very independent-minded and free-spirited. I was struck by how she
didn't seem aware or concerned about what people thought of her,"
Mirvis says, adding that what began as a character based on her
friend became very different in the final version of the
much of the book while teaching Logic & Rhetoric to
first-years. During an internship (which she landed through
Columbia's Center for Career Services) with the Watkins/Loomis
literary agency, she worked up the courage to ask an agent she
admired to read her book. The agent loved it. "I feel like Columbia
played such an important part in everything that's happened with
the novel," Mirvis says.
sometimes felt like an outsider growing up and going off to
Columbia and the big, bad city, it was nothing compared to the
feelings she experienced going back to Memphis after the book was
really eye-opening. At first people who I knew had been talking
about the book didn't even mention it - pretending it didn't exist.
Eventually, they'd mention it in a very, genteel southern way, but
still letting you know how angry they were," she says.
A few people
refused to speak to her, and some even gave her dirty looks. "I
felt like I was Batsheva. I understood what it was like to walk in
the synagogue in Memphis and feel like everyone was talking about
me," Mirvis says.
came up to me and said, 'Well, we heard it was unflattering.' That
was really the complaint - that the book just wasn't 'nice.' They
seemed to think of fiction as either 'nice' or 'not nice,' and
they'd try to judge it in those terms."
judging it in less black and white terms. The book was selected for
Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers Program and has
received several positive reviews. Norton, the book's publisher,
has heavily promoted the novel and touts it as an Orthodox version
of the best-selling Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
"One of the
best compliments I've ever gotten about the novel was from a woman
in Mississippi who said she didn't know a thing about Jews, but
that the book reminded her of the ladies in her mother's Methodist
church," Mirvis says, in a voice hoarse from a whirlwind book tour
of a dozen cities in half as many weeks.
lives near Columbia with her husband, Allan Galper, and their
toddler son, Eitan. Although she says that even before writing her
novel she wasn't planning on moving back to Memphis, her decision
has been solidified by the events of the past year.
Mirvis spends much of her time at the local Starbucks turning out
pages for her second novel, which also will be set in an Orthodox
Jewish community, though perhaps not Memphis.
She says that
writing about her religion has brought new meaning and significance
to her life.
describe the Jewish holidays and the traditions forced me to really
think about what it is I find so special about them - to really
convey what they meant to someone who might not know."
author: Traci Mosser '95 is a writer, editor and Southerner
who just can't bring herself to move away from the Columbia