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  • The Ladies Auxiliary
  • Written by Tova Mirvis
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345441263
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The Ladies Auxiliary

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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
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fiction (46) women (10) judaism (8) memphis (5) religion (5) literary fiction (5) novel (5) southern (4)
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When free-spirited Batsheva moves into the close-knit Orthodox community of Memphis, Tennessee, the already precarious relationship between the Ladies Auxiliary and their teenage daughters is shaken to the core. In this extraordinary novel, Tova Mirvis takes us into the fascinating and insular world of the Memphis Orthodox Jews, one ripe with tradition and contradiction. Warm and wise, enchanting and funny, The Ladies Auxiliary brilliantly illuminates the timeless struggle between mothers and daughters, family and self, religious freedom and personal revelation, honoring the past and facing the future. An unforgettable story of uncommon atmosphere, profound insight, and winning humor, The Ladies Auxiliary is a triumphant work of fiction.

Excerpt

BATSHEVA APPEARED IN OUR lives on a Friday afternoon as we were getting ready for Shabbos. It was inappropriate that she moved in when she did. Not that there was any religious prohibition against it, but it wasn't something we would have done. Fridays were set aside to prepare for Shabbos, and on the day Batsheva arrived, we were picking up our children from day camp, frying up chickens and doing laundry, the list of last-minute tasks growing as sundown approached. Even in the summer, when Shabbos started close to eight o'clock, there was never enough time to get ready. Each week, when the last glimpses of sun were fading behind the trees, we looked around our spotless houses, smelled the freshly cooked food, and felt a sense of wonder that once again we had finished in time.


We had heard that someone new was moving in, that the Lebmans had finally rented their house to a nice Jewish family as they had hoped to. This is who we were expecting any day now, a husband, a wife, a few children. We had begun speculating: Would the wife want to join the Sisterhood, the Ladies Auxiliary, the Donor Luncheon Committee? And whose carpool would they be in? It was the end of June and car pools for the upcoming school year were already being finalized.

When Batsheva drove down the street in a dusty white car piled high with luggage, her windows rolled down and loud music from a radio station we never listened to pouring out, it didn't occur to us that she might be the new neighbor we had been waiting for. We assumed that this woman had taken a wrong turn, that she was cruising through our neighborhood in search of some other one. On our streets we were used to seeing station wagons or minivans able to transport our many children, our bags of groceries, our mounds of dry cleaning.

But she slowed as she approached the Liebmans' house and leaned her head out the window to check the address. She pulled into the driveway, her brakes squealing as she stopped. She honked several times, as if expecting someone to run out and welcome her. But no one came out, and instead, veiled behind our curtains, we watched her get out of the car, raise her hands over her head and stretch out her thin body. She turned to stare at the street, her eyes moving from house to house, drinking us in slowly like hot tea.

Who knows what she saw when she first looked around. We had lived here so long that it's difficult to imagine seeing it fresh. The shul and school stand in the middle of our neighborhood, and our houses circle around them in homage to what is most important. Our winding streets are quiet, peaceful. The branches of dogwoods, white-budded magnolias and thick oaks curve over the roads in a green canopy, painting a leaf-patterned shield in the sky. The houses, mostly ranch style, large and sprawling, are situated at comfortable distances from each other. The lawns are well kept, the bushes are trimmed, and bright-colored flowers line the brick pathways that lead to our front doors.

Right away we knew Batsheva wasn't one of us. What stood out most was her white-blond hair. She left it loose and it was long, all the way down her back. her green eyes leapt out at us and her face glistened with sweat. Her features were small and even, her cheeks were carefully sculpted, pale skin stretched tightly across bone. But her lips were full, curving upward like an archer's bow. It was also her clothes that caught our attention. She didn't dress the way we did, in loose skirts and modest necklines that hid our curved female bodies, shaping them into soft masses. Her white, short-sleeved shirt clung too tightly to her chest. The gauzy fabric of her purple skirt. The hem of it trimmed with fringes, swished when she walked, and we could almost see the trace of her legs beneath. And she wore a silver anklet with shiny blue beads and brown leather sandals with thin straps that crisscrossed in tight angles across her skin.

She went around to the other side of the car, opened the door, and out came a barefoot little girl in a yellow sundress. Ayala's face was smudged with chocolate and her hands looked sticky. Something about this little girl's face made us need to look again: on first glance we had seen the face of an adult even though our eyes were telling us it was a child no more than five years old. Her hair was a few shades lighter than Batsheva's and hung in wisps across her forehead and reached her chin. Her eyes had a ghostly quality, giving the impression that no one was behind them. And her skin was so pale we could almost see past it to the blue veins below.
Tova Mirvis

About Tova Mirvis

Tova Mirvis - The Ladies Auxiliary

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Tova Mirvis grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. She received an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Praise

Praise

"A SPARKLING DEBUT . . . A graceful novel with a strong sense of place, with vivid characters that are as Southern as the black-eyed peas they serve for Shabbat dinner, as Jewish as their homemade challah."
--Jewish Week

"MIRVIS EVOKES [ORTHODOX MEMPHIS] WITH COMPASSION AND TELLING DETAIL."
--Detroit Free Press

"Poignant, funny, sophisticated . . . The Orthodox answer to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
--Mademoiselle
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

"Appealing--Batsheva flourishes as an effective character, full of verve and chutzpah, like an Ellen Gildchrist heroine whose iconoclasm, unremarkable by cosmopolitan standards, takes on bright colors in conventional society."
--The New York Times Book Review

"[A] lyric debut novel--Mirvis' storytelling is superb."
--The Balitmore Sun

"A debut that details, with wisdom and grace, the inevitable tensions between the comfort of community and the need for individual freedom."
--Kirkus Reviews

"A semi-allegorical tale of the small Orthodox Jewish community of Memphis (yes--Tennessee), which Mirvis evokes with compassion and telling detail."
--Detroit Free Press

"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--A gentle story that captures its milieu with tolerant understanding, and plucks the heartstrings."--Publishers Weekly

"Compassionate and perceptive--The triumph of the book is its portrayal of these women, whose community is a treasure of tradition and moral values--.This book is not just for Jewish audiences--Mirvis has written a book that poses poignant questions even as it acknowledges that there may be no answers to them."
--USA Today

About the Author

TOVA MIRVIS grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. She received a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and son.

Discussion Guides

1. The novel opens with an almost pastoral description of Memphis's Jewish neighborhood, typologically evoking a "city on the hill" image. How do the themes that imbue this first scene set the tone for the rest of the book?

2. Find a passage in which a Jewish ceremony is described. In what ways does Mirvis show the myriad, even contradictory, meanings that it contains for each of its participants?

3. The use of the first-person plural pronoun for the narrative voice emphasizes the collective, uniform nature of the community. The story is told not by any one member of the community but by a chorus. How does Mirvis play with this voice to emphasize moments of dissension or doubt? At what points is the voice the least omniscient?

4. What did you make of the seeming role reversal between mothers and daughters, with the mothers portrayed as naïve and the daughters as more perceptive and worldly?

5. What do you think will happen after the end of the novel? Will Batsheva stay? To what extent will she be integrated, if at all?

6. How do you imagine Ayala to be five or ten years after the end of the novel?

7. This book, with its independent, proud heroine, could be read alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (even down to the strange apparitions in the sky). How do they both explore issues of tradition, tolerance, belief, individuality, and forgiveness? In what important ways do they diverge?

8. What characters did you identify with most? Was it always Batsheva?

9. Do you think Yosef's doubt about Judaism predated Batsheva's arrival? Or did it grow out of their conversations?

10. Was there ever a point where you agreed with those who thought that Batsheva had "crossed the line"?

11. How and where does Mirvis blur the division between religious faith and small-town provincialism?

12. Do you think it is possible to carve out a space for individualism within an orthodoxy? Is what Batsheva attempts even possible or, in the end, do you have to choose one over the other? (Perhaps think of other stories--Voltaire's Candide, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Henry James's Daisy Miller--in which someone presents a challenge to an established order.).

13. What do you make of the vision in the sky that ends the novel? How can it be read along with the opening scene of the novel?


  • The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis
  • September 05, 2000
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345441263

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