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  • Written by Tova Mirvis
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  • The Outside World
  • Written by Tova Mirvis
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Written by Tova MirvisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tova Mirvis

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42912-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Tzippy Goldman was born for marriage. She and her mother had always assumed she’d graduate high school, be set up with the right boy, and have a beautiful wedding with white lace and pareve vanilla cream frosting. But at twenty-two, Tzippy’s fast approaching spinsterhood. She dreams of escape; instead, she leaves for a year in Jerusalem.There she meets–re-meets–Baruch, the son of her mother’s college roommate. When Tzippy last saw him, his name was Bryan and he wore a Yankees-logo yarmulke. Now he has adopted the black hat of the ultra-orthodox, the tradition in which Tzippy was raised. Twelve weeks later, they’re engaged...and discovering that desire and tradition, devotion and individuality aren’t the easiest balance. Hilarious, compassionate, and tremendously insightful, The Outside World illuminates an insular community, marvelously depicting that complicated blend of faith, love, and family otherwise known as life in a modern world.

Excerpt

- One -

Tzippy Goldman was a good girl. Yet she lay awake and wished she could run across the living room, fling open all the windows and all the doors, and scream. Tzippy is crazy, the neighbors would say, unfit for our sons, our nephews. But no, Tzippy would reply, not crazy, not unfit. Just sad. And maybe a little angry.

To scream would be like battling the laws of nature. Still, she let herself imagine it, now that it was late at night and she was alone. Her parents were at the Rosenbaum wedding in Monsey, and the house that normally teemed with her four singing sisters was temporarily still. There were reasons for Tzippy's urge to howl. It was because of an unjust world, an unfair God. It was because bad things happened to good people, because fortune and luck were doled out in unequal portions. It was because Tzippy Goldman was twenty-two and still not married.

She and her mother had spent years planning imaginary weddings, deciding on color schemes before she was old enough to find a groom. Her mother used to tuck her into bed and, with her finger, draw flowers and rings and wedding cakes on her back. They discussed chiffon and organza, compared silk shantung and satin. They selected Venetian-lace wedding dresses, rhinestone tiaras, and veils with cascading tulle. When they finished planning the wedding, they moved on to the marriage house, the dream space Tzippy and her husband would one day occupy. In the marriage house, everything was new. Everything was white and clean and fresh. There were new sheets and white lace tablecloths. In the marriage house, there was never anything to worry about. The dishes never needed to be washed, the beds never needed to be made. The phone didn't ring, the doorbell didn't buzz. The dinner table was set for two, and there were long evenings with nothing to do but be together.

This dream was supposed to be waiting for her. Both Tzippy and her mother had always assumed that she would finish high school, get set up on shidduch dates, meet the right boy, get engaged, and have a beautiful wedding with lots of white lace and pareve vanilla cream frosting. She was born for this. It was possible to imagine that somewhere, in an alternate world, Tzippy had a home set up, children born, and dinner long prepared. But, in this world, it hadn't happened as she had expected, and she had passed four years waiting and worrying.

There were so many ways to be set up: my rabbi knows your rabbi; my mother knows your mother; my neighbor, your neighbor. Tzippy had been set up by teachers and friends, and by her mother, who was omnipotent and omniscient. Setting up an eighteen-year-old was a hobby for people. Finding a husband for a twenty-two-year-old was a national emergency. Well-meaning neighbors called constantly with suggestions. Tzippy's name was in the file box of every professional matchmaker in Brooklyn. Her virtues had been sung to every neighbor, every neighbor's cousin, everyone who had a son, nephew, or acquaintance of marriageable age. Before a first date could take place, so many questions had to be asked. Is Tzippy thin? Is she pretty? Is the family rich? Will they support a husband while he learns? Is there a history of divorce or mental illness? Are there any distinguished rabbis in the family? Do they own a television set?

Once the right answers were given, the match was made and the boy was allowed to call for a date. Tzippy wore the right clothes, said the right things, and nodded at the right times. She tried to convince herself that she should want to marry one of these boys. But she felt nothing for the strangers who sat across from her. She had always imagined that she would feel a rush of passion, of excitement, a rush at least of something. She had always hoped that her heart would pound and she would know when she found him. But the only thing she ever knew was that she wanted to go home. She felt as if she had been on the same date a hundred times before. She could close her eyes and a different boy would be sitting across from her.

Sometimes the boy wanted to go out with her again. Sometimes she convinced herself to go out with him. Sometimes the ones she wanted to go out with weren't the same ones who wanted to go out with her. Even if they were both interested, it never lasted more than a few dates. No matter what the reason, the explanation was always the same: "It's not shayach." This could mean that there was no chemistry. It could mean that the family wasn't prominent enough. Perhaps the boy was hoping for a more religious girl, a prettier girl, a fancier girl. Perhaps the girl was hoping for a boy not quite so short. She wanted someone more outgoing, someone more serious, less serious, a boy who would learn in yeshiva full-time, a boy who wore a black hat only on Shabbos and would every once in a while see a movie. That it worked for anyone seemed to defy the laws of nature that God, in His infinite wisdom, had set down.

Yet her former high school classmates seemed to have no trouble defying nature. One by one, another engagement was announced, a party held, a ring flashed. Tzippy bore it with great dignity, smiling tightly when her friends recalled that at their high school graduation they had bet that Tzippy would be first. And though she had modestly protested-no, not me, surely Rochel Leah or Sara Bracha first-she had assumed that their predictions spoke the truth. But four years had passed since she possessed that certainty. And tonight she stayed home while her mother danced at the wedding of a nineteen-year-old girl who got engaged to the first boy she ever went out with.

Tzippy had things that were supposed to keep her occupied until she got married. She took an early childhood education class at Brooklyn College. She worked as an aide in a nursery school. She helped her mother with her four sisters: Zahava, who was fifteen; Malky, who was eleven; Dena, who was seven; and Dassi, who was five. But Tzippy worried that her real life would never begin. She would live eternally with her parents, while her married friends moved into new apartments. They would sleep next to their husbands, while she became the pity of the neighborhood. Girls three years younger than she would get married, then girls five years younger. With their hats and their homes, they would become married women, while she remained a girl.

"Don't be negative, Tzippy," her mother always told her. "You need to have faith. If you think it's never going to happen, maybe it won't.

"You need to smile. No one wants to marry a lemon," her mother reminded her.

Outwardly, Tzippy acquiesced to her mother's suggestions and tried not to lose hope. She knew that it was bad to be angry, bad to want more than had been allotted to her. She reminded herself that she was supposed to look at her situation and understand why God wanted it this way. Her mother said that her prolonged single state should be an atonement for anything she had ever done wrong. Every unmarried girl in Brooklyn felt the pressure, but for Tzippy it bore down with such weight that it was hard to breathe. To protect herself, Tzippy screamed silent rebuttals in her head: Why do I need to smile, Mom, if it's in the hands of God? If you like him so much, why don't you go out with him? Maybe I'll never get married. Maybe I'll become the world's first Jewish nun.

Hiding inside these silent retorts was a voice that was willful and disagreeable. Tzippy knew that this voice was probably her yetzer harah, her evil inclination, which she was supposed to ignore. But it liked to suggest that maybe she would never get married. It also liked to challenge her. What if she yelled at her mother in public? What if she refused to help out with her sisters? What if she insisted on getting her own apartment far away from Brooklyn? The presence of this voice scared Tzippy. She worried that she might open her mouth and this voice might emerge. Even if she managed to keep it quiet, people might be able to sense it budding inside her. Just by looking at her, they might know that she felt things she wasn't supposed to feel. The only way to make it go away was to get engaged. Her friends who had been delivered safely into marriage surely didn't hear such voices. But left on her own, the voice could take over. After a date hadn't worked out or another one of her friends had gotten engaged, it tempted her to test God. If You don't find me a husband, I will eat this cookie without making a blessing, Tzippy had once warned Him. When the phone didn't ring, a matchmaker on the other end, she had taken a bite and waited for God to strike her down.

It hadn't ended there. Once, when Tzippy had an afternoon to herself, she went to Lord & Taylor and wandered through the section of evening gowns. Long and satin, with beads and no sleeves, sheer, short, slinky, spaghetti-strapped and sequined, they lured Tzippy. Praying that no one would notice, she snuck a strapless black gown into a dressing room. In front of the mirror, she first saw only the absence of the required sleeves and high neck; she couldn't get over so much naked skin. But as she kept staring, she saw not what the dress was missing, but what she had. Tzippy was slight, barely five two. Her brown hair was thick and straight and long. She wore long jean skirts by day, flowered pajamas by night. But in this dress, she looked like a grown woman. She was surprised at the body she saw-as if the thin ballerina arms, the small waist and hips, weren't her own. Under her uniform of long skirts and long sleeves, they were hidden not just from others, but from herself as well. She loved what she saw. She would leave the dress here as long as she could bring home this image of herself.

This voice, these feelings, made it hard to fall asleep. Ever since Tzippy quietly turned twenty-two, the pressure had mounted exponentially. On this night, she wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep. Dassi, her youngest sister, woke up, besieged with bad dreams of monsters and dogs. Eyes half-closed, she appeared in Tzippy's doorway.

"Can I come in your bed?" she asked.

"Of course," said Tzippy, and took Dassi in her arms.

Tzippy's room was tiny, really a small box, but Tzippy was the oldest, so she had it to herself. There were no posters of rock bands, no soap opera stars. Instead, there was a picture of Jerusalem's Old City on the wall, a collection of china dolls on top of her bookcase. A fading border of ballerinas danced high on the wall. The bedspread was pink. The walls were a matching shade. There were two kinds of bedrooms Tzippy would occupy: the one of her childhood and the one of her marriage. Since one was supposed to follow closely upon the other, neither Tzippy nor her mother had seen the point of redecorating.

Dassi could make herself comfortable anywhere. She knew how to find the soft spots and burrow in. As Dassi went back to sleep, Tzippy smoothed her hair and whispered that everything was okay. Dassi had one arm draped across Tzippy's stomach, and Tzippy risked waking her by running her fingers across her baby-like cheeks. Her previous urge to scream was no match for the soft, steady breathing of her youngest sister. As Dassi turned in her sleep, Tzippy melted back into the gentle, helpful, and kind girl that everyone knew.

But Tzippy still couldn't sleep. She tried to calm her anger by thinking about the date she had tomorrow night with Yosef Schachter, whom her mother was so excited about. She told herself that it was wrong to assume that this boy would talk about himself the whole night, forget her name, and then tell the matchmaker how off the mark it was. Maybe her mother was right. Maybe Yosef Schachter was The One. Tzippy had been taught that God was busy day and night pairing everyone up. She believed in the God of Abraham who introduced him to Sarah, the God of Isaac who matched him with Rebecca, the God of Jacob who gave him both Rachel and Leah. Tzippy wanted to believe that she would soon be the bride who floated down the aisle, her face shadowed with tulle. She wanted to close her eyes and be led to the future that awaited her.


From the Hardcover edition.
Tova Mirvis|Author Q&A

About Tova Mirvis

Tova Mirvis - The Outside World

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.

Author Q&A

Q: The two families in THE OUTSIDE WORLD are Orthodox Jews - but the Goldmans are ultra orthodox and the Millers are modern. Why this juxtaposition at the center of your novel?
A: This novel began for me with a picture that I came across, where the children didn’t match the parents. They were all Orthodox Jews but the mother and father looked thoroughly American. They wore jeans and had on polo shirts. The father was clean-shaven. The mother had her hair uncovered. Their children though looked like a throwback to a previous century. The son had a long beard and he wore a black hat. His wife had on a long skirt and she covered her hair with a wig. Looking at this, I felt like history had somehow reversed itself. Time almost seemed to be moving backwards. The children, not the parents, were the ones who looked as if they had stepped out of the shtetl.

This picture gripped me. 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. I decided to write about a family where the son chooses to be more strictly religious than his parents. One of the themes I was most interested in writing about was the tension between tradition and modernity. I wanted to look at what it means to be religious in the modern world. Is it possible to be part of the outside world and be religious? What happens to tolerance and respect in a family, in a society, when people hold strong, absolutist views?

I chose to portray two families who are from different ends of the Orthodox spectrum. This enabled me to look at their varying response to these questions. One of the key differences between the two Orthodox communities is their relationship to the outside world. Ultra Orthodoxy generally believes in being separate from it – it is generally opposed to secular education, to involvement in secular culture. It argues that in order to maintain religiosity, one has to shut oneself off from secular culture. This is one possible answer to the question. But Modern Orthodoxy believes in the melding of the religious and secular worlds. It believes in being fully involved in the outside world, in embracing art and culture and science. As its very core, it is constantly wrestling with the tension between tradition and modernity.

This theme has always characterized Jewish writing. From Shalom Aleichem to Phillip Roth, writers have asked, and given very different answers to, what happens to an ancient tradition as it encounters modernity. But the tension between tradition and modernity is an issue in all sorts of communities, in all kinds of families. It is a very American theme, particularly right now, as there is a wrestling of what it means to identify with many cultural and ethnic groups at once, to hold sometimes conflicting sets of values.

Q: Which version of orthodoxy did you grow up with?
A I grew up modern Orthodox. But in my case, this was an open, liberal, feminist environment. These adjectives – liberal, feminist, open, Orthodox, I know, seem like contradictions. But they don’t have to be, and for many people, they’re not. Often people think that if you’re Orthodox – or religious in general – that there is a party line to toe; that they can anticipate your beliefs on a wide range of issues. People assume you can’t be questioning or intellectual or open-minded. I don’t think there is any one Orthodoxy: there are so many variations. It isn’t monolithic. Even on the theological level, I think there is a huge variance in belief. But certainly in terms of how people live it – which is one of my main interests as a writer – there is always a carving out of an individual path.

But it is true that it’s not easy to live in this middle ground, with this mixed bag of beliefs. Very often it is a struggle. Because modern Orthodoxy is open to a range of ideas and influences, some very traditional, some very modern, there are more gray areas, more points of conflict. I feel this on a personal level all the time, and it is something I am always struggling with. But this is also what makes modern Orthodoxy so interesting and engaging; it explicitly allows for and embraces tension and contradiction. At its core, it advocates a wide experience of the world, of living within many worlds at once, and ideally, finding a way to integrate them. Orthodoxy is at an interesting moment right now: The Orthodox world has moved to the right, which was one of the themes of my novel. But there is also interesting growth at the other end of the spectrum where some of the lines between religious denomination are breaking down, where there is an embrace of innovation and feminism and pluralism.

My relationship to this community is also complicated by the fact that I am a writer, writing about my own community. A writer has to be able to distance herself from whatever world she lives in, in order to see it clearly. You have to feel freedom to say whatever you want. To write, I have to live in several communities at once, or sometimes in none. Sometimes I feel like I have one foot inside the Orthodox world and one foot outside. This moving between worlds is something I am very interested in writing about, so even though it isn’t always a very comfortable place to live, it is a very fertile place to write from.

Q: Dating and marriage are important in most cultures, but in the community you describe here, they are highly ritualized and say a great deal about the people involved with them. What drew you to this subject?
A: Tzippy, one of the main characters in THE OUTSIDE WORLD feels immense pressure to get married. She and her mother have been planning her wedding since she was a little girl. The dress is picked out. The color schemes are decided. All they need is a groom. And to everyone’s horror, he is nowhere to be found. At twenty-two, she stands on the brink of becoming an old maid.

In this world, marriage is everything. Dating isn’t a matter of private choice or desire. It is a communal endeavor. People are paired up with surgical precision. Every aspect of a potential date’s personality, family, and observance are measured and evaluated. Dating and marriage are where everyone’s anxieties emerge. It’s like a beauty pageant for the entire family: Do you belong? How are you regarded? Everything is scrutinized. Families ask each other a hundred questions before they agree to let their children be set up. If they pass this test and are allowed to go out, then there is another set of rules. And if they get engaged, then there are even more rules.

The presence of so many rules makes for great subject matter. I love to write about rules because they are so telling: The rules a community adheres to reveals so much about its members. One of the things that has always fascinated me about these rules is that some of them are religious but just as many of them are social. But they are followed with the same degree of scrupulousness. They take on the weight of religious law.

Q: Was it fun to write about a big Orthodox Jewish wedding?
A: I loved writing about a wedding. There is so much to describe. Tulle and satin, the cakes, the dresses, the obsession with china and ribbon: they are a writer’s dream. When I got married, I was overwhelmed with these details. I had a big wedding but planning it was a nightmare. My mother and I sat with florists and caterers and our eyes glazed over at the choices, the attention given to these details. Neither of us cared very much about them. But for a writer, every experience comes in handy sooner or later. So I collected the details and have been holding on to them all these years, waiting to make use of them.

Wedding details are especially interesting to me because tucked behind them, larger issues are at stake. I don’t think that the obsession with weddings is merely about materialism or showing off. In the novel, when Shayna dreams about fancy wedding cakes, she is really articulating her desire to belong, to finally fit into this very Orthodox world which she came to as a young adult. She thinks that having the right cake, the right dress, will secure her place in this world. Her desire for cakes is about the possibility of self-transformation, about belonging.

All too often, anything having to do with clothing or food or weddings is regarded as unimportant. But I believe in the importance of domestic details. This is especially true when writing about Orthodox Judaism, which is essentially about minutiae; the law resides in the smallest particulars of domestic life. Clothing, food, and furnishings are never incidental. They have become the stuff of God. Seemingly unimportant details, with no clear theological origin, bespeak major statements and have taken on the force of law.

Q: The Goldman's are a close-knit family. And the community of Orthodox Jews that you describe could be described as insular, even claustrophobic as well. Is that quality particular to this community? Why do you think that is?

A: In this community, there is a strong emphasis on family, and in particular, on having a big family. There are particular pressures – to marry young and well, to prepare fabulous Shabbos meals, to pull off these enormous weddings. But there are close-knit, claustrophobic families everywhere. The Goldmans may live in a very Orthodox section of Brooklyn, but they are like, or unlike, unhappy families everywhere.

In order to write about these characters, and all my characters, I had to set them loose from the larger world they lived in and see them as individuals. For the Goldmans, one of the things I thought about was what happens to desire in this family. I felt like they were all dreamers, they were all wanting things. I was moved by the idea of everyone living in close quarters, quietly dreaming to themselves. Herschel is a big dreamer; he always has a plan. Shayna’s greatest desire is for Tzippy to get married. But this desire is really about herself. She is living through her children. She wants it more than Tzippy wants it. Tzippy also has desires, but at least in the beginning of the novel, she tries to squelch them. She is so giving, so selfless, that she thinks it’s wrong to want things for herself. The sisters, on the other hand, are a never-ending stream of desire. They want everything, and they are never shy about articulating that.

Q: In addition to being a great story, THE OUTSIDE WORLD is a fascinating catalogue of Jewish law - the rules and regulations that guide everyday life for Orthodox Jews. Did you do a lot of research for the book, or do you know most of this from your everyday life?
A: I did very little research. I grew up with all these rules and customs and rituals, so when I write, it’s very natural for me to incorporate on them. The presence of so many rules and rituals gives me a constant supply of material to draw from.

What becomes more challenging is how to use the language and the rituals and still make the book accessible. I wanted to use the actual terms and describe practices that not everyone is familiar with, because this is how the world fully and authentically comes to life. At the same time, I wanted people from a variety of backgrounds to read the book. I hate glossaries, and explaining something outright breaks the flow of the story. But I tried to make it clear from the context, and hoped that all sorts of readers would be able to step into this world with me. This is something I think about not just as a writer but as a reader too. For me, one of the most exhilarating parts of reading is being brought into other worlds.

Q: The Miller’s son, Baruch goes to Israel and quickly becomes extremely conservative -- to the despair of his parents. Do you think this happens often to the offspring of liberal parents? Do you think that the move from liberal to conservative between the generations represents a trend right now?
A: I do think it’s a trend. The pendulum always swings, and in this case, as American culture becomes more permissive, religious communities tend to grow stricter. Certainly this is true in the Orthodox Jewish world it is. Baruch’s transformation is common in the Orthodox world. As a whole, Orthodoxy is moving to the right. Observance has become stricter. People rely less and less on what their parents did and instead turn to strict interpretations of religious texts. And though the right wing Orthodox world likes to think it is separate from the outside world, it is always reacting to it. There is a constant interplay between the two.

We don’t usually think of conservatism as a form of rebellion. But rebellion can just as easily go in one direction as in the other. I do think that Baruch genuinely believes in the form of Orthodoxy he chooses. But at the same time, his decision is very much about what he perceives to be his parents’ hypocrisy. He wants to insist on absolutes. His parents try to maintain this tricky middle ground, while he wants everything to be consistent. In these stricter communities, there is an attempt to make things black and white; there is at least the presentation of certainty. In a confusing world, that can be very appealing.

Q: How does one maintain religiosity in a modern world?
A: I don’t know. I think it’s hard. There is a great deal of discomfort with religiosity, and I have to admit, I feel it myself as well. Whenever someone professes certainty, I start to get nervous. Religiosity is usually associated with fervor. We hear so much about extremism and fundamentalism. The religious ones are those who claim to be sure. But that is only a small part of what it means to be religious. People rarely talk about doubt, about a religiosity that is fleeting and wavering and conflicted and uncertain. This seems to me to be a truer and more common religiosity.

Q: In contrast to Baruch’s choice, do some ultra Orthodox Jews grow up to reject their communities?
A: Of course. No system works for everyone in it, especially one which is so structured and restrictive. And I think it is only beginning to be talked about in the very Orthodox world, where maybe people want to believe that everyone is happy and satisfied with this lifestyle. But in recent years, more attention has been paid to this issue, particularly with teenagers. Even though these kids are sheltered from the outside world, it seeps in anyway. There is no way to hermetically seal them off, as maybe the communities or their parents have tried to do. There is always curiosity.

In this novel, I was interested in looking at people who don’t exactly reject their communities but search for individualized ways to live within them. I wanted to write about family members who move in varying and often opposing directions. While Baruch is becoming much more religious, some of his family members are becoming less so. His sister Ilana is young, but she is on that path. She is questioning, and she is angry. Joel is more indifferent to strict observance, while Naomi is really seeking a more spiritualized version of Judaism. Even though the characters in this family are all technically Orthodox, they are each searching for their own place within that world.

Q: Tzippy too undergoes a transformation over the course of the novel. Talk about her discovery of the outside world.
A: In writing about Tzippy, I was most interested in the idea of an imaginative inner world that might hide behind a very staid façade. She is a good girl. She has sublimated her own desires to those of everyone else. Ironically, it is by doing what is expected of her and getting married that she finds her freedom. She no longer has to worry about what people will think in the same way as she did when she was single. And she gets to leave home, and go to Memphis, which is worlds away from Brooklyn.

For Tzippy, I was more interested in curiosity than I was in rebellion. And in this regard, books are the most dangerous. They introduce her to the outside world. She is moved by secular books, by art. She knows that it isn’t always a question of leaving a community or staying within in. There are so many other choices between the two. She learns how to make space for what she wants, to quietly carve out a place for these desires. What she does is ultimately small. There is no big rebellion: she doesn’t cast off her wig or walk away from her marriage. But it’s not only large rebellions that are interesting. For me, as a writer, small acts of transgression are important. I am just as interested in the stirring of a forbidden thought, a quiet chafing against a rule. These moments may be small, but they can be just as transgressive as something larger.

Q: It is hard for a lot of people to imagine keeping kosher. Did you grow up in a kosher household?
A: I did grow up keeping kosher, and when I was younger, I took it for granted. It was easy to do because I was born into it. We used to stare longingly at non-kosher candy or wonder what McDonalds would taste like, but for the most part, it was a given. In Memphis, there was a relatively small Jewish community so it was hard for a kosher restaurant to stay in business. One would open and then, after a year or so, it would close. There would be nothing, and then after a few years, someone would open one and then of course that would eventually close. This inspired my decision to write about the kosher food business. I was always struck by the way having a restaurant seemed to be a measure of a community’s self worth.

Q: There is a memorable moment in the book when Herschel gets to try his first kosher Oreo. And later in the novel, the Goldman girls fantasize about the non-kosher food they’d like to try. Was there something -- an Oreo or another food -that excited you when you were young, when it was made into a kosher food?
A: Every few years, something new became kosher and everyone got very excited about it. I remember when Pepperidge Farms became kosher, then Snickers, then M&Ms, then finally Oreos. Each one was such a big deal – people ate them as if they were starving. The food we couldn’t have loomed so large. Then, after a few months, it wasn’t such a big deal anymore. The excitement wasn’t really about the food. It was about curiosity, about a desire to be like everyone else. In Israel, there are kosher McDonalds and Pizza Huts, and this is always the first stop for Americans visiting Israel. It’s the chance to finally sample the forbidden fruit.

Q: Food plays an enormous role in the novel -- not just in the career path of Baruch and Tzippy, but also in every holiday and gathering that takes place. Why?
A: Food came into the novel by accident. I wasn’t planning on having them open a restaurant. I was thinking about something like a yeshiva or a school. But somehow, in the midst of a very frustrating writing day, I had the idea that maybe Herschel and Baruch would open a kosher restaurant. And once I had that piece in place, things began to come together.

I love writing about food. Food is always about families, about people. And food is so central in Jewish life: someone gets married, someone is born, someone dies, there’s always a meal. It is even ritualized: in Jewish law, happy occasions are supposed to be marked with “wine, meat and fish.” A meal is considered official only when someone eats bread. I’ve always been interested in restaurants. While I was writing the novel, I talked to everyone I could in the food business. I would be buying food for my family and I’d have to interview the manager about his business. I tried to do research every time I went out to eat.

One of the things that struck me was the rise of kosher gourmet. It used to be that just having a kosher restaurant was a big deal. But in the bigger cities, kosher has gone gourmet. There are Kosher Thai restaurants, Kosher sushi. The biggest compliment you can pay a kosher restaurant is that you can’t tell it’s kosher. I think that this is very telling about a community’s place in the world and its sense of itself. Though it is separate, with so many specific restrictions, kosher food becomes one more way in which the traditional world melds with the outside world. At a wedding, I once observed a Yiddish-speaking young man in full Hasidic garb at a smorgasbord. He expertly used a pair of chopsticks to fill his plate with sushi. For me, that was a perfect moment of cultural integration. Here was this person who, I am guessing, would articulate a separatist view of religion, who would argue against involvement with the outside world. Yet, despite his own ideology, he is part of the world anyway.

Q: Who was the most fun character to write about?
A: Herschel was definitely the most fun. He is exuberant, irrepressible, and full of grand ideas. Herschel is something of a trickster, but I didn’t feel like he was deliberately trying to fool anyone. He is always hopeful, he fully believes in his schemes. He has an optimism that cannot be squelched. In the novel, I was interested in looking at various kinds of beliefs, and in some sense, he is the ultimate believer. He believes in his ideas and in himself. His belief is never tempered by any kind of doubt. Sometimes I thought of him as a writer figure: he is always spinning dreams, always trying to make something big and real out of his ideas.

Q: Your previous book, THE LADIES AUXILIARY, took a close look at the Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis. Can you explain why it was controversial there? Do you think that THE OUTSIDE WORLD will cause as much of a stir?
A: Before The Ladies Auxiliary was even published, there were lots of different theories as to what it was about. People heard they were in the book and they were upset about that. Or they heard they weren’t in the book and they were upset about that. Then, once the book came out, people in Memphis spent a lot of time trying to figure out who was who – as if there were a one to one correspondence between the characters and real people. People said it was nothing like Memphis. Or that it was exactly like Memphis and that I had aired the dirty laundry. The main complaint was that it made the community look bad, when the insiders in that community are so intent on putting forth a wholly positive image of the community at all costs. And it was funny, because that was one of the themes I had written about in the novel.

Now, with this book, I think the people who were upset about The Ladies Auxiliary are going to be upset no matter what I write. I’m still referred to as “the one who wrote that book.” But this new book is different. The Ladies Auxiliary was really about a place, about a community. Part of THE OUTSIDE WORLD does take place in Memphis, but in this novel, Memphis becomes an escape for Tzippy and Baruch. The main focus is on them and their evolving relationship. It’s not really about the community in the same way as The Ladies Auxiliary was.

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to become a writer? Since you share a cultural heritage with the characters in the book, this seems like a career choice that your parents may not have liked. Is that true?
A: I think that I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always loved to read; as a child I was always deep inside a book. My parents have been wonderfully supportive. My mother is a story-teller, and both of my parents are avid readers and are creative and love art. Perhaps in some parts of the Jewish community, being a writer might raise some eyebrows, but overall, there is such a strong Jewish tradition of story-telling, of loving words and stories, and an understanding of the need to tell them.

Q: What's next for you? Do you expect to continue writing about the Orthodox Jewish community?
A: I’ve just started working on another novel. I had planned to take a break after I finished the revisions for THE OUTSIDE WORLD. Writing a novel is always draining – and doing it with two little kids underfoot is even more so. But after a few weeks of this so called vacation, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I missed writing. I was eager to sink into a new set of characters and themes. After spending so long revising each word, trying to nail down each scene, it is librating to be at the beginning, when everything is still unformed. So much changes over the years it takes to write a novel, so whatever I write now is just the very initial ideas and will evolve so much. But at least for now, I am writing about several generations in a Southern Jewish family. I am a sixth generation Memphian, and I want to use some of my family history and stories. I want to write about a family story that is passed down through the generations and changes with each of the tellers. I am thinking about what it means to be Southern and Jewish. I am thinking a lot about the kinds of denial and self-deception that exist in families and are passed down, and I am thinking about what it means to be rooted in a city, to belong, to want to belong.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Brilliant. . . . Mirvis finds reservoirs of belief, doubt, ambition, folly, lust and the rest of the human equation.” —The Washington Post Book World“Melancholy and subtly humorous. . . . Under Mirvis’ knowing and sympathetic eye, this insular sect reveals itself to be not such a small world after all.” —Entertainment Weekly"Expertly crafted. . . . Mirvis explores the bubbling tensions between the different worlds her characters straddle: modernity and tradition, the spiritual and the physical, fantasy and reality, religion and secularism, individual freedom and social mores." -The Chicago Tribune“Mirvis has a pastry chef's control of her material, a sureness about not overhandling the dough. She leavens utterly serious explorations of faith with chuckle-out-loud humor, yet doesn't slip into irreverence, let alone disrespect. . . . You don't have to be Jewish to love her.” —Seattle Times"Mirvis tells the story...with gentle humor and loving attention to Jewish life. She has a talent for seeing everybody's side and making incompatible attitudes seem equally reasonable." -Newsday“Compelling and heartfelt…will satisfy readers curious for a true-to-life peek into the semisecret society of Orthodox Judaism.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Her chatty style and her eye for cultural contradictions are always engaging.” —The New Yorker“It is a sin against human intelligence to use the tired phrase ‘My Big Fat Fill-in-the-Blank Wedding’ anymore, but it's tempting to haul it out one more time for this warm novel about two Orthodox Jewish families who wrestle with faith, community and each other…Engaging.” —The Miami Herald“Makes gefilte fish of any stereotypes readers may have about Orthodox Jews….Joyously sweet-natured…and also pointedly insightful about just how complicated it is to lead a religious life.” —Kirkus Reviews“Rife with laugh out loud lines... charming and funny. A rich, fascinating glimpse into contemporary Orthodoxy." -The Forward“The last generation…has seen a wholly unexpected revival within American Judaism…The novels of Allegra Goodman, Aryeh Lev Stollman and Dara Horn, among others, have explored this landscape. But none has done so with greater perception and empathy than Tova Mirvis in her breakthrough book, The Outside World.” —Samuel Freedman, The Washington Post Book World“You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate a Tova Mirvis book…. She recreates a world of rule breakers, believers, doubters, and deceivers….A sometimes hilarious tale of isolation, faith, and destiny.” —The Jerusalem Post"Witty and wise, Mirvis's novel explores the expectations of sacred scripture and the yearning for freedom within the parameters of belief." -Booklist (starred review)"In The Outside World, Tova Mirvis creates a Milky Way of believers searching for God and a life of meaning. ...Mirvis is a wonderful storyteller and The Outside World is a charming novel with affecting characters." -The Courier-Post (NJ)“At times giddily humorous, at times stirring and sorrowful, Mirvis’s insightful novel is packed with convincing detail…The universal themes of growing up and choosing a fitting life to lead will resonate with readers of all faiths.” —Publishers Weekly“A moving and gently humorous story about the varieties of insularity, faith, acceptance and reconciliation." -The Memphis Commercial Appeal“With both humor and poignancy…a touching rendering for those who want to explore their own or another culture more deeply.” —Library Journal"Mirvis writes with gentle humor…She also captures the challenge of leading a religious life: the obligations, the meaning of faith, the balance between community and self, the occasional doubts." -The Jewish WeekThe Outside World starts off as a romantic comedy but grows into something more complicated, more poignant and more interesting…Mirvis juggles the many points of view on Orthodox life without singling out one as superior.” —The Columbus Dispatch"Hilariously brilliant... personal and profound... Mirvis has tackled insider worlds before in her previous bestseller, The Ladies Auxiliary, and here she shines as well, creating a whole warm, indelible world and bringing it all to life with insider details." - JBooks.com
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Brilliant. . . . Beneath the women’s wigs and the men’s black fedoras, Mirvis finds reservoirs of belief, doubt, ambition, folly, lust, and the rest
of the human equation.” —The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of a new novel by Tova Mirvis, the bestselling author of The Ladies Auxiliary. The Outside World is a hilarious portrait of two Orthodox Jewish families brought together by marriage.

About the Guide

Naomi and Joel Miller, who live a liberal Orthodox life in the suburbs of New Jersey, are unsettled when their son, Bryan, returns from a year at a yeshiva in Israel wearing a black hat and insisting that they call him by his Hebrew name, Baruch. He complains that the kitchen sink is not kosher enough, and he’s decided to defer his enrollment to Columbia University, because he wants to spend another year in Israel. Later, when he announces that he’s going to marry Tzippy Goldman, the daughter of Naomi’s college friend Shayna, his parents are even more disturbed. Joel can’t stand Tzippy’s father, Herschel, and the two families have grown apart over the years. Once the wedding takes place, Baruch agrees to run a kosher department in a grocery store—one of Herschel’s perennial moneymaking schemes—in the small Orthodox community of Memphis, Tennessee. Just as Baruch becomes proficient at running the business and begins to take pride in it, the business collapses, as Herschel continues to extend the empire of his dreams. The marriage of Tzippy and Baruch—as they establish their relationship and pull away from their respective parents—sends seismic rumblings through both households, and the remaining family members struggle to adapt to this new configuration of the family networks.

Wise, funny, and wholly unforgettable, The Outside World is a story of isolation and assimilation, faith and doubt, destiny and true love—a fascinating glimpse into a closed community from a writer of singular wit and charm.

About the Author

Tova Mirvis grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee. She received her M.F.A. from Columbia University and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and two children.

Discussion Guides

1. How does Bryan/Baruch’s return from Israel change the life of the Miller family? What reactions does he provoke in his father and his sister? When one family member becomes a strict interpreter of the religion that the entire family practices, is he a tyrant or a reformer? Since he protested his mother’s plan to give a speech at his wedding, what might his reaction have been if his mother had decided to write a novel like The Outside World?

2. Why is Shayna obsessed with weddings? What does her family history and upbringing explain about her desperate need to belong to the Orthodox community? Why does she keep her non-Orthodox past a secret? Why does she succumb to depression later in the novel?

3. Who is the ideal or intended audience of this novel? Does it seem that Mirvis wants to create a view of this closed community for the outside world or show the Orthodox community a reflection of itself? How do the ideas she explores in the novel about belonging and not belonging, feeling trapped or stifled by one’s family, and the yearning for authentic spirituality move beyond the particular community that she describes?

4. All four people in the Miller family have different approaches to their religious life. How would you describe each one? How successful is Naomi in mediating among the members of her family? Why does she turn to ritual and celebration to heal her family’s differences when psychology fails?

5. When we meet Tzippy, she is simultaneously dreaming of rebellion against her mother and raging against her unmarried fate. As the novel ends, she is married and pregnant. She hasn’t stepped outside the role for which her family prepared her, but she has changed. How is she different, and what kind of experience has she gained? Does the novel suggest that she will live life on her own terms, within the parameters of Orthodoxy, and that she and Baruch will forge a better partnership than her own parents did?

6. Ilana, in questioning the restrictions of Orthodox family life, finds a potential ally in her father. Is the Miller family splitting in two, with Naomi and Baruch on one side, Joel and Ilana on the other? What aspects of the religious life does Ilana find most difficult to accept? Why is taking off her shirt in public such an outrageous act of rebellion? Why does she feel betrayed by her brother?

7. What impression does Mirvis give of the delicate matter of sexuality in the courtship of Orthodox couples? Once married, how do Baruch and Tzippy adjust to their new intimacy?

8. How does the novel show the distance between the women’s and men’s spheres of responsibility in the Orthodox community? Why are the ways of the household, cooking, and child-rearing so crucial to passing on the Orthodox way of life? What aspects of Orthodox life, as described in the novel, might present the most difficult challenges to an educated woman?

9. How does Mirvis evoke the special feeling of the Sabbath? What is the significance, for Joel, of arriving home late for Shabbos [pp. 223–24]? How does this event bring him and Ilana closer together? What is the significance, for Naomi, of Joel’s late arrival?

10. Why is Naomi driven to take such an active role in seeking meaning and answers in her life? What does she expect to find in books, meditation, and seminars on Jewish spirituality [pp. 229–33]? What is admirable about her as a character?

11. What are the challenges to children living in a society that is as insular as the community depicted in The Outside World? How are the children’s needs for independence or self-determination addressed? How does Mirvis make readers feel the communal pressure toward conformity? How much room is there for dissent or individuality?

12. Why has Mirvis chosen The Outside World as a title? What is “the outside world” for Orthodox Jews? How does the outside world figure in the novel? Which characters most strongly feel the lure or the pressure of the outside world?

13. At what points in the story does Mirvis’s compassion for her characters and her love of Jewish ritual come across most strongly?

14. Mirvis brings a good deal of humor to her writing. Which incidents, for you, were most amusing?

15. Does the ending of the novel suggest that Tzippy will take an active role in healing her own family’s troubles—her mother’s despondency, her father’s dangerously unrealistic dreams, her unguided little sisters? Or will she return to Memphis and take up her own family life, keeping a distance from her difficult parents?

Suggested Readings

Pearl Abraham, Giving Up America; S. Y. Agnon, Only Yesterday; Anita Diamant, The Red Tent; Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen; Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges; Samuel G. Freedman, Jew vs. Jew; Myra Goldberg, Bee Season; Ari L. Goldman, Being Jewish; Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls; Shifra Horn, Four Mothers; Chaim Potok, The Chosen; Anne Roiphe, Lovingkindness.

  • The Outside World by Tova Mirvis
  • May 10, 2005
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400075287

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