The Outside World
304 pp., $24.00
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Shabbos, Sheitels, and Yarmulkes
My wish: that I could somehow coerce my family and friends to drop everything and read this book. The setting reminds me of every church I've ever attended (and the rules endemic to them). But the book I'm talking about—The Outside World, by Tova Mirvis—is not about Christianity. It's a novel about two Orthodox Jewish families—one in Brooklyn, the other in Laurelwood, New Jersey—who are brought together in a comedic clash by the marriage of their two children.
The Goldman family is in crisis. The eldest daughter, Tzippy, is a spinster at twenty-two. Shayna, the mother, is desperate for white chiffon and delicate lace and wedding cake; it's all she's dreamed about since Tzippy was born. And what will the neighbors think of her if she can't get her daughter a husband? Tzippy, on the other hand, isn't sure she wants romantic obligation. She hasn't liked any of the 42 boys who have courted her over Diet Cokes in the lobby of the Brooklyn Marriott Hotel.
Not far away, Naomi and Joel Miller have a national emergency of their own. Their son, Bryan, whom they sent to a yeshiva in Israel after he graduated from high school, has come home—and behold his transformation! He insists on being called by his Hebrew name, Baruch. No longer a basketball-toting, girl-crazy kid, he returns spouting "Rabbi this and Rabbi that" and admonishing his mother to use dish racks in her non-kosher porcelain sink. Naomi is not alone in her exasperation. Ilana, Baruch's younger sister, greets him at the airport as she's always done, throwing her arms around him, but he pushes her away. "It's assur," he says. Forbidden. Ilana rages that things can shift so rapidly. What does her family believe and why?
Baruch and Tzippy finally meet, of their own accord, in Jerusalem, where both are attending Jewish school. They announce their engagement several months later, and both families are flung into a whirlwind of agitated preparation, enough to make Baruch and Tzippy joke about eloping.
Like Mirvis' first book, The Ladies Auxiliary, this is a story about community and "about the desire for spirituality and for meaning, and also the desire for freedom, about wanting to be able to choose for yourself what you believe in and the kind of life you want to lead."
Although Mirvis lives in New York City with her husband and son, she was raised in Memphis, in a close-knit Orthodox community. She spent a year after high school at Brovenders, an Orthodox women's institute of Jewish studies. But she did something else as well. She studied the Talmud, a text reserved only for men. She plays with similar boundaries in this novel, holding the innate pang for community in tension with a persistent longing for freedom.
Mirvis writes dizzyingly tongue-in-cheek and laugh-out-loud at times, as when she describes a $3,000—yes, that's right—sheitel, a married Orthodox woman's wig:
All the wigs had names. The Tiffany wig had long curly hair. The Jacqueline sported a short, sleek cut with a spiky top. The Rochelle was a chin-length bob that fell over one eye. The Janice came in brown number 6, blond number 7, red number 9.
But it's her tender scrutiny of a doubting Thomas that wins my heart. Maybe because I understand the fever of doubt. In one scene, Joel returns home past the starting hour of Shabbos, and he practically runs into his daughter sitting on the stairs, waiting for him:
"But then what do you believe?" she asked … .
"I don't know," he said. "But it doesn't bother me not to be sure. I can live with sometimes not knowing."
"But then what am I supposed to believe?"
"I guess you have to figure it out for yourself."
"That's what I'm trying to do," she said. "But then I ask questions and no one answers me."
She started to cry, softly at first … .
"So keep asking," he said as he held her close.
I think that's the point. As Rainer Maria Rilke says, "try to love the questions themselves … . Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota.
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Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
A Curious Contingency | Confessions of a wordsmith. (April 05, 2004)
"Trust but Verify" | Ronald Reagan's faith. (March 29, 2004)
Baseball Preview 2004 | Plus a look back with some Negro League veterans. (March 29, 2004)
How Do You Live with a Torturer? | A novel of Haiti by the brilliant young writer, Edwidge Danticat. (March 08, 2004)