Writer’s Latest Novel Is More ‘Fiddler’ Than ‘Tevye’

By Alys R. Yablon

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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The Outside World

By Tova Mirvis

Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $24.

* * *

‘Tzippy Goldman was a good girl,” but she was trapped: She wanted to scream, to throw a fit, to escape the confines of Brooklyn and shidduch dating and, most of all, her wedding-obsessed mother.

As Tova Mirvis’s new novel opens, one can almost hear klezmer music playing in the background. From the first page, “The Outside World” reads like a contemporary “Fiddler on the Roof.” All of the characters are in the throes of some inextricable existential Jewish angst, but are thankfully able to see the humor in their predicaments and imagine their worries away. It could easily be staged as a play or produced as a movie, and it would be a success.

Tzippy Goldman of Brooklyn is 22 and on the brink of spinsterhood. She cannot face another hotel-lobby-Coca-Cola blind date, but she is barraged by offers — after all, “[s]etting up an eighteen-year-old was a hobby for people. Finding a husband for a twenty-two-year-old was an emergency.” She wants more for herself than this provincial, strictly Orthodox community affords her. Her mother, Shayna, who became observant only in college, desperately hopes to marry off Tzippy in an ultimate proof-text of a wedding that will solidify her place in the same insular community her daughter distained. Herschel, the goofy but lovable patriarch, dreams of his place in the kosher marketplace, the restaurant he will open that will change a small Jewish town forever and mark him a hero of hashkacha. And then there are the four younger daughters who run amok in matching dresses, cooing and reveling in make-believe bridesmaid and flower-girl status.

Meanwhile, worlds away in Middleton, N.J., live the Newbergs. Naomi and Joel, Modern Orthodox exemplars of moderation, have made all the right moves. Their two children, Bryan and Ilana, go to the best day schools, play sports, get good grades and aspire to the Ivy League. But when Bryan comes home from his signature year in Israel, he presents himself as Baruch, wearing black pants and white dress shirts only (and of course the dreaded Black Hat), installs sink racks in a kitchen he once considered kosher enough, and renounces his plans to attend Columbia in favor of indefinite Yeshiva study. Crisis ensues. Naomi tries to rediscover her spiritual side to hold her disparate family together. Joel hardens against this new son, only to reluctantly recognize his own watered-down faith. Ilana, crushed by her brother’s new distance, plunges headlong into teenage rebellion, questioning everything that comes her way and daring herself to flip the light-switch on Shabbat.

When Tzippy and Baruch meet, fall in love and announce their engagement, their families must begrudgingly learn to accept their new realities. The couple will move far away from both sets of parents, Tzippy will clandestinely go to college, Baruch adamantly will not. The balance of the book involves coming to terms with compromise and seeking the happiest possible ending.

But while Mirvis does a commendable job of portraying the multifarious pressures and difficulties facing Orthodox Jews across the observance spectrum today, “The Outside World” ultimately falls prey to the same trap as her first novel, “The Ladies Auxiliary.” As Ruth Wisse noted here in October 2001, Mirvis “feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block.”

It is in this way, precisely, that Mirvis accomplishes something closer to the popular musical “Fiddler” than to Sholom Aleichem’s original “Tevye the Dairyman” stories, on which the play is based. Rife with laugh-out-loud lines and painstaking explanations of the rituals that dot the daily lives of the Goldmans and Newbergs, “The Outside World” seems to have been written expressly for a general audience, indeed. It is a charming, funny and nonthreatening account of Orthodox Jews, not to mention educational. But those of us who have no need for a guidebook description of the Jewish wedding ceremony or the Passover Seder might wish Mirvis had included original use of Jewish text, folklore, language and history, and characters in the vein of Tevye, who was himself a genuine insider struggling to maintain his tradition against the onslaught of change and revolution.

Mirvis raises poignant, troubling questions. How much can one integrate into modern American society before he or she begins to assimilate altogether? How long can Orthodoxy contain its children and shield them from the wider world? That both Tzippy and Baruch seek to escape their respective families to establish something bigger and somehow more authentic speaks volumes about the inadequacy of any single, monolithic approach to Judaism today. That Baruch “wanted to pass through Ellis Island in reverse, to find a Poland, a Lithuania, a Galicia he was sure still existed somewhere,” while Tzippy’s mother has a television smuggled into her house in an air-conditioner box, is a rich, fascinating glimpse of contemporary Orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, that glimpse is the most we get. The one question Mirvis doesn’t grapple with is how she as author can build on, explore and widen the scope of Jewish fiction. Instead, she’s taken a precious commodity — her insider’s knowledge of and sensitivity to a particular world in transition — and sold it to the outside world.

Alys R. Yablon is a freelance book editor and writer in Jerusalem.

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