The Ladies Auxiliary

  • Review
By – September 23, 2014

Mirvis’ stun­ning and per­cep­tive por­trait of the Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Mem­phis is a start con­trast to the work of Alfred Uhry who shows us what might be the last gen­er­a­tion of South­ern Jews to main­tain their con­nec­tion to a super­fi­cial Jew­ish her­itage. The world por­trayed in The Ladies Aux­il­iary is shaped by a warm and real con­nec­tion to tra­di­tion­al Judaism. The wom­en’s weeks are shaped by their Sab­bath prepa­ra­tions and their dai­ly lives are influ­enced by the indi­vid­ual crises and com­mu­nal cel­e­bra­tions that they share. 

Nev­er­the­less, the enor­mous sense of con­nect­ed­ness in the com­mu­ni­ty comes at a price. Women with active careers and peo­ple lack­ing strong fam­i­ly con­nec­tions are some­what mar­gin­al to the flow of life. Mean­while, in small­er com­mu­ni­ties, peo­ple are far less anony­mous and behav­ior more vis­i­ble – often the sub­ject of rounds of phone calls between women. 

The main char­ac­ter of the book, Bat­she­va, moves into this warm, vibrant, yet per­haps sti­fling com­mu­ni­ty with her five-year-old daugh­ter, Ayala. Seek­ing a place where she can belong, she naive­ly assumes that despite her dif­fer­ences, the com­mu­ni­ty will wel­come her because her late hus­band spent the ear­ly part of his life in the com­mu­ni­ty. Mov­ing there, as well, forges a kind of link to him and keeps his mem­o­ry alive. 

Bat­she­va’s pres­ence is a cat­a­lyst for unmask­ing some of the very real prob­lems in the com­mu­ni­ty. She can nev­er ful­ly be an insid­er. She is a con­vert and dress and looks and thinks dif­fer­ent­ly from the Mem­phi­ans to whom she wants to con­nect. She also has an over­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic approach to obser­vance. For exam­ple, she vis­its the mikveh despite her sin­gle sta­tus, much to the dis­may of the oth­er women in the community. 

After sev­er­al events undo­ing Bat­she­va, the com­mu­ni­ty’s neat social fab­ric begins to unrav­el. Bat­she­va is blamed for con­tribut­ing to this by her very pres­ence and her per­ceived influ­ence over the teenage girls in the com­mu­ni­ty. Once the dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um pass­es, it is clear she will remain but will nev­er be ful­ly part of the com­mu­ni­ty, unlike her daugh­ter who has already been accepted. 

The authen­tic­i­ty of the book, based on what I know both direct­ly and from friends and stu­dents who were or are Mem­phi­ans, reflects Mirvis’ own keen insights and the greater under­stand­ing that can only come from direct expe­ri­ence. This sets the book apart from oth­er recent works, like Kaater­skill Falls by Alle­gra Good­man, which make an effort to por­tray Ortho­dox life but some­how fail to cap­ture it. Mirvis has enor­mous love for the com­mu­ni­ty in which she grew up. She rec­og­nizes the strengths of grow­ing up in a place where indi­vid­ual prob­lems become com­mu­nal ones and every ill­ness or mis­for­tune is accom­pa­nied by an army of neigh­bors arriv­ing with cov­ered dish­es. Yet, at the same time, this kind of com­mu­ni­ty has a clear sense of bound­aries and lacks the diver­si­ty of post­mod­ern soci­ety. As such, the arrival of an out­sider high­lights both the strengths and weak­ness­es of such a community. 


Read Adam Rovn­er’s inter­view with Tova Mirvis on her most recent book, Vis­i­ble City, here.

Relat­ed Content: 

Tova Mirvis’ blog posts for The ProsenPeople

Review of Vis­i­ble City

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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