Couple Finds Room for Love, Rebellion in Orthodox Judaism

May 11, 2004 |

The Outside World
By Tova Mirvis
Knopf. 283 pages. $24.

Tova Mirvis’ lighthearted second novel, “The Outside World,” features young lovers who come together despite the differences in their backgrounds. This isn’t exactly “Jungle Fever” or “West Side Story,” though: Tzippy Goodman and Bryan Segal are both, after all, Orthodox Jews. It’s just that Tzippy was raised in a traditional Orthodox home, while Bryan grew up Modern Orthodox. This distinction is subtle but significant. Bryan’s father removes his yarmulke before entering the Manhattan law firm where he works, and expects his son to return from yeshiva in Israel ready for college. The family’s Modern Orthodox lifestyle can be summed up by Y.L. Gordon’s Enlightenment-era advice: “Be a man in the street and a Jew in your tent.”

The more traditionally Orthodox Goodmans, on the other hand, regard the trappings of secular life — college, jeans, television — as frivolous, unnecessary and religiously suspect. They are not at all interested in what’s going on in the street. All they want for their eldest daughter, Tzippy, who at 22 is practically a spinster, is that she marry and begin cranking out grandchildren ASAP.

Family pressures pervade the lives of Mirvis’ characters, and in response, they rebel. On Bryan’s return from yeshiva, he renames himself Baruch, puts on a black fedora, complains that his mother’s kosher kitchen isn’t kosher enough and announces that instead of attending a university, he will study Talmud in a kollel (a sort of advanced yeshiva). He’s sick of Modern Orthodoxy, which now seems to him a religion of “picking and choosing.” Tzippy, product of the sort of unstintingly devout home Baruch yearns for, initially believes that she wants a traditional life of marriage, children and housework. But she’s unusually active for an Orthodox girl: She chases Baruch through the streets of Jerusalem instead of relying on a matchmaker. And later, finding she isn’t satisfied with married bliss, Tzippy enrolls in college classes on the sly.

The couple’s parents are no more content with their lots. Tzippy’s father continually dreams up kosher get-rich-quick schemes and, answering a newspaper ad, opens a restaurant-deli in Memphis that he asks his new son-in-law to manage. Upset by Bryan/Baruch’s transformation, his mother flirts with the touchy-feely Jewish Renewal movement, while his father and sister experiment with sinfulness.

Mirvis isn’t out to criticize Orthodoxy (either Modern or traditional), but she frankly depicts how religious life can fail to satisfy the needs of its adherents and how the unsatisfied often turn to transgression, of either social or religious codes, while searching for fulfillment.

Surprisingly, though, Mirvis is less willing than her characters to push boundaries and exhibits a baffling coyness about sex. Among the possessions Baruch discards because they remind him of his less-religious adolescence are “copies of Sports Illustrated (regular and swimsuit).” Teenage boys keep the swimsuit issue in their closets for one reason only, but Mirvis glosses over Baruch’s decision to give up masturbation — missing a perfect opportunity for an Orthodox rejoinder to “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Even more disappointing is Mirvis’ elision of Baruch and Tzippy’s first sexual encounter, which, because they observe the law of shomer nagiyah, happens also to be the first time either has deliberately touched a person of the opposite sex, more or less. How does it feel to discover every physical intimacy from hand-holding to intercourse in just a few hours? How can a lifetime of expectations not be soured by the typical awkwardness and pain of virgin sex? Sadly, Mirvis begs off with tepid euphemisms: “In the bareness of their skin, they found each other,” she writes; and then, following a heavy- handed paragraph break, “Tzippy fell asleep with the shock that it had happened at all.”

Mirvis tiptoes when it comes to Orthodox feminism, too. She presents the standard rabbinical view that women are “more internal” — meaning they should not be leaders or centers of attention — and hints at the dissatisfaction that results, at least for the women: Tzippy, Baruch’s mother, and his sister each chafe against their proscribed roles. Yet Mirvis never forces her male characters to confront the issue. If Baruch realizes that his wife, mother and sister are as capable and intelligent as men, how can he so blithely accept a social dynamic in which only men are encouraged to pursue the ideal of Torah study?

Though compelling and heartfelt, “The Outside World” does not tackle such tough questions. Like Mirvis’ best-selling first novel, “The Ladies Auxiliary, ” her sophomore effort will satisfy readers curious for a true-to-life peek into the semisecret society of Orthodox Judaism. And if, in her future work, Mirvis finds a way to crack open the burgeoning issues of Orthodox sexual and feminist identities lurking inside her stories, she might do more than serve as a tour guide to the world of Orthodoxy for outsiders. She might shape its future from the inside, as one of its leaders.

[Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.]