Two Jews Intermarry


Tova Mirvis explores whether families can find ways to connect when the members hold very different beliefs.

Featured Book: The Outside World (Knopf, 2004)

Tzippy Goldman, age 22, should already be married, according to her mother. After all, her mother has been planning her wedding since she was a young girl. But Tzippy wants an adventure in her life, maybe even a taste of secular life. So she packs her bags and heads to Israel. Who could have predicted that she would meet up there with a Modern Orthodox boy she knew and liked back in New York? Even more surprising, he has been studying the Talmud in Israel and wants to become ultra-Orthodox? What happens when two Jews in love have such different beliefs? Will they be able to compromise and strike a balance that allows them to create a life together?

Why did you want to tell the story of a Jewish woman in your book? Is it something you set out to do as a mission or were you just writing from what you know?

I think that The Outside World is very much a Jewish book in that it is engaged with issues of Jewish communal and family life. Those themes are central to the book; I can’t really envision this novel without those Jewish themes. But writers, myself included, often get a little cagey with this question because of the implication that only Jews would read a “Jewish” book. Sometimes I hear people who are surprised that non-Jews read my work, as if we can only read books about our own worlds, as if we can only be interested in entering fictional worlds that bear the greatest resemblance to our actual worlds. In fact, the wonder of fiction is that we can enter any world, any character we please. The first time I ever felt like I read about my own world was when I was in high school and I read an anthology entitled Catholic Girls. In those descriptions, those worlds, I felt like I could see my own experience of being in a yeshiva high school with a lot of rules. It’s why we read; we leave behind our own world and, yet, at the same time, we find ourselves in new and unlikely places.

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What excited you about the idea?

The novel began years ago, when I was still writing my first novel, The Ladies Auxiliary. I was in graduate school and we were reading Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s novel about a young woman who longs for marriage and passion and romance. My professor was talking about how marriage was the only possible option for someone like Emma Bovary, and he was talking about how she idealized life and was often surprised to find that life didn’t match those dreams and longings.

I think writers always have their antennas up, looking for characters and stories, and in this class, something clicked in place for me and this character came into my head: a young, newly Orthodox woman who dreams of marriage, who has this same sense of longing and yearning. At the time, I was busy writing my first novel, The Ladies Auxiliary, so I wrote a short story about this character and then I filed her away for another time. A few years after that, after The Ladies Auxiliary came out, I came back to this story and decided that I would try to use it as the basis for a novel. I re-read Madame Bovary and I started writing, hoping to write a Jewish version of it. This time I was determined to write in a more organized fashion than I had for my first novel. So I made an outline, I sketched out a plot, I had a full set of characters. But over the years of writing, a novel goes through many evolutions and I shed much of that initial outline. Some of those same themes from Madame Bovary remained and became part of the underlying ideas of the novel, but a different novel began to emerge. I think I might be the only one who sees Madame Bovary in the novel now, but it was my initial inspiration.

What do you hope that Jewish women readers will take away from your book? Is it different than what you hope all readers will take away?

I don’t really want my readers—Jewish or non-Jewish—to take away any clear-cut answers; I’m much more interested in having them take away questions from my book. I don’t think of fiction as a place to provide clear, definitive answers, but rather, as a place to ask questions, to explore possibilities, to posit various scenarios and responses. In The Outside World, one of the primary questions I wanted to ask was how families deal with religious differences; I wondered how and whether families could find ways to connect when the members held very different beliefs. I wanted to think about dreamers and about idealized notions of our lives versus the realities we encounter.

Do you have a favorite book with a Jewish lead, fiction or nonfiction, and why that book?

I love Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. And I have become a huge Philip Roth fan. I grew up not reading him; I had always assumed I wouldn’t like him, but I have become a huge fan of his work, especially The Ghost Writer and The Counterlife. I also love the Israeli writer David Grossman. I find his sentences to be achingly beautiful.

What kind of books would you like to see written for Jewish readers (or readers who are just interested in Judaism). Are there voids or topics you’d like to see tackled?

There hasn’t been a lot written about the Jewish South and this is something I am interested in writing more about. After I finish the novel I have been working on for the past four years, I am planning to write another novel set in Memphis. My family has been there for six generations and I want to take some of my family history and use it as the basis for a novel that looks at what it means to be a Jew and a southerner, that thinks about questions of belonging and identity.

When, in general or specifically, do you feel most Jewish in your life?

I feel most Jewish in my family life, as I try to transmit and explain to my children why we do the things we do. Our family is Modern Orthodox and we send our kids to a pluralist day school and we have lots of conversations about how our family’s traditions differ from other families traditions. I have to struggle to come up with good answers, ones that speak honestly to what I really believe and that also can acknowledge what I struggle with, without having to deny complexity or sugarcoat trouble spots.

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it? Anything you want to say about it?

I am completing a novel now, which is set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the neighborhood I lived in for many years. The book is about many things, among them motherhood and corporate lawyers and architecture and historical preservation and voyeurism. I began the book with wanting to write about the experience of mothering in a contemporary climate where so much is said about what one ought to be and do as a mother; so much expectation, so much hyper-parenting. And, from there, it’s moved in various directions, some of which have been a surprise to me. But it’s been fun to explore a set of concerns which I have always been interested in but haven’t yet written about. I am interested in how the boundaries between public and private are blurred in a city and how that differs from the suburbs. I want to think about the various forms of voyeurism we all partake in, especially in a city. And this leads me to think about how we imagine other people’s lives as a way of trying to better understand our own. Writing a novel for me is very associative; one idea leads to the next and that’s part of what I love most, seeing how all the ideas overlap and play off one another.

What question do you wish a journalist would ask you, and what is your answer?

Oh, I don’t know… that’s a hard one. Usually you get asked the same questions a lot. I think that no matter what I write, one of the first questions I will be asked is, “What was the reaction in Memphis to your first novel.” But since I’ve answered that one hundreds of times, I won’t answer it here. Maybe I’d like to be asked just the most general question of all: Why do you do this? Why do you write? To which I would say that it’s a way of seeing the world, of thinking about people. My desire to write stems from my fascination with people, with what goes on underneath the surface façades, with what is felt but not said. Fiction is a way to enter the private compartments of the mind and heart.

About the Author

Tova Mirvis
Tova Mirvis is the author of two novels, The Ladies Auxiliary (Norton, 1999) and The Outside World (Knopf, 2004). Her essays and fiction have appeared in many anthologies and, most recently, have been published in the Forward, Poets and Writers, the New York Times Book Review, and broadcast on National Public Radio. She has an MFA in fiction writing from the Columbia School of the Arts and lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children.

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