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Families Can Change, Too

In many ways, The Outside World by Tova Mirvis (Knopf, $24) reads as a classic coming-of-age story—but with an important twist. Usually the adolescent protagonist discovers, completely on his or her own, that the world is more complicated than it had seemed in childhood. (Think Holden Caulfield, or Huck Finn.) However, as Mirvis’ novel reminds us, this painful journey from youth to maturity is seldom traveled alone. Mirvis’ main characters, both raised in Orthodox Jewish communities, grow into adulthood in their close—and very different—families. The choices they make affect all of the people who care about them most intimately

The Outside World traces the romance and marriage of Tzippy Goldman and Baruch (formerly Bryan) Newberg. Tzippy, part of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, New York, feels choked by the intense social pressures of her upbringing. For Tzippy, marriage becomes a way to escape the demands of her family and her community: the baal-tshuva mother and the little sisters focusing on her wedding as the only serious life goal, the manic father moving from one sketchy business scheme to another, the hypocrisy of neighbors watching for the slightest slip.

Bryan Newberg feels choked too, but in precisely the opposite way. His community, Modern Orthodox in a New Jersey suburb, is too secular for Bryan’s growing religious devotion. He attended “Jewish day schools that doubled as feeders for the Ivy League” and “played on basketball teams wearing blue and white uniforms with matching yarmelkas.” After spending two years in Israel after high school, Bryan decides that Modern Orthodoxy feels like a system of laxity and hypocrisy that would prevent him from living a truly Jewish life. Marriage becomes Baruch’s way to avoid the Ivy League university education that his parents so desperately want for him.

The young people find each other in Jerusalem. After they marry, Baruch and Tzippy move to Memphis, the better to run the kosher deli (in a traif supermarket) that is the latest get-rich-quick scheme of Tzippy’s dad. Tzippy decides to go to college, flourishes on campus, and warms to the heterodox Jewish community. Baruch puts his Talmudic training to practical use at the deli’s kosher take-out restaurant.

Tzippy and Baruch make decisions that force their family members to re-examine their own life choices, and Mirvis masterfully captures their conflicts. Intriguingly, the tensions and subsequent personal growth play out not only in the lives of the young couple but also—especially—in the choices the women in their families make. Baruch’s deepening religiosity leads his artsy mother, Naomi, to search for a more authentic spirituality; she finds it in neo-Hasidic, Jewish- Renewal style meditation circles and healing workshops. Baruch’s spirited younger sister liana, angered by her brother’s choices, begins to doubt the value of Judaism altogether. She lashes out at the rabbis at her high school who offer her unsatisfying apologies for Jewish gender inequalities. (“It’s all just bullshit, isn’t it?” liana blurts out in the middle of class.) Shayna, Tzippy’s mother, is also left reeling from her daughter’s unconventional choices. Feeling rejected and embarrassed by her daughter’s independence, she falls into a deep depression. Under cover of this depression, she feels free at last from the constraints of running a perfect household.

If Outside World has a flaw, it is that Mirvis does not fill out every one of her characters with equal complexity and care. Tzippy’s four sisters, for instance, remain undifferentiated shadows. But Mirvis’ spot-on portraits of community dynamics easily make up for these gaps; her description of the pushes and pulls of Modern Orthodox Jewish life is especially compelling.

Deftly, Tova Mirvis recounts more than the tale of an adolescent learning to make independent choices. Instead, this warm and sometimes comic book tells the story of entire families which, along with their newly married son and daughter, must also come of age. 

Rachel Kranson is a doctoral candidate in Jewish American history at New York University