The Ladies Auxiliary
by Tova Mirvis
W.W. Norton & Co., $23.95
If you moved into the Memphis Jewish community of Towa Mirvis’ The Ladies Auxiliary even moments before Shabbat, chances are one of the women in the community would come knocking—both to welcome you and to find out who you are. By the time you had your bearings, they’d already have found you a place in their carpool, made your child at home in their family and figured out where you’d come from, why you’d moved to Memphis and who your family was.
The women of Memphis’ Orthodox Jewish community, who narrate Mirvis’ novel in the collective “we,” consider their hometown “the Jerusalem of the South,” their families “part of a chain of Jewish Memphians that would extend into the future forever, as long and as far away as God in Heaven.” Watching over the community, their voice is stern but loving—and very distrustful of change.
Into this community enters Batsheva, a convert who has moved from New York with her young daughter after the death of her Memphis-born husband. Initially suspicious of Batsheva (she wears unfamiliar clothing and sings out loud in shul), the community begins to accept her and finds that her spiritual nature reinvigorates their lives and practices. But when the high-school girls begin turning to Batsheva for advice on the “outside world” and the rabbi’s son, after spending time with her, decides not to return to yeshiva, the women of The Ladies Auxiliary snap to attention and try to regain control over their community and their way of life.
Mirvis, in her first novel, gives us a touching portrayal of the conflict between community interest and individual desire, between a traditional circumscribed way of life and a personal, spiritual connection to Judaism. While the women often look close-minded, there is something touching about what they are trying to preserve: a community where consistency is honored and where people can speak in one voice. In the prologue, the community reflects on the changes that followed Batsheva’s arrival and reminds us, “at the time, all we could see was that we were losing our children. And so what else was there to do?”
Natalie Blitt is a writer in New York City.