The Ladies Auxiliary

( 19 )


When free-spirited Batsheva moves into the close-knit Orthodox community of Memphis, Tennessee, the already precarious relationship between the Ladies Auxiliary and their teenage daughters is shaken to the core. In this extraordinary novel, Tova Mirvis takes us into the fascinating and insular world of the Memphis Orthodox Jews, one ripe with tradition and contradiction. Warm and wise, enchanting and funny, The Ladies Auxiliary brilliantly illuminates the timeless struggle between mothers and daughters, family ...
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The Ladies Auxiliary: A Novel

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When free-spirited Batsheva moves into the close-knit Orthodox community of Memphis, Tennessee, the already precarious relationship between the Ladies Auxiliary and their teenage daughters is shaken to the core. In this extraordinary novel, Tova Mirvis takes us into the fascinating and insular world of the Memphis Orthodox Jews, one ripe with tradition and contradiction. Warm and wise, enchanting and funny, The Ladies Auxiliary brilliantly illuminates the timeless struggle between mothers and daughters, family and self, religious freedom and personal revelation, honoring the past and facing the future. An unforgettable story of uncommon atmosphere, profound insight, and winning humor, The Ladies Auxiliary is a triumphant work of fiction.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A SPARKLING DEBUT . . . A graceful novel with a strong sense of place, with vivid characters that are as Southern as the black-eyed peas they serve for Shabbat dinner, as Jewish as their homemade challah."
--Jewish Week

--Detroit Free Press

"Poignant, funny, sophisticated . . . The Orthodox answer to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The world of this confident, insightful debut novel is the tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community of Memphis, Tenn., a social structure that unravels when an unconventional New York convert settles there with her five-year-old daughter. Newly widowed Batsheva Jacobs is both shockingly modern and fervently spiritual. She lovingly raises her daughter, Ayala, in the Orthodox tradition, but she sings loudly and enthusiastically at shul perhaps a sign of unseemly ego, visits the mikvah to cleanse herself an act that raises eyebrows, since she has no husband, and she wears flowing clothes that show her figure--all of which is noted suspiciously by the local women whose common goal is to preserve tradition. In Memphis, where Shabbos dinner includes fried chicken and black-eyed peas, that task isn't easy. Taking a job as art teacher at the girls' school, blonde, green-eyed Batsheva is soon a beloved confidante of the community's female teenagers, but when she allows them to wear makeup and miniskirts on a ski trip, and becomes close to the Rabbi's beloved 22-year-old son, she's the subject of cruel gossip. After one of her students runs away with a non-Jewish, older boyfriend, Batsheva is blamed. The narrator, one of the housewives fiercely protective of the insular community, tells the story in third-person plural: "little changed in this city where we have always lived"--a statement rendered untrue, of course, as the community breaks into discord. Caught in the middle are Ayala and the respected and goodhearted Mimi Rubin, the rabbi's wife, who begins to believe rumors about her son's attachment to Batsheva, and panics. Generous with humor and compassion, Mirvis paints tenderly nuanced portraits of strong female characters while scrutinizing an entrenched religious subculture whose traditions are threatened by modern temptations. Guilt, passion, prejudice, loneliness and independence--common themes in Jewish literature--are explored with sensitivity in a gentle story that captures its milieu with tolerant understanding, and plucks the heartstrings. Agent, Nicole Aragi. 7-city author tour. Oct. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Life in Memphis's Orthodox community is as it always has been, until a free-spirited widow arrives with her young daughter. Now alone in the world, Batsheva is looking for a close-knit community and has heard that Memphis, the hometown of her late husband, is pleasant. Uninhibited and artistic, she raises suspicion immediately among the Orthodox women in the community. A convert to Judaism, Batsheva observes the holidays and rituals with more joy and abandon than some believe appropriate. When she becomes the art teacher at the Jewish school, the teenage girls finally have a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, their rebelliousness and the decision of the rabbi's son to leave yeshiva have to be blamed on someone. As the outsider, Batsheva becomes a scapegoat for all the ills in the community. A well-wrought tale of fear and intolerance that is universal.--Kimberly G. Allen, MCI Corporate Information Resources Ctr., Washington, DC Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut that details, with wisdom and grace, the inevitable tensions between the comfort of community and the need for individual freedom, as a young widow and convert moves into a close-knit Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and becomes an unwitting catalyst for change. The Orthodox families of Memphis, Tennessee, are as proud of their century-old southern roots as they are of their Jewish heritage. They all live in the same neighborhood, attend the same synagogue, and educate their children at the same schools. Members of the older generation like Mrs. Levy, the community's matriarch as well as its eyes and ears, are intent on preserving the old rules. But younger matrons like Naomi Eisenberg yearn for more freedom, and the teenagers, especially Shira Feldman, are feeling rebellious. The story of the year that follows Batsheva's arrival with five-year-old daughter Ayala is related by the surprisingly effective "we" of the Ladies Auxiliary. An artist who found the spiritual home she'd been seeking in Judaism, Batsheva comes to Memphis because her late husband Benjamin had lived there and she wants Ayala to have the same warm and secure childhood he had. Beguiled by Batsheva's enthusiasm and fresh response to rituals and holidays that for them are now sterile and onerous routines, the Ladies are at first friendly and welcoming. That changes, however, when Batsheva starts teaching art to the high-school girls and becomes their mentor and confidant. The women are also suspicious of her friendship with the rabbi's son, Yosef, who's taking a year off from his rabbinical studies. When Shira Feldman runs away with her gentile boyfriend and Yosef decides not to become a rabbi, the Ladies blameBatsheva and suggest she leave. Wise Mimi, the Rabbi's wife, helps them finally accept both Batsheva and the changes the community needs if it is to survive. An impressive debut, up there on that high middle ground the Victorians made their own.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345441263
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 381,206
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.27 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Tova Mirvis

Tova Mirvis grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and lives in New York City. She received her M.F.A. from Columbia University under the tutelage of Rebecca Goldstein and Mary Gordon.

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Read an Excerpt

BATSHEVA APPEARED IN OUR lives on a Friday afternoon as we were getting ready for Shabbos. It was inappropriate that she moved in when she did. Not that there was any religious prohibition against it, but it wasn't something we would have done. Fridays were set aside to prepare for Shabbos, and on the day Batsheva arrived, we were picking up our children from day camp, frying up chickens and doing laundry, the list of last-minute tasks growing as sundown approached. Even in the summer, when Shabbos started close to eight o'clock, there was never enough time to get ready. Each week, when the last glimpses of sun were fading behind the trees, we looked around our spotless houses, smelled the freshly cooked food, and felt a sense of wonder that once again we had finished in time.

We had heard that someone new was moving in, that the Lebmans had finally rented their house to a nice Jewish family as they had hoped to. This is who we were expecting any day now, a husband, a wife, a few children. We had begun speculating: Would the wife want to join the Sisterhood, the Ladies Auxiliary, the Donor Luncheon Committee? And whose carpool would they be in? It was the end of June and car pools for the upcoming school year were already being finalized.

When Batsheva drove down the street in a dusty white car piled high with luggage, her windows rolled down and loud music from a radio station we never listened to pouring out, it didn't occur to us that she might be the new neighbor we had been waiting for. We assumed that this woman had taken a wrong turn, that she was cruising through our neighborhood in search of some other one. On our streets we were used to seeing station wagons or minivans able to transport our many children, our bags of groceries, our mounds of dry cleaning.

But she slowed as she approached the Liebmans' house and leaned her head out the window to check the address. She pulled into the driveway, her brakes squealing as she stopped. She honked several times, as if expecting someone to run out and welcome her. But no one came out, and instead, veiled behind our curtains, we watched her get out of the car, raise her hands over her head and stretch out her thin body. She turned to stare at the street, her eyes moving from house to house, drinking us in slowly like hot tea.

Who knows what she saw when she first looked around. We had lived here so long that it's difficult to imagine seeing it fresh. The shul and school stand in the middle of our neighborhood, and our houses circle around them in homage to what is most important. Our winding streets are quiet, peaceful. The branches of dogwoods, white-budded magnolias and thick oaks curve over the roads in a green canopy, painting a leaf-patterned shield in the sky. The houses, mostly ranch style, large and sprawling, are situated at comfortable distances from each other. The lawns are well kept, the bushes are trimmed, and bright-colored flowers line the brick pathways that lead to our front doors.

Right away we knew Batsheva wasn't one of us. What stood out most was her white-blond hair. She left it loose and it was long, all the way down her back. her green eyes leapt out at us and her face glistened with sweat. Her features were small and even, her cheeks were carefully sculpted, pale skin stretched tightly across bone. But her lips were full, curving upward like an archer's bow. It was also her clothes that caught our attention. She didn't dress the way we did, in loose skirts and modest necklines that hid our curved female bodies, shaping them into soft masses. Her white, short-sleeved shirt clung too tightly to her chest. The gauzy fabric of her purple skirt. The hem of it trimmed with fringes, swished when she walked, and we could almost see the trace of her legs beneath. And she wore a silver anklet with shiny blue beads and brown leather sandals with thin straps that crisscrossed in tight angles across her skin.

She went around to the other side of the car, opened the door, and out came a barefoot little girl in a yellow sundress. Ayala's face was smudged with chocolate and her hands looked sticky. Something about this little girl's face made us need to look again: on first glance we had seen the face of an adult even though our eyes were telling us it was a child no more than five years old. Her hair was a few shades lighter than Batsheva's and hung in wisps across her forehead and reached her chin. Her eyes had a ghostly quality, giving the impression that no one was behind them. And her skin was so pale we could almost see past it to the blue veins below.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens with an almost pastoral description of Memphis's Jewish neighborhood, typologically evoking a "city on the hill" image. How do the themes that imbue this first scene set the tone for the rest of the book?

2. Find a passage in which a Jewish ceremony is described. In what ways does Mirvis show the myriad, even contradictory, meanings that it contains for each of its participants?

3. The use of the first-person plural pronoun for the narrative voice emphasizes the collective, uniform nature of the community. The story is told not by any one member of the community but by a chorus. How does Mirvis play with this voice to emphasize moments of dissension or doubt? At what points is the voice the least omniscient?

4. What did you make of the seeming role reversal between mothers and daughters, with the mothers portrayed as naïve and the daughters as more perceptive and worldly?

5. What do you think will happen after the end of the novel? Will Batsheva stay? To what extent will she be integrated, if at all?

6. How do you imagine Ayala to be five or ten years after the end of the novel?

7. This book, with its independent, proud heroine, could be read alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (even down to the strange apparitions in the sky). How do they both explore issues of tradition, tolerance, belief, individuality, and forgiveness? In what important ways do they diverge?

8. What characters did you identify with most? Was it always Batsheva?

9. Do you think Yosef's doubt about Judaism predated Batsheva's arrival? Or did it grow out of their conversations?

10. Was there ever a point where you agreed with those who thought that Batsheva had "crossed the line"?

11. How and where does Mirvis blur the division between religious faith and small-town provincialism?

12. Do you think it is possible to carve out a space for individualism within an orthodoxy? Is what Batsheva attempts even possible or, in the end, do you have to choose one over the other? (Perhaps think of other stories--Voltaire's Candide, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Henry James's Daisy Miller--in which someone presents a challenge to an established order.).

13. What do you make of the vision in the sky that ends the novel? How can it be read along with the opening scene of the novel?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2014

    This book was boring.  I did not like the author's style of writ

    This book was boring.  I did not like the author's style of writing; I felt distanced from both the characters and the story. 

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  • Posted December 20, 2013

    Very very good reading. I enjoyed the different aspects and view

    Very very good reading. I enjoyed the different aspects and views of all the characters. Wonderful, I couldn't put it down!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2012

    I couldn't put it down!

    Our women's Bible study group read this for summer book club - it is entertaining, informing, and thought-provoking. Her character development is great, and I liked her easy writing style. Our group of 20-plus women of varying ages unanimously reported enjoying the read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2012

    Great book!

    Loved Batsheva-- what a beautuful loving charactor in the book she is! A fast and totally enjoyable book. All the charactors just sprung to life and gave interesting unsight to small community living..

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2012


    This book reminds me of my naborhood, exsept insed of being jewish we r morman. It started off the same,everyone kind and really willing to be you friend. Then they realize your real diffrent from them, and so bevause they are looking for them they find your flaws and sooner or later you no longer are there friends at all, more like enameis

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2012


    T.T To Somebody if watching- Quite stalking me! Its super annoying. Im allowed to have a secret book ya know.

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  • Posted February 25, 2009

    Loved this book.

    This is a great book for many reasons. You learn a lot about Judaism, but mostly about acceptance. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and often recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2007

    I only finished it because of Book Club!

    I just really didn't enjoy this book. I found it really hard to get through. I did enjoy learning more about Orthodox Jewish traditions, but wasn't really engaged beyond that. The novel is narrated in first person plural ('we'), which is unusual and appropriate for this book, but it added to my lack of enjoyment. Having a spiritual and free-spirited sister who reminds me a little of Batsheva, I was unable to fully buy into Batsheva's motivations for moving to and staying in Memphis.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2006

    loved it

    I love Mervis, and this novel was fun, fast reading, interesting. I highly recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2002

    a touching book

    As an orthodox teenager, i was able to strongly realate to Tova Mirvis's wonderful book. she portrayed the orthodox community well, (although i have always lived in the city and i feel she was slightly to negative with many of the characters. i was exteremely touched by the parts with the rebellious teenage girls in the community. i have attended a jewish school all my life, and have many times questioned my religion and upbringing. i understand what the girls were going through, and felt that batsheva was the greatest thing that happened to the girls, and i wish that i could have someone like her. although i believe in my religion and plan on always liveing an orthodox life, that section of the book was incredibly realistic and touching for me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2001

    Great book to take on vacation

    This is the type of book that I really look for when I want a good read for a vacation. I find that books like this which focus on a 'closed' society really bring up a lot of issues for society as a whole. As a barely observant NYC Jewish woman, who sees Jewishness as more of a cultural than religious thing, this book was extremely touching and captivating. A non-Jewish friend of mine said she found reading about the holidays and traditions interesting. For me, I found the Southern versions more interesting. But the real point of the book for me is this-- can a 'closed' society exist without allowing its members to make the CHOICE to be there. In many ways, it is no different from ANY group. We all have expectations for our kids and feel rejected in some way if they choose a path that is very different from ours. In any case-- I really loved this book and I look foward to others by the same author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2001

    great book!

    this book was really fun, and accurate!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2000

    Ten Stars For This Book

    This is one terrific read. I sat down of an afternoon and read it cover to cover. As an Orthodox Jew I expected a cliched and tired work on the same old theme of rigidity and clannishness of orthodox Jewry. I was delighted to find such a well balanced and very rich human story. The writer's talent shines in allowing her readers to come to their own conclusions about the characters and situations. This is a generous, insightful book with a lot of heart and universal appeal.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2000

    This doesn't feel like fiction!

    This book is a gift, a deep, rich story that feels fresh and utterly real. The story deals with feminine mistrust, jealousy and competition, weaving that theme around the human longing for acceptance and profound religious joy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2000

    I Couldn't Put It Down

    I thought this book was great. As I was reading it, I felt I was part of the community.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 1999

    An intimate journey into the Jewish Orthodox community

    I am about as distanced from this world as possible: Catholic, Hispanic and male, yet I was alsolutely enchanted by The Ladies Auxiliary. The details of orthodoxy were fascinating and provided a vivid view into a world which I have no knowledge. I am an avid reader and must say that this is one of the best books I have read this year. Bravo Mrs. Mirvis, I look forward to your next book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 1999

    Keep Up the Good Cheer

    Dear Ms. Mirvis; May I call you Tova? I am writing this review as a letter because after reading your book and meeting your 'friends' in it, I feel that I know you as well. I am an Orthodox Jew (and writer and critic) who has been discouraged by many of the portrayals of our ilk in many other novels and books -- either as singular devils or as singular saints. I am neither and I am sure that most orthodox jews are neither. You have portrayed 'us' (I shall include myself as part of the 'we') as real people who are deeply committed to our wonderous religion while we are plagued and struggle with all the problems of humanity (perhaps a bit of an overdose for some?). It is in this sense that the 'we' worked so well for me -- not only to represent the community you wrote of but to include (so cleverly) the reader within that community. This is a 'must' book for anyone who thinks that they know the answers (to show that they do not)or that they do not (to show that they are not alone); and for jews (to raise their knowledge of their religion and to awaken the need to reexamine themselves) and nonjews (to learn about the true nature of judaism and to apply the stories to their own communities and groups). I am sure, Tova, that some, perhaps many, will disparage this work -- the orthodox who recoil from any negativity; the antiorthodox who will recoil from the sensitive portrayal of ritual and who will focus on the negative; the elitists who will mock the southern charm that replaces intellectual sterility; and the 'would be' writers who wish they would have done it first. But please Tova -- keep up the cheer. The stronger their criticism, the more you should revel; you aroused something in them. You did good -- as your name suggests. Do it again soon. With great respect, XXXXXXXXXX

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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