Books Made of Paper

Tova Mirvis: ‘The Outside World'

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

If you’ve ever questioned your religion, or the way you were brought up, you’re like every character in Tova Mirvis’s The Outside World. The two families she centers on, the Goldmans and the Millers, are NY/NJ ultra Orthodox and modern Orthodox Jews, all wavering between the desire to be more religious or to shed the confines of the religiosity they were born into.

I’ve done my fair share of questioning my Jewish roots, especially during the time when I worked for a magazine whose aim was to give Jewish teens a positive sense of their culture and religion. And more recently, when I had a non-Jewish boyfriend, and my entire future Jewish self came into question. For some people, religion is something concrete and far from questioned—it’s more like a fact of who they are. But for others, it’s something that’s constantly evolving and their religiosity changes throughout their lives.

It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the lives of religious American Jews from Mirvis, who is modern Orthodox herself, and an insider in the world she exposes. The overall sense that the ultra religious Goldmans and Bryan Miller (who becomes ultra religious and starts calling himself Baruch) gave me by the end of the book, was that some of the more rigid rules associated with being religious were burdensome and perhaps not serving them in a positive way. On the other hand, some of the more cultural aspects to religion were portrayed in a very fulfilling way. But neither the modern Orthodox nor the ultra Orthodox characters were especially spiritual. Baruch’s mother, Naomi Miller, starts exploring her spiritual side toward the end, and it’s an act of deviation.

The Outside World, which refers to the world outside the religious communities in which the characters live, is where Tzippy Goldman and Baruch Miller venture after they get married, and is where Tzippy’s mother Shayna came from before she got married. It’s also where Naomi starts to test the waters. But the inside world is where most of the book takes place, and while the story is vivid—we follow Tzippy’s desire not to be the last girl in the community unmarried, and her mother’s overbearing wish for the same thing—it’s also educational. Did you know that Orthodox women wear wigs after they’re married? It’s a point of pride, but at the same time, some spent thousands of dollars to get a wig so realistic you can’t tell they’re wearing one.

I also learned that weeks are spent cleaning before Passover, most of the women don’t work, getting married is life’s main objective, ultra Orthodox men are expected to spend a great deal of time “learning” (the Talmud) and college is not expected, but Yeshiva is. While a lot of this is hard to relate to, Mirvis’s writing is so accessible and the way she invites us into the minds of her characters allows us to understand their plights.

My religion defines me to an extent—not nearly as much as Mirvis’s characters. But to see life through their eyes was fascinating. For anyone of a different religion, or anyone thinking of becoming more religious, I think you’ll get a good perspective from this book. If you’re ultra Orthodox you’re probably not reading this blog, but if you’re a more liberal Orthodox, and you are reading this blog, you might be interested in the friction between Baruch, after he turns religious, and his parents, who struggle to understand, accept and remain a family.

Image from Amazon.

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