by Doug Ward

I spent the summer of 1981 housesitting for a professor who was away doing research at Los Alamos. The house was in Squirrel Hill, a beautiful section of Pittsburgh not far from the campus of Carnegie-Mellon University, where I was then a graduate student in mathematics.

Squirrel Hill was known as the ``Jewish neighborhood'' of Pittsburgh, and it indeed had a sizeable Jewish population. For someone like me who practiced a philosemitic form of Christianity, with a calendar centering around the seventh-day Sabbath and the annual festivals of Israel, it was a wonderful place to spend a summer. I have especially fond memories of Saturday nights, when the population of Squirrel Hill, reinvigorated after a quiet Sabbath rest, came out in large numbers to stroll down Murray Avenue and dine at the many restaurants there. One of my favorite restaurants was Famous Frank's, which served footlong kosher hotdogs.

Adjacent to the professor's house was the school and place of worship of a congregation of Orthodox Jews. On Friday evenings I sometimes peeked out a window to catch a glimpse of the Sabbath celebrations next door, where men with long beards dressed in black joyfully danced in a circle. The worshippers would quickly notice that they were being observed and discreetly draw the blinds, but I had seen enough to know that I shared something important with them-a love for God and the Sabbath. I was happy that summer to be a Sabbath keeper living in the midst of a Sabbath-observing community.

Over the years since that summer in Pittsburgh, I have continued to be curious about Jewish life, but I have found better ways to satisfy my curiosity than peeking through synagogue windows. To those who share my curiosity I enthusiastically recommend The Ladies Auxiliary (W.W. Norton, 1999), the first novel of talented Orthodox Jewish writer Tova Mirvis. In The Ladies Auxiliary, Mirvis follows a fictitious Orthodox congregation in her real hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, through a year of Sabbaths and Holy Days. Her perceptive and loving portrayal of the congregation's worship, social life, and family life provides a fascinating window into Orthodox Jewish culture in America.

Christian readers will also find, perhaps to their surprise, that the novel is more than a window-it is also something of of a mirror, since Mirvis's Jewish congregation has much in common with conservative Christian communities. Both face the challenge of staying faithful and maintaining an identity in the midst of an unbelieving world. Both focus great energy on teaching their children and pray that those children will make the right choices as they enter adulthood. Both can be nurturing but also stifling, with a tendency to marginalize members who are a bit ``different'' in some way. Both are often close-knit and loving but can also be torn apart by distrust and gossip.

The novel begins during a hot Memphis summer with the arrival of Batsheva, a thirty-two year old widow from New York City, and her young daughter Ayala. Batsheva's husband had grown up in Memphis and spoken fondly of it, and she moves there in hopes of making a new start and finding a loving Jewish community in which Ayala can thrive.

Ayala quickly feels at home in Memphis as the congregation pitches in to welcome the newcomers. However, Bathsheva's adjustment to her new home is less smooth, since she is different from other ladies in the congregation in ways that are refreshing to some but make others uncomfortable. A convert to Judaism, Batsheva worships and studies with unusual enthusiasm and is full of questions about the meaning of her adopted faith. She is also an artist and a single mother in a community where most of the women are married homemakers.

With the support of the rabbi's wife and a few others, Bathsheva begins to fit in. In the fall she takes a position as art teacher in the congregation's school and quickly becomes a favorite with the high school girls, who find that they can confide in her. She invites the girls to her home for special activities, and they begin spending some time with her after school. There is hope that Batsheva's enthusiasm for her faith will rub off on their daughters, who have been growing increasingly disgruntled with their parents and the school.

Unfortunately, not even Batsheva can stop the girls from testing the community's boundaries. During the winter two girls are caught with marijuana, and then another runs away with a non-Jewish boyfriend. The parents find it easy to blame the teenagers' rebellious behavior on Batsheva. After all, Batsheva had admitted to going through a wild phase as a teenager. Perhaps the girls were following her example.

But even more worrisome than the girls' problems is the situation with Yosef, the rabbi's beloved son and the focus of the community's hopes for the next generation. Instead of continuing his rabbinical studies in New York as expected, twenty-two year old Yosef has stayed home and is obviously troubled by something. When Yosef begins to spend more and more time talking with Batsheva, rumors about their relationship spread through the congregation. Is Batsheva leading the rabbi's son astray too?

A crisis develops in the spring as rumors increase. At a special meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary, the main agenda item is the question of whether Batsheva should continue as the school's art teacher. Several ladies are vocal in their desire to see Batsheva leave Memphis. As the controversy continues, the community seems to be on the verge of coming apart at the seams.

The novel reaches a climax at Shavuot (Pentecost), a time of covenant renewal and return to the ideals of the Torah. On the eve of Shavuot, while the men of the congregation follow the tradition of studying the Torah all night, the rabbi's wife holds a special study for the ladies. She reviews the message of Ruth, a book traditionally read during the Pentecost season, and reminds the ladies of Israel's calling to be a light to all nations. Ruth, a Moabite widow who remained faithful to the God of Israel after the death of her Jewish husband (Ruth 1:16-17), was in a situation much like Batsheva's. The ladies walk home from the synagogue that night in a somber mood, wondering if they have misjudged the young widow.

Mirvis does not reveal how the crisis in Memphis is resolved, but she ends the book on a hopeful note, sending an important message to all communities of faith, Jewish or Christian: Congregations that have lost their way can return to the right path by reconnecting with the God who brought them together in the first place.



File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 22 Jun 2004, 20:32.