The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis

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In her debut novel, The Ladies Auxiliary (1999), author Tova Mirvis introduces readers to recently widowed New Yorker Batsheva Jacobs, who settles into a close-knit, orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee, where she plans to raise her daughter, Ayala. Batsheva is a fairly recent convert to Judaism, and the local women are shocked by her unconventional practices and the way in which she pushes the limits of orthodoxy. Batsheva clearly loves her religion and finds tremendous joy in her celebration of holidays and in the weekly observance of the Sabbath, but her free-spirited nature makes many of the town's strict religious adherents increasingly uncomfortable. The other women in the community consider themselves the tireless guardians of their tradition, and though Batsheva's peers are vehemently opposed to anything progressive or modern that might interfere with their conventional views, they are curious about Batsheva's fervent and spirited take on orthodox Judaism.

Batsheva finds a job as a high school art teacher and soon becomes students' favorite faculty member. They confide in her, and in return, she encourages the students to be themselves. However, she soon becomes the target of gossip, falsely accused of having an improper relationship with the rabbi's son and of encouraging a student to pursue a relationship with an older, non-Jewish boyfriend. Batsheva becomes a virtual lightening rod for the town's troubles and is wrongly blamed for all of its ills.

The novel's themes include mother-daughter relationships, the role of religion in today's world, and the conflict between tradition and modernity. As the protagonist, Batsheva precipitates a wave of introspective observation and analysis within the community. The residents are forced to reconsider their self-imposed limits and provincial views of the outside world (a subject which, incidentally, Mirvis would further explore in her second novel, The Outside World). Ultimately, Batsheva's presence produces a positive result in a community in need of change.

Drawing on her own experience of having been raised as an Orthodox Jew in a Memphis, Tennessee community, Mirvis infuses her writing with firsthand knowledge of the community that is at the heart of The Ladies Auxiliary. While readers familiar with Judaism will offer a knowing nod when reading certain passages, Mirvis is able to successfully engage readers of all backgrounds.