An Unorthodox Novel


The Outside World
By Tova Mirvis
283 pages. Knopf. $24.

Welcome to the Passover seder that ends Tova Mirvis’s hilariously brilliant new novel, The Outside World. The table's set, the food is ready, and there’s a heady mix of traditions and modern mores. Hand-me-down china’s next to laminated plastic. The cup for Elijah is beside a beaded goblet for Miriam. Styled hair juxtaposes with sheitel wigs. Faith, love and family are all gathered together under one roof to celebrate a holiday that’s thousands of years old. So why is this night different from all other nights?

Ach. You should only ask.

What does it mean to have and keep your faith? How does tradition transform in the modern world? The Outside World opens a door into the lives of two very different orthodox families, and shows how their lives upend and their religious views clash when their children marry.

Bryan Miller’s family members are the kind of liberals who might make their gefilte fish out of salmon with dill sauce, well-to-do suburbanites who wear their Orthodoxy with an eye to the outside world. Bryan’s father’s yarmulke stays firmly on his head all the way to work, but once at the office, it’s palmed off and tucked away in a pocket. Bryan’s mother Naomi might keep kosher, but she still believes in jeans and sneakers and little league and in turning a blind eye to her daughter Ilana’s shorter-than-Orthodox-level jean skirt. It’s all comfortable middle-of-the-road territory, right up until Bryan comes home from the requisite pre-college stint in Israel, and suddenly, all solid ground begins to quake. To his family’s horror, Bryan becomes Baruch, trading in his beloved Yankee cap for a stiff fedora, giving up his Columbia college plans for the Talmud, and setting out to marry Tzippy Goldman, an ultra-orthodox girl with marriage on her mind.

But if Baruch is searching for God’s binding truth, Tzippy is looking to loosen things up. Deeply religious, and a by-the-book good daughter, Tzippy chafes under her family’s iron rule. Her mother Shayna, a Joanie-come-lately to Orthodoxy, insists that Tzippy do everything right, but is it for the sake of community decorum, or because Shayna’s terrified that she herself will be found lacking in religious credentials? And while Tzippy might seem tailor-made to Baruch’s specifications, she hungers to explore what might lie beyond the confines of her closed society. All families find this confusing soup they’re in coming to a rapid boil when Tzippy’s father offers Baruch a chance to manage one of his get-rich schemes, a Kosher kitchen in a Memphis supermarket—and everything that’s been known turns upside down again.

Mirvis has tackled insular worlds before in her previous bestseller, The Ladies Auxiliary, and here she shines, as well, creating a whole warm, indelible world and bringing it all to life with insider details. A single bug in a stalk of broccoli can render it unkosher. Pouring boiling water over a teabag can be considered cooking and so should be avoided on Shabbos. And even the tiniest crumb in the pages of a book can make a house unkosher for Passover.

But the wonder of this book isn’t just that it’s about a specific community, it’s universal in its depiction of how families—and faith—work. How seeds are planted in children, but it’s also up to the child to see what grows. Like the eruv, the symbolic wire that keeps a community intact, there’s still airspace in any community, room to reinterpret and find your own meanings. “In each generation, one is obligated to feel as if he himself has come out of Egypt,” The Outside World says, and here, at the final Passover seder, the Egypts these warm, sympathetic characters have journeyed through are not just hilariously funny, but personal and profound.