Tzippy Goldman was born for marriage. She and her mother had always assumed she’d graduate high school, be set up with the right boy, and have a beautiful wedding with white lace and pareve vanilla cream frosting. But at twenty-two, Tzippy’s fast approaching spinsterhood. She dreams of escape; instead, she leaves for a year in Jerusalem.There she meets–re-meets–Baruch, the son of her mother’s college roommate. When Tzippy last saw him, his name was Bryan and he wore a Yankees-logo yarmulke. Now he has adopted the black hat of the ultra-orthodox, the tradition in which Tzippy was raised. Twelve weeks later, they’re engaged...and discovering that desire and tradition, devotion and individuality aren’t the easiest balance. Hilarious, compassionate, and tremendously insightful, The Outside World illuminates an insular community, marvelously depicting that complicated blend of faith, love, and family otherwise known as life in a modern world.
About the Author
Tova Mirvis grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. She received an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two children. She can be found online at www.tovamirvis.com.
Read an Excerpt
- One -
Tzippy Goldman was a good girl. Yet she lay awake and wished she could run across the living room, fling open all the windows and all the doors, and scream. Tzippy is crazy, the neighbors would say, unfit for our sons, our nephews. But no, Tzippy would reply, not crazy, not unfit. Just sad. And maybe a little angry.
To scream would be like battling the laws of nature. Still, she let herself imagine it, now that it was late at night and she was alone. Her parents were at the Rosenbaum wedding in Monsey, and the house that normally teemed with her four singing sisters was temporarily still. There were reasons for Tzippy's urge to howl. It was because of an unjust world, an unfair God. It was because bad things happened to good people, because fortune and luck were doled out in unequal portions. It was because Tzippy Goldman was twenty-two and still not married.
She and her mother had spent years planning imaginary weddings, deciding on color schemes before she was old enough to find a groom. Her mother used to tuck her into bed and, with her finger, draw flowers and rings and wedding cakes on her back. They discussed chiffon and organza, compared silk shantung and satin. They selected Venetian-lace wedding dresses, rhinestone tiaras, and veils with cascading tulle. When they finished planning the wedding, they moved on to the marriage house, the dream space Tzippy and her husband would one day occupy. In the marriage house, everything was new. Everything was white and clean and fresh. There were new sheets and white lace tablecloths. In the marriage house, there was never anything to worry about. The dishes never needed to be washed, the beds never needed to be made. The phone didn't ring, the doorbell didn't buzz. The dinner table was set for two, and there were long evenings with nothing to do but be together.
This dream was supposed to be waiting for her. Both Tzippy and her mother had always assumed that she would finish high school, get set up on shidduch dates, meet the right boy, get engaged, and have a beautiful wedding with lots of white lace and pareve vanilla cream frosting. She was born for this. It was possible to imagine that somewhere, in an alternate world, Tzippy had a home set up, children born, and dinner long prepared. But, in this world, it hadn't happened as she had expected, and she had passed four years waiting and worrying.
There were so many ways to be set up: my rabbi knows your rabbi; my mother knows your mother; my neighbor, your neighbor. Tzippy had been set up by teachers and friends, and by her mother, who was omnipotent and omniscient. Setting up an eighteen-year-old was a hobby for people. Finding a husband for a twenty-two-year-old was a national emergency. Well-meaning neighbors called constantly with suggestions. Tzippy's name was in the file box of every professional matchmaker in Brooklyn. Her virtues had been sung to every neighbor, every neighbor's cousin, everyone who had a son, nephew, or acquaintance of marriageable age. Before a first date could take place, so many questions had to be asked. Is Tzippy thin? Is she pretty? Is the family rich? Will they support a husband while he learns? Is there a history of divorce or mental illness? Are there any distinguished rabbis in the family? Do they own a television set?
Once the right answers were given, the match was made and the boy was allowed to call for a date. Tzippy wore the right clothes, said the right things, and nodded at the right times. She tried to convince herself that she should want to marry one of these boys. But she felt nothing for the strangers who sat across from her. She had always imagined that she would feel a rush of passion, of excitement, a rush at least of something. She had always hoped that her heart would pound and she would know when she found him. But the only thing she ever knew was that she wanted to go home. She felt as if she had been on the same date a hundred times before. She could close her eyes and a different boy would be sitting across from her.
Sometimes the boy wanted to go out with her again. Sometimes she convinced herself to go out with him. Sometimes the ones she wanted to go out with weren't the same ones who wanted to go out with her. Even if they were both interested, it never lasted more than a few dates. No matter what the reason, the explanation was always the same: "It's not shayach." This could mean that there was no chemistry. It could mean that the family wasn't prominent enough. Perhaps the boy was hoping for a more religious girl, a prettier girl, a fancier girl. Perhaps the girl was hoping for a boy not quite so short. She wanted someone more outgoing, someone more serious, less serious, a boy who would learn in yeshiva full-time, a boy who wore a black hat only on Shabbos and would every once in a while see a movie. That it worked for anyone seemed to defy the laws of nature that God, in His infinite wisdom, had set down.
Yet her former high school classmates seemed to have no trouble defying nature. One by one, another engagement was announced, a party held, a ring flashed. Tzippy bore it with great dignity, smiling tightly when her friends recalled that at their high school graduation they had bet that Tzippy would be first. And though she had modestly protested-no, not me, surely Rochel Leah or Sara Bracha first-she had assumed that their predictions spoke the truth. But four years had passed since she possessed that certainty. And tonight she stayed home while her mother danced at the wedding of a nineteen-year-old girl who got engaged to the first boy she ever went out with.
Tzippy had things that were supposed to keep her occupied until she got married. She took an early childhood education class at Brooklyn College. She worked as an aide in a nursery school. She helped her mother with her four sisters: Zahava, who was fifteen; Malky, who was eleven; Dena, who was seven; and Dassi, who was five. But Tzippy worried that her real life would never begin. She would live eternally with her parents, while her married friends moved into new apartments. They would sleep next to their husbands, while she became the pity of the neighborhood. Girls three years younger than she would get married, then girls five years younger. With their hats and their homes, they would become married women, while she remained a girl.
"Don't be negative, Tzippy," her mother always told her. "You need to have faith. If you think it's never going to happen, maybe it won't.
"You need to smile. No one wants to marry a lemon," her mother reminded her.
Outwardly, Tzippy acquiesced to her mother's suggestions and tried not to lose hope. She knew that it was bad to be angry, bad to want more than had been allotted to her. She reminded herself that she was supposed to look at her situation and understand why God wanted it this way. Her mother said that her prolonged single state should be an atonement for anything she had ever done wrong. Every unmarried girl in Brooklyn felt the pressure, but for Tzippy it bore down with such weight that it was hard to breathe. To protect herself, Tzippy screamed silent rebuttals in her head: Why do I need to smile, Mom, if it's in the hands of God? If you like him so much, why don't you go out with him? Maybe I'll never get married. Maybe I'll become the world's first Jewish nun.
Hiding inside these silent retorts was a voice that was willful and disagreeable. Tzippy knew that this voice was probably her yetzer harah, her evil inclination, which she was supposed to ignore. But it liked to suggest that maybe she would never get married. It also liked to challenge her. What if she yelled at her mother in public? What if she refused to help out with her sisters? What if she insisted on getting her own apartment far away from Brooklyn? The presence of this voice scared Tzippy. She worried that she might open her mouth and this voice might emerge. Even if she managed to keep it quiet, people might be able to sense it budding inside her. Just by looking at her, they might know that she felt things she wasn't supposed to feel. The only way to make it go away was to get engaged. Her friends who had been delivered safely into marriage surely didn't hear such voices. But left on her own, the voice could take over. After a date hadn't worked out or another one of her friends had gotten engaged, it tempted her to test God. If You don't find me a husband, I will eat this cookie without making a blessing, Tzippy had once warned Him. When the phone didn't ring, a matchmaker on the other end, she had taken a bite and waited for God to strike her down.
It hadn't ended there. Once, when Tzippy had an afternoon to herself, she went to Lord & Taylor and wandered through the section of evening gowns. Long and satin, with beads and no sleeves, sheer, short, slinky, spaghetti-strapped and sequined, they lured Tzippy. Praying that no one would notice, she snuck a strapless black gown into a dressing room. In front of the mirror, she first saw only the absence of the required sleeves and high neck; she couldn't get over so much naked skin. But as she kept staring, she saw not what the dress was missing, but what she had. Tzippy was slight, barely five two. Her brown hair was thick and straight and long. She wore long jean skirts by day, flowered pajamas by night. But in this dress, she looked like a grown woman. She was surprised at the body she saw-as if the thin ballerina arms, the small waist and hips, weren't her own. Under her uniform of long skirts and long sleeves, they were hidden not just from others, but from herself as well. She loved what she saw. She would leave the dress here as long as she could bring home this image of herself.
This voice, these feelings, made it hard to fall asleep. Ever since Tzippy quietly turned twenty-two, the pressure had mounted exponentially. On this night, she wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep. Dassi, her youngest sister, woke up, besieged with bad dreams of monsters and dogs. Eyes half-closed, she appeared in Tzippy's doorway.
"Can I come in your bed?" she asked.
"Of course," said Tzippy, and took Dassi in her arms.
Tzippy's room was tiny, really a small box, but Tzippy was the oldest, so she had it to herself. There were no posters of rock bands, no soap opera stars. Instead, there was a picture of Jerusalem's Old City on the wall, a collection of china dolls on top of her bookcase. A fading border of ballerinas danced high on the wall. The bedspread was pink. The walls were a matching shade. There were two kinds of bedrooms Tzippy would occupy: the one of her childhood and the one of her marriage. Since one was supposed to follow closely upon the other, neither Tzippy nor her mother had seen the point of redecorating.
Dassi could make herself comfortable anywhere. She knew how to find the soft spots and burrow in. As Dassi went back to sleep, Tzippy smoothed her hair and whispered that everything was okay. Dassi had one arm draped across Tzippy's stomach, and Tzippy risked waking her by running her fingers across her baby-like cheeks. Her previous urge to scream was no match for the soft, steady breathing of her youngest sister. As Dassi turned in her sleep, Tzippy melted back into the gentle, helpful, and kind girl that everyone knew.
But Tzippy still couldn't sleep. She tried to calm her anger by thinking about the date she had tomorrow night with Yosef Schachter, whom her mother was so excited about. She told herself that it was wrong to assume that this boy would talk about himself the whole night, forget her name, and then tell the matchmaker how off the mark it was. Maybe her mother was right. Maybe Yosef Schachter was The One. Tzippy had been taught that God was busy day and night pairing everyone up. She believed in the God of Abraham who introduced him to Sarah, the God of Isaac who matched him with Rebecca, the God of Jacob who gave him both Rachel and Leah. Tzippy wanted to believe that she would soon be the bride who floated down the aisle, her face shadowed with tulle. She wanted to close her eyes and be led to the future that awaited her.
Reading Group Guide
“Brilliant. . . . Beneath the women’s wigs and the men’s black fedoras, Mirvis finds reservoirs of belief, doubt, ambition, folly, lust, and the rest of the human equation.” —The Washington Post Book World
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of a new novel by Tova Mirvis, the bestselling author of The Ladies Auxiliary. The Outside World is a hilarious portrait of two Orthodox Jewish families brought together by marriage.
1. How does Bryan/Baruch’s return from Israel change the life of the Miller family? What reactions does he provoke in his father and his sister? When one family member becomes a strict interpreter of the religion that the entire family practices, is he a tyrant or a reformer? Since he protested his mother’s plan to give a speech at his wedding, what might his reaction have been if his mother had decided to write a novel like The Outside World?
2. Why is Shayna obsessed with weddings? What does her family history and upbringing explain about her desperate need to belong to the Orthodox community? Why does she keep her non-Orthodox past a secret? Why does she succumb to depression later in the novel?
3. Who is the ideal or intended audience of this novel? Does it seem that Mirvis wants to create a view of this closed community for the outside world or show the Orthodox community a reflection of itself? How do the ideas she explores in the novel about belonging and not belonging, feeling trapped or stifled by one’s family, and the yearning for authentic spirituality move beyond the particular community that she describes?
4. All four people in the Miller family have different approaches to their religious life. How would you describe each one? How successful is Naomi in mediating among the members of her family? Why does she turn to ritual and celebration to heal her family’s differences when psychology fails?
5. When we meet Tzippy, she is simultaneously dreaming of rebellion against her mother and raging against her unmarried fate. As the novel ends, she is married and pregnant. She hasn’t stepped outside the role for which her family prepared her, but she has changed. How is she different, and what kind of experience has she gained? Does the novel suggest that she will live life on her own terms, within the parameters of Orthodoxy, and that she and Baruch will forge a better partnership than her own parents did?
6. Ilana, in questioning the restrictions of Orthodox family life, finds a potential ally in her father. Is the Miller family splitting in two, with Naomi and Baruch on one side, Joel and Ilana on the other? What aspects of the religious life does Ilana find most difficult to accept? Why is taking off her shirt in public such an outrageous act of rebellion? Why does she feel betrayed by her brother?
7. What impression does Mirvis give of the delicate matter of sexuality in the courtship of Orthodox couples? Once married, how do Baruch and Tzippy adjust to their new intimacy?
8. How does the novel show the distance between the women’s and men’s spheres of responsibility in the Orthodox community? Why are the ways of the household, cooking, and child-rearing so crucial to passing on the Orthodox way of life? What aspects of Orthodox life, as described in the novel, might present the most difficult challenges to an educated woman?
9. How does Mirvis evoke the special feeling of the Sabbath? What is the significance, for Joel, of arriving home late for Shabbos [pp. 223–24]? How does this event bring him and Ilana closer together? What is the significance, for Naomi, of Joel’s late arrival?
10. Why is Naomi driven to take such an active role in seeking meaning and answers in her life? What does she expect to find in books, meditation, and seminars on Jewish spirituality [pp. 229–33]? What is admirable about her as a character?
11. What are the challenges to children living in a society that is as insular as the community depicted in The Outside World? How are the children’s needs for independence or self-determination addressed? How does Mirvis make readers feel the communal pressure toward conformity? How much room is there for dissent or individuality?
12. Why has Mirvis chosen The Outside World as a title? What is “the outside world” for Orthodox Jews? How does the outside world figure in the novel? Which characters most strongly feel the lure or the pressure of the outside world?
13. At what points in the story does Mirvis’s compassion for her characters and her love of Jewish ritual come across most strongly?
14. Mirvis brings a good deal of humor to her writing. Which incidents, for you, were most amusing?
15. Does the ending of the novel suggest that Tzippy will take an active role in healing her own family’s troubles—her mother’s despondency, her father’s dangerously unrealistic dreams, her unguided little sisters? Or will she return to Memphis and take up her own family life, keeping a distance from her difficult parents?