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Memphis Flyer Feels Like Home

In her novel 'The Ladies Auxiliary,' Tova Mirvis explores being Jewish in Memphis.

By Ashley Fantz

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Driving through Tova Mirvis’ neighborhood is like living the first chapter of her novel.

The quiet ranch houses line suburban streets with names like Richbriar and Hollyoke. Lawns are manicured with Scissorhandian perfection.

It’s easy to imagine the women of Mirvis’ first novel "The Ladies Auxiliary" (W.W. Norton, 311 pp., $23.95) peering out of their windows in wonder and suspiciousness at a new neighbor — especially Batsheva and her daughter Ayala, looking like two refugee hippies, blonde, barely dressed, unorganized, and definitely not Jewish.

“I wanted to write a story about women who had spent their lives in this inner world steeped in tradition,” Mirvis says. “Batsheva is a recent convert to Judaism, she clearly doesn’t look like them and that seems threatening. The story is to address what it’s like to be part of group that’s viewed as being more important than an individual — the negative and positive aspects of that.”

Mirvis, 27, grew up as an Orthodox Jew in Memphis during the ’80s and still practices the faith in New York City, where she moved to study English and creative writing at Columbia University. She completed an undergraduate degree and received a scholarship to continue her master’s, concentrating on workshopping her fiction. The inspiration for her novel came from her family’s and friends’ experiences in Memphis, but she’s quick to add that nothing in the novel is strictly autobiographical.

“There are women here in the Jewish community who say, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ but, no, it’s mostly imagined scenarios,” Mirvis laughs. “I pulled stories from things I heard. There’s a story that my grandmother told me — and I felt like she captured what it’s like to be Southern and Jewish with her speech patterns. There’s a very small population of Jews in Memphis, so when she met my grandfather at a synagogue she didn’t normally attend, she went up to him and said, ‘I thought I knew everyone in Memphis.’ I love that story. A woman in the book does that.”

Mirvis’ parents, Linnie and David, still live in Memphis. They have been asked several times if their daughter wrote about specific members of their close-knit community. One person, convinced that Mirvis had written about a family scandal, claimed she had read the book before it was published, went around saying that the author had used real names.

“There were a lot of people who thought that the book was about them,” she says. “Everyone is really happy for me, though.”

Mirvis’ parents were a few of the people with whom she shared her work-in-progress until the writer showed it to Nicole Arangi of Watkins Loomis literary agency in New York. Mirvis was an intern at the agency while going to Columbia.

“My initial reaction when interns give me their novel — and many do — is nervousness. It makes for a very uncomfortable situation because most of the time they’re just not quality and I have to say no,” Arangi says. “With Tova, I was anticipating having to do the same thing. I was barely two pages into it and I knew she was a writer. I decided quickly that it was book. She had these sentences like, ‘Memphis falls off the Mississippi.’ Really lovely lines, very elegant and warm.”

Arangi gave editor and friend Jill Bialosky at W.W. Norton the manuscript. The publishing company was immediately interested and participated in a three-way auction with two other houses for the rights.

“She beautifully captures this community of women who, because they are confronted by an outsider, end up questioning their own values,” Bialosky says. “You don’t have to be Jewish or have grown up in a Southern town to appreciate that.”

Mirvis sketched Batsheva and the auxiliary women so intimately that she says they kept her company while she wrote. The author had plenty of time on her hands — she was pregnant with her first child and due to complications spend two months in bed. When her husband, Allan Galper, a lawyer, trucked off to work everyday, Mirvis spent the day with her laptop.

“Although I think I’m very different than the women of the Ladies Auxiliary, I grew to understand where they were coming from,” she says. “They created this world; they run it. It was theirs and they felt like maybe it was slipping away. Focusing on that rather than thinking about my pregnancy was the best possible thing for me.”

On the day of her Norton deadline, Mirvis gave birth to her son Eitan, which in Hebrew means strength.

“Everyone was wondering what happened to me,” she says. “And I was thinking during the whole hospital rush that ‘Oh my God! I have to give the book to Norton today!’”

Sitting in her parents’ living room, on a mini-vacation with her husband and new baby before embarking on a 10-city book tour, Mirvis says she’s working on her next novel.

“I’m not sure what I’ll write about,” she says, laughing. “I’ve got some ideas but I’m keeping it quiet for now. But it’s all fiction so people in Memphis won’t have to worry.”

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