Ladies Auxiliary

Over the weekend, I read The Ladies Auxiliary, a novel set in the Orthodox community in Memphis.
A young widow moves into town with a young child. Batsheva is a convert whose husband had grown up in the Memphis community. She moves in because she wants to participate and raise her child in the warm, close observant community that her husband grew up in. But she doesn’t fit in. She wears gauzy clothes and bangles. She paints abstract paintings. She sings loudly and with spirit in synagogue. She doesn’t cook. She’s earnest about seeking meanings in Jewish ritual.
After initial caution, the community slowly warms to her, and she’s invited to teach art to the sullen and surly teenage highschool girls. Things go awry when she becomes close to the girls, who are rebelling against the community’s strict norms, and to the Rabbi’s 22-year old son who is having a crisis of faith. The community bands together to blame the outsider for the cracks in the community facade.
The book has an insider’s description of the hybrid styles of Memphis Jewish life — the lavish eastern european/southeastern american cooking, the modest yet ostentatious frum-southern belle dress code. The book portrays the universal insular, gossip-ruled, iron-clad norms of small town life, enforced by particularly Jewish-flavored anxieties about keeping community boundaries by maintaining the appearance of observance, avoiding the “bad influence” of the outside world, and defining parental success by the observance level of their children.
The author’s portrait of the Memphis Jewish women at various, nuanced levels of insider and outsiderhood rings very true to me. There are women who embody and enforce the values; women who live them by subordinating their opinions to the group, and women with unresolved tension about keeping up the appearance of observance, happy family life, and wanting outlets for creativity and initiative. So does the clash between the culturally conservative, emotionally restrained Memphians and the spiritually and culturally expressive and exploratory New York, neo-Hassidic Carlebach community where Batsheva learned her Judaism.
The portrait of the outsider has a bit of insider bias. Batsheva led a geographically and spiritually rootless life before finding Judaism. After conversion, she has little contact with her parents or former friends. Yet she is portrayed as having grace, self-confidence, and the wisdom of her experience and intuitions, though she is rather tone-deaf to her affect on others, and has no political skills other than native trust and friendliness.
A more plausible outsider would either be less emotionally stable — manipulative, mercurial, erratic. Or alternatively, more grounded, with stronger ties to her family, to friends from the Carlebach community, to college and art-world friends; and a few more political skills.
My cousin lives in the Memphis Orthodox community. She recommended the book. I’ll ask her what she thinks. Being a work of fiction, it dramatizes and exaggerates the truth, but the caricature rings true to me.
This portrait of Memphis is why I don’t go there often and don’t stay long. The cultural categories I fit into are “eccentric”; in a community that has little tolerance for eccentricity; and “bad influence”.
Metrics of eccentricity include being a female entrepreneur and political activist, in a world where public life is for men, and women keep to their place, which can include heavy behind-the-scenes influence, but no direct public voice. Female intellectualism is considered quite odd and somewhat absurd. A single woman in her thirties is considered deeply suspicious, or is disregarded entirely.
Metrics of bad influence include friends and associates of various ethnicities, religious and sexual preferences; libertarian principles about others’ choices, and personal religious and sexual preferences that are rather conservative by American coastal norms but radical in the Jewish Bible Belt. OK as long as they’re not spoken in public; you don’t want to stay around long enough to have people find out what you think; or alternately, get in the habit of keeping up appearances.

2 thoughts on “Ladies Auxiliary”

  1. Welcome back to the blog, Adina!
    I have a friend who grew up in the Memphis Orthodox community – I’ll have to ask her if she’s read the book. It would be interesting to me to see if the Carlebach references ring true for me, as I daven there once in a while.

  2. Very interesting review!
    I’m a gentile who has had a tenuous relationship with Judaism and a couple of Jewish communities which has given me a dangerous sense of knowing something about them (I attended preschool at the Jewish Community Center in Fort Worth, envied my elementary school friends for learning Hebrew after school, and have a father who worked twenty years as an accountant for a Jewish charity). Dangerous because the more I learn as an adult the more I realize I know nothing but the taste of matzoh, how to make a menora out of a lump of clay, and a few stereotypes from movies. It’s often books which show up my ignorance.
    To change the subject, have you by any chance read For the Relief of Unbearable Urges? I enjoyed it and recently gave it to another gentile friend whose life has orbited Judaism a bit and she enjoyed it too. It’s a bit darker more irreverent than TLA — altogether a different beast, actually.

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